In the crowded Boston mayoral race, a handful of superPACs has emerged, raising the possibility that massive injections of outside cash could play a role in the contest.
SuperPACs, which are outside groups not directly connected to the candidates, have no limits on campaign contributions, meaning they can raise loads of money in a short period of time from individuals, unions, corporations, and other political action committees. That puts them in a better position to splurge on massive advertising pushes or negative mailings attacking opponents.
At least four superPACs have declared they are backing specific candidates: Councilors Andrea Campbell and Annissa Essaibi George, and Acting Mayor Kim Janey. A fifth is thought to be supporting Councilor Michelle Wu, but a representative of the group has declined to confirm that.
But despite the potential for lavish superPAC fund-raising and spending this election season, Ken Cosgrove, a political science professor at Suffolk University, was skeptical about superPACs’ ability to strongly influence a campaign’s success.
“You don’t back up a Brinks truck to someone’s campaign and win the election,” he said.
Cosgrove cited Markeyverse, the network of young, online and social media-savvy supporters of US Senator Ed Markey that contributed to the Malden Democrat’s win over Joseph P. Kennedy III in last year’s closely watched primary. Such a grass-roots movement can overcome the well-financed initiatives of a superPAC, he said.
Door knocks, canvassing, lots of personal contact between the public and the candidate, and targeted messaging via social media are also strong ways to influence a candidate’s chances, he said.
“It’s one of the interesting things about the age we live in,” he said. “There’s all this money in politics and yet there’s all these ways to counteract it that did not exist previously.”
The presence of the superPACs in this year’s race has yet to trigger controversy, but such outside spending has factored in past mayoral contests.
In 2013, amid the crowded scramble to succeed long-time mayor Thomas M. Menino, the outside money poured in, with about $3.8 million spent by outside groups on the top two contenders.
In that election, $2.5 million was spent via independent expenditures on Martin J. Walsh, compared with $1.3 million spent on his opponent John Connolly’s behalf, exclusively from education reform groups, the Globe reported at the time. The independent spending for Walsh, who was victorious in the general election that fall, included extensive monetary support from labor unions. Connolly, then a city councilor, was the runner-up.
During that contest, outside groups spent money on television ads and negative campaign fliers. There was even an effort for candidates to ban funds from organized groups.
Such an effort has yet to be broached in this year’s race. And some of the outside superPACs connected to current mayoral hopefuls have yet to report raising or spending any money at all.
This year, Better Boston, which is supporting Campbell, has spent nearly $800,000 on the production of television ads and placement, according to the most recent state records, thanks in part to big donations from wealthy charter school supporters. The group aims to raise $2 million.
The Hospitality Workers Independent Expenditure Political Action Committee registered with the state in June and is backing Janey. Richard Aliferis, who serves as the PAC’s treasurer, is an executive board member of UNITE HERE Local 26, a politically powerful, 12,000-member hotel and food workers union that has endorsed Janey. As of July 13, that superPAC had raised $479,000, all of which came from funds associated with labor unions. According to state records, the group had spent more than $4,000 on the printing of fliers. Additionally, a superPAC for Right to the City VOTE!, a coalition of community advocates who endorsed Janey on Saturday, will also be supporting the acting mayor.
Bostonians for Real Progress is supporting Councilor Annissa Essaibi George, saying that she will “build on the progress that was made under Mayor Walsh and Menino and bring it to the next level for this generation.” That group has yet to report any money raised or spent.
“We believe Anissa is the best candidate, able to tackle all our challenges, while being a champion for Boston as a great place to work and live,” said Carol Martinez, the group’s chairwoman, whose listed address on superPAC documents is in Foxborough, in a statement. “Her background as a mother, teacher, city [councilor], and lifelong resident is the right mix of experience.”
State records do not indicate who Boston Turnout Project is supporting in the race, and the group’s chairman, Jason Burrell, on Friday declined to say who the group is backing. But other mayoral campaigns have speculated that the group is supporting Wu, pointing out that Burrell is a former aide to Elizabeth Warren. Wu has longstanding ties to Warren, first as a student at Harvard Law, and later as a campaign aide and statewide constituency director for her Senate campaign. The two have previously campaigned for each other, and Warren endorsed Wu in the mayoral race earlier this year.
Recent state records show the Boston Turnout Project has no receipts or any expenditures. The group’s stated aim is to “turn out Boston voters in support of candidates and causes that advance progressive values, and hold candidates accountable who do not.”
Robert G. Boatright, a political science professor at Clark University in Worcester, acknowledged that a superPac can change a race dramatically, but also said ”a lot of superPACs don’t do anything at all.”
A superPAC’s spending can be ineffective, as the group is barred from communicating directly with candidates, he said. Although campaigns may have conducted polls to see what message works for them, the superPAC may not have access to that data.
SuperPACs typically fail at fostering grass-roots support, Boatright said. “They don’t have the kind of information the campaign has,” he said.
What they can do, however, is buy advertising, he said, and the groups are “basically unaccountable” for what messages they send. Although a candidate may face consequences for lying about an opponent, there are no sanctions for negative or dishonest campaign tactics from such a group.
“These are not groups formed by the candidates,” he said. “It’s not clear that the candidates have that much control over,” them.
The notion of big dollars flowing into a political race from outside the community where the contest is happening presents odd and potentially fraught political dynamics, said Maurice Cunningham, a retired UMass Boston political science professor.
“Am I the only one who gets amused when seeing a superPAC titled Bostonians for Real Progress and finding it headquartered in an accountant’s office in Foxborough?” he asked in an e-mail. “Or how about the Boston Turnout Project, whose president lists a Boston address, but the treasurer appears to be from the same Foxborough accountant?”
Cunningham pointed out the contribution of Reed Hastings, the Boston-born cofounder and CEO of Netflix and a charter school advocate who now lives in California. In April, Hastings gave $125,000 to the superPAC supporting Campbell.
“I think of that number and then I think of another number, from the Globe’s 2018 report on race: ‘African-Americans in Greater Boston have a median net worth of just $8,’” he said. “And I ask you, who is going to have more influence on who gets elected mayor of Boston, that California donor or that Boston family? That ain’t democracy.”