Marty Walsh has more to lose by refusing to disavow super PAC support in the mayor’s race than he seems to realize. With every dollar of third-party spending that oozes into Boston to elect the Dorchester state representative, Walsh wastes an opportunity to stick up for clean elections and dispel doubts about his own independence. His opponent has agreed to a pledge to discourage spending by super PACs and other independent expenditure groups, and Walsh owes it to the city to do the same.
Since the summer, independent-expenditure groups whose names indicate an affiliation with labor have spent more than a half million dollars on Walsh’s behalf. The super PAC “American Working Families MA,” with Massachusetts in its name but Virginia in its mailing address, has spent at least $224,500 to elect Walsh. D.C.-based Working America has spent at least $378,162. In the preliminary election campaign, independent third-party spending to elect Walsh exceeded that for all the other 11 candidates combined.
Walsh has called the pledge — the same one signed by Elizabeth Warren and Scott Brown that successfully kept super PACs at bay in last year’s Senate race — a gimmick. He points out that John R. Connolly, his opponent in the mayoral final election, flip-flopped before signing on. Connolly did reverse himself. But at least he landed in the right place, spurning the help of an outside group that was prepared to spend $500,000 on his behalf. Walsh has also flip-flopped, but in the wrong direction; he earlier indicated he’d sign the agreement.
Some of Walsh’s allies insist that his super PAC support is different, since it purports to come from organized labor, rather than the oil barons and baby-seal clubbers who presumably fund Republican super PACs. There are two problems with that defense. First, while the outfits supporting Walsh have soothing names, anyone can form an anodyne-sounding super PAC or bogus nonprofit and stuff it with an unlimited donations from anonymous or hard-to-trace funders. Massachusetts law is so lax that there won’t be another disclosure of super PAC donors until after Election Day; American Working Families MA has not reported the source of any of its money and will not have to do so until after the election. Voters can’t just accept on faith that all the money supporting Walsh comes from virtuous sources.
Second, independent-expenditure ads on behalf of candidates distort the political process by blurring the lines of accountability. Boston voters deserve what all Massachusetts voters got in Warren-Brown election last year: a race where both candidates have to take responsibility for their campaign, and can’t duck behind nominally separate groups if the mud starts to fly.
Walsh is counting on voters to tire of the whole esoteric-sounding debate. But Massachusetts Democrats need to put pressure on him, or else the party’s protestations next time its gubernatorial or congressional candidates comes under super PAC attack will sound hollow. And Walsh himself should reconsider. For a candidate whose greatest perceived weakness is his closeness to the unions he’d have to negotiate with as mayor, it’s mystifying why he can’t see the opportunity that’s been presented to him. Telling outside groups to stay out of Boston’s mayoral race would be a better advertisement for Walsh than any amount of super PAC money could buy.