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Body armor and pepper spray: Politicians can buy safety gear with campaign funds after Capitol attack

Security was tight around the State House ahead of President Biden's inauguration on Jan. 20.
Security was tight around the State House ahead of President Biden's inauguration on Jan. 20.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

In a move with little precedent, Massachusetts campaign finance regulators say they will allow the state’s elected officials to use campaign funds to buy bulletproof vests, gas masks, and other gear to protect themselves and their staffs following the January attack on the US Capitol.

The advisory opinion this month from the Office of Campaign and Political Finance came in direct response to a request from a state senator who, in citing the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol complex by a mob of Trump loyalists, warned that legislators and their aides “may be targets for violence.”

The newfound guidance illustrates in stark terms the potential for danger officials say has pervaded their daily work. The toxicity of American politics — already on full display in Washington, ravaged by four years of former president Donald Trump’s incendiary rhetoric — is now manifesting itself in decisions that could reshape the routine accounting of political life on Beacon Hill, putting body armor alongside postage and fund-raising consultants as established campaign expenditures.

At the federal level, Republicans have separately asked the Federal Election Commission to consider allowing members of Congress to use campaign funds to hire bodyguards. US House members, after rescheduling a session last week in response to law enforcement warnings of a possible militia plot, are already allowed to use their taxpayer-funded office budgets to purchase bulletproof vests.

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“In the past, you felt there were boundaries on what people would do. But for those of us in public office, there really aren’t boundaries anymore,” said state Senator Barry R. Finegold, an Andover Democrat who cochairs the Legislature’s committee on election laws.

Finegold said he doesn’t plan to use his campaign money to buy protective gear, but understands if other state legislators do. “Like many elected officials, we’ve been cursed at, we’ve been threatened,” he said. “People are on edge. . . . It is a very sad state of affairs.”

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Michael J. Sullivan, the campaign office’s longtime director, wrote in the advisory letter that the agency has never been asked whether such protective gear could be paid for with campaign funds. But it has previously allowed candidates to use campaign money to pay for a security detail or a home security system.

The latter was prompted by a 2011 request from Essex County District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett, who told campaign finance regulators he had been repeatedly threatened by an individual who sent him a cartoon showing Blodgett “hanging on the end of a sword,” according to the opinion.

In that decision, Sullivan cited the “ongoing harassment” Blodgett faced and specific recommendations from police that the prosecutor make security upgrades.

In the newest opinion, dated March 1, Sullivan framed the allowance for personal gear in broader terms, citing the “recent events in our nation’s capital” and the argument that officials or their staffs could reasonably be concerned about their safety at the State House or elsewhere.

“It is also reasonable for candidates and staff to want to be proactive rather than reactive in these circumstances,” Sullivan wrote, “and to have protective equipment on hand without having to wait for a concrete threat to purchase said supplies.”

The opinion says protective equipment could include, but is not limited to, body armor, pepper spray, and gas masks, and that while it must be kept in a candidate’s or staff member’s office, it can be used at other official events. It applies to the state’s six constitutional officers, such as the governor and attorney general, and legislators.

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The decision was prompted by a Jan. 14 request from Senator Michael O. Moore, a Millbury Democrat and former Environmental Police officer, who told regulators that “legislators in both political parties are receiving death threats.” He warned that those with offices close to exits and entrances at the State House could have trouble seeking safety if the building is “overtaken,” but said public officials and their aides could also be targets at events in their districts or “while in transit.”

In a phone interview, Moore said he has researched the prices of bulletproof vests and protective shields, which could help protect his staff from a shooter in the State House. He said he’s not sure what he will buy.

“It makes you realize that we shouldn’t just disregard some of these threats as just idle threats,” Moore said of the Jan. 6 Capitol attack. “This is my staff. I have an obligation to make sure they feel safe in their work environment. If I can do that by having some protective measures, it’s my responsibility to do that.”

Security concerns have proliferated among elected officials beyond the District of Columbia. In Michigan, some lawmakers reported purchasing bulletproof vests amid warnings of potential armed protests at state capitols nationwide in January. Two months earlier, six men were charged with conspiring to kidnap the state’s governor.

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In Massachusetts, a man was arrested in October for allegedly breaking into Governor Charlie Baker’s Swampscott home, and a Boston activist was ordered to stay away from the governor’s house after leaving used hypodermic needles outside the home during a protest.

Jim Conroy, a Baker adviser, said Friday that the governor has no plans to use campaign funds for protective gear.

The state’s decision caught some lawmakers off guard on Beacon Hill, where they have at times engaged in yearslong efforts to change campaign finance laws and regulations. That has included a push to allow candidates to spend campaign funds on child-care expenses while they’re running for office — an effort that has so far been unsuccessful.

“I’m taken aback, quite honestly,” said Representative Marjorie C. Decker, a Cambridge Democrat who faced harassment and death threats after filing gun-control legislation that became law in 2018 and allowed for so-called red flag petitions.

“As someone who has had threats and [faced] intimidation for trying to do my job, I never felt what I needed to do was to arm myself,” she said. “I’m not willing to go there at the moment to say that’s what keeps us safe. It’s investing in creating a more civil society.”

Tensions remain high in Washington two months after the mob of Trump supporters overran the Capitol to try to stop lawmakers from certifying President Biden’s victory. Last week, Capitol Police said they had uncovered intelligence about a “possible plot” by a militia group to breach the Capitol complex on Thursday. Lawmakers are now required to go through metal detectors after entering the building, and large fences remain around the complex.

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In late January, the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee asked the FEC whether Senate and House members could use campaign funds to pay for security personnel to protect themselves and their families, citing the “current threat environment.”

The request is still pending. But that ask, similar to the argument made in Massachusetts’ advisory opinion, marks a departure from the underlying reasons for past allowances, which usually centered on specific threats, said Brendan Fischer, director of the Campaign Legal Center’s federal reform program.

“This is a change to ask for some blanket permission to use campaign funds for personal security,” Fischer said, adding that he expects the FEC to approve the request. “It’s become pretty clear that every officeholder at the moment is in a more threatening environment than in past years.”


Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout.