A political action committee today will launch the first independent advertising of the mayoral race, kicking off an expensive battle by six major campaigns — and their independent backers — to dominate the airwaves and the digital discourse.
Mayoral candidate and City Councilor Andrea Campbell is the beneficiary of the first ads, set to begin appearing on Facebook and YouTube, through an independent expenditure political action committee called Better Boston, formed to “support candidates who work for an inclusive, livable Boston for all, and oppose candidates candidates who do not.”
But the PAC intends to support Campbell, and has already raised $660,000 to influence the race on her behalf, a person involved with the committee said. The group, whose top donors include a number of deep-pocketed backers of charter schools, aims to raise $2 million.
Meanwhile, a super PAC called Boston Turnout Project has been formed “to turn out Boston voters in support of candidates and causes that advance progressive values, and hold candidates accountable who do not.” That committee, newly organized last month, is believed to be supporting Michelle Wu. Its chairman is Jason Burrell, who worked as regional field director for US Senator Elizabeth Warren’s campaign while Wu was the campaign’s statewide constituency director. Burrell did not respond to requests for comment.
Maurice Cunningham, who cofounded the political blog MassPolitics Profs and studies “dark money” funneled into campaigns, said he would expect far more outside influence this year, with a half-dozen major candidates for mayor.
“I’d be surprised if all six of them don’t have a super PAC at some point,” said Cunningham, who recently retired from teaching political science at the University of Massachusetts.
Independent expenditure political action committees cannot coordinate any advertising or messaging with the candidate’s campaign. But they can exert a powerful influence by supplementing a candidate’s advertising with its own — or even doing the dirty work of negative advertising for them.
Better Boston’s digital ads center on Campbell’s advocacy as a city councilor for change and for transparency at the Boston Police Department.
Sonia Alleyne, a Dorchester mother and chair of Better Boston, said in a statement that Campbell has been a “steadfast champion for an accountable and transparent Boston police department,” leading the push for body cameras, for an effective civilian review board, and for other progressive criminal justice reforms.
“Andrea’s commitment to a safe, equitable Boston comes from a deeply personal place, and that’s why she continues to demand accountability and transparency no matter what personal attacks the police union may launch against her,” Alleyne said.
Under state law, a committee must file campaign finance reports within seven days of spending more than $250 and report the name, occupation, and employer of every contributor of more than $200. In the final 10 days of the election, they must report every 24 hours.
That was not the case in 2013, during the last open race for mayor of Boston, the most expensive municipal race in Massachusetts history, according to the state Office of Campaign and Political Finance. The victor, Martin J. Walsh, and rival Councilor John R. Connolly spent a combined $6 million from their own campaign accounts, and outside groups spent another $3.8 million, including an anonymous ad buy of nearly $500,000 for Walsh in the closing days of the race.
At the time, outside groups were not required to detail their donors until January after the election. Months later, it was revealed that Walsh’s last-minute cash came from the union representing Boston teachers, funneled through a campaign fund in New Jersey, while Connolly was backed by groups supportive of education reform that did not have to detail their donors.
Campaign finance law now also requires independent expenditure committees to reveal their largest donors on their ads — meaning that the top five contributors to Better Boston are visible on the digital ads provided to the Globe.
While the ads focus on police reform, the leading contributors share a different common interest: education reform.
The top donors include:
* Nonnie Burns, a former state insurance commissioner who is developing a venture capital fund to invest in Black and Latinx businesses and whose husband is a proponent of education reform in Boston schools.
* Reed Hastings, the Boston-born cofounder and CEO of Netflix and a charter school advocate who contributed $12,000 to a 2009 effort to expand charter schools in 2009 in Massachusetts.
* Stephanie Spector, a supporter of several charter schools with her husband, Brian, an investor who contributed $40,000 to a ballot campaign to expand charter schools in Massachusetts in 2016.
They also include two supporters who, like Campbell, are alumni of Princeton University:
* Andrew Balson, manager of the private equity firm Cove Hill Partners, who contributed $500,000 to two committees advocating for the charter ballot question in 2016.
* Harvard Business School lecturer Stig Leschly, the former CEO of Match Education, which has a charter school in the city.
All but Hastings live in Massachusetts and have maxed out their individual $1,000 campaign donations to Campbell both this year and last.
The 2016 ballot question to expand charter schools was defeated, but education reform has proved a volatile issue that animates unions and defenders of public schools. As a result, experts like Cunningham expect a similarly bruising debate over education to play out again this year, as it did in 2013.
“This is a fight of well funded school privatizers that will no doubt bring in the unions,” he said in an e-mail. “The Ed wars are about to resume.”