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Candidates should ask super PACs to stay positive — and disclose funders in a timely way

Emily’s List and a super PAC with Kennedy family ties are doing some shady politicking.

Fourth Congressional District candidate Alan Khazei has been the subject of attacks from an Emily's List-supported super PAC.
Fourth Congressional District candidate Alan Khazei has been the subject of attacks from an Emily's List-supported super PAC.Steven Senne

Liberal Democratic congressional candidate Alan Khazei is getting ambushed — mugged, even — in the Fourth Congressional District primary, and by an unlikely culprit: Emily’s List.

As he defends his seat against a challenge from US Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III, US Senator Edward J. Markey also finds himself under super PAC attack: An outside group with close ties to the Kennedy family is running negative ads targeting Markey for missing votes during the pandemic.

Tough ads or mailings are a part of politics. But there’s something devious and distasteful about third-party groups launching such attacks, particularly if the PACs’ late-campaign donors go unreported until after the election. In such a case, voters don’t know who is toting the truncheon until too late. Absent changes to the law, candidates must make it clear to their supporters that they need to stay positive and be transparent in a timely fashion about their funding.

The goal of Emily’s List is to elect more women who favor abortion rights to Congress. But there are four pro-choice women in the Fourth District primary race — and the group has a policy of not endorsing in a race with more than one such candidate. Instead, Emily’s List is using Women Vote!, its political-action arm, to attack two of the top-contending male candidates: Khazei and Jake Auchincloss, both of whom also support reproductive rights.


Emily List’s digital ads and mailings contend that Khazei would have let Republicans use reproductive rights as a political bargaining chip, a charge the PAC, after changing a previously erroneous citation, now bases on a 2009 story in the Worcester Telegram & Gazette during the special Senate race to fill Ted Kennedy’s seat.

In that story, Khazei said that if the Affordable Care Act, which Congress was then debating, came up for a vote with abortion-funding restrictions attached, he would reluctantly vote for it to expand access to health care and then “work day and night with pro-choice groups and citizen activists to change that legislation and elect members of Congress who will preserve a woman’s right to choose no matter their income level.”


To contort such a stand into a willingness to bargain away reproductive rights is a very long stretch; the matter at hand was what would happen if conservative House Democrats simply wouldn’t budge on keeping abortion-funding restrictions in the landmark health-care law. Khazei may have been politically naive in detailing what he would do in a hypothetical circumstance, but his position on the ACA wasn’t very different from the position members of the Massachusetts congressional delegation held at the time.

“It is misleading and irresponsible and it is symptomatic of destructive politics,” former US representative Barney Frank, neutral in the race, says of the Emily’s List attack.

The charge against Auchincloss is just as specious. To wit: He won’t “stand up for women’s reproductive health” because he worked for the Massachusetts Republican Party back in 2014 — and the platform, voted in by conservative activists that year, had vaguely anti-choice language: “We believe that every instance of abortion is tragic.”

No mention that Auchincloss was working to elect Charlie Baker, who is firmly pro-choice.

Of the super PACs spending in the Senate race, the only hatchet PAC so far is the New Leadership PAC, which supports, and has close ties to, Kennedy. Because the PAC only reports donors once a month, voters won’t know their identities for certain until after the Sept. 1 primary. That PAC has launched a tough attack on Markey for missing votes during the pandemic, during which time the senator says he has been driving back and forth to Washington from his house in Malden.


All this is legal, mind you, but candidates can still publicly ask that any third-party allies do only positive ads and that they disclose new donations every 48 hours, the way candidates themselves must in the last few weeks of the campaign. All the major Fourth District candidates that have had, or appear likely to have, super PACs supporting their candidacies — Khazei, Auchincloss, Jesse Mermell, and Becky Grossman — told the Globe they agreed with that standard.

Would Emily’s List comply? Well, spokeswoman Mairead Lynn didn’t answer directly, but asserted, via e-mail, that “voters deserve all of the facts on every Democratic candidate’s record.”

In other words: No.

In the Senate race, Kennedy spokeswoman Emily Kaufman said Kennedy “would prefer they [super PACs] stay positive,” but sidestepped the query on stepped-up pre-primary disclosure of donors. Kennedy claimed during Tuesday’s debate with Markey that he urged a “a number of times” that the super PAC not run negative ads. It’s true that Kennedy was forceful in June in decrying super PAC involvement, but he has grown squishier since then.


For its part, the Kennedy campaign notes, correctly, that it previously challenged Markey to agree to a “people’s pledge” aimed at keeping dark money out of this race altogether and that Markey declined, the better to enable his environmental and other allies in their outside-advocacy spending.

The Markey-supporting PACs have at least been positive, though, as Markey has asked (though the same cannot be said for all Markey’s ardent supporters). And unlike Kennedy, he explicitly supports disclosure every 48 hours between now and the primary.

As for voters, they would do well to ignore the deceptive Emily’s List attacks. Ditto ads by the Kennedy-backing super PAC. Further, as voters make up their minds, it’s certainly fair to consider which candidates have taken a clear stand against anonymous attacks and for timely donor disclosure.

Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.