In the days leading up to Boston’s preliminary mayoral election, New Balance chairman Jim Davis, a Republican as big as they come around here, sank $495,000 into a super PAC supporting Annissa Essaibi George that flooded the TV airwaves as she battled for a spot in the November final.
The 78-year-old billionaire’s big bet paid off handsomely Tuesday, with the Dorchester city councilor beating out Acting Mayor Kim Janey, the incumbent, and Councilor Andrea Campbell, who had been rising in the polls.
Councilor Michelle Wu easily clinched the other slot in what is sure to be an intense and expensive final, with the emergence of unlimited donations made through political action committees that operate independently of a candidate’s campaign, but can greatly influence the race.
Deep-pocketed donors, both local and national, have already spent nearly $4.2 million to fund mayoral super PACs, according to state campaign filings. In a race loaded with big spenders, Davis is the single largest individual donor so far, according to an analysis of available filings.
He joins an array of business and civic leaders who have dug deep to influence the election, including Netflix chief executive Reed Hastings and Cove Hill Partners managing partner Andrew Balson, who in the last two weeks doubled their contribution to $250,000 each to Better Boston, a super PAC that backed Campbell.
Meanwhile, Wu has two super PACs with a steady flow coming from environmental advocacy groups, along with contributions from former Citizens Financial Group CEO Larry Fish ($50,000) and Boston construction magnate Jay Cashman ($35,000).
Outside money can play a role in a tight race, and the funds can be used to support or oppose candidates, barraging the airwaves with TV ads or blanketing neighborhoods with campaign fliers. Some political observers are lamenting the surge in super PACs to influence local politics.
“It’s terrible for democracy,” said Maurice Cunningham, a recently retired political science professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston who has followed the role of outside money. “The ability for somebody to shape a race like this, whether it be Davis in the last 10 days, or the givers to Better Boston super PAC, just the wealthiest people in the city and country having an outsized impact is just undemocratic.”
Davis’s donation, which was first reported by the Dorchester Reporter, stands out not only for its size but also because he is a prolific donor to the GOP. According to an analysis by OpenSecrets, Davis has contributed close to $7.5 million to Republicans over the last three decades, typically in congressional and presidential races. He cut a $500,000 check to a Mitt Romney-supporting super PAC when the former Massachusetts governor ran for president in 2012, and donated $396,500 to Trump Victory, a political action committee that raised money for Donald Trump and the Republican National Committee.
The intensely private sneaker king hasn’t been known to throw six-figure sums to Democrats and certainly not at the municipal level — until now.
In a field of progressive candidates, Essaibi George is the only one who comes close to aligning with Davis’s values. The city councilor — an Arab American whose father came to Boston from Tunisia — is considered the moderate-to-conservative choice, pro-business and pro-law enforcement.
“A son of immigrants, Jim shares Annissa’s love for the City of Boston and her passion for providing opportunities for every Bostonian,” according to a statement provided by a New Balance spokeswoman. “He believes Annissa’s focus on community, public safety and education through her experience as a public school teacher, mom and at-large City Councilor will ensure Boston’s future success.”
Still, some political observers say Davis’s foray into local politics could be as much about preventing a progressive from getting elected. In recent weeks, Wu has held a commanding lead in the polls, and was considered the most liberal candidate, with an early endorsement from her former Harvard Law School professor, Senator Elizabeth Warren.
People who know Davis say they’re not surprised that he has waded into the highly competitive race for mayor. Much of his fortune is tied to Boston, where he has not only built a sneaker empire but also spent enormous money and energy turning a gritty section of Brighton into a gleaming neighborhood now known as Boston Landing, with a new headquarters for New Balance and practice facilities for the Bruins and Celtics. Some think Davis may have more development plans, and it doesn’t hurt to be on the good side of the future mayor.
William Gross, the former Boston police commissioner who stars in the TV ads paid for by the pro-Essaibi George super PAC, said Davis supports the best candidates, regardless of political affiliation.
“Jim Davis is his own man,” Gross told me. “I see him as a man who wants to do the right thing for the city and the Commonwealth.”
Joe Malone, the former Republican state treasurer who has known Davis for more than three decades, reminded me how the New Balance chief was fond of another Democrat and mayor of Boston: Tom Menino.
“He understands in Boston it’s not about a partisan choice,” said Malone, who counted Davis as a donor when he ran for office. “It’s about who is going to manage the city and find the right balance between business growth and neighborhood success.”
Donors are now scrambling to read the political winds, and the showdown between Wu and Essaibi George could draw a lot more money into a race seen as a fight for the soul of Boston: Does the city need big, bold change, or a more measured approach?
The 2013 race to succeed Menino after his 20-year run shattered local fund-raising and spending records. According to the state Office of Campaign and Political Finance, 63 mayoral candidates raised $8.5 million and spent $8.8 million. The finalists, Martin J. Walsh and then-city councilor John Connolly, each spent about $3 million. Outside groups — mainly labor unions backing Walsh and education reform groups supporting Connolly — pumped in another $3.8 million.
Walsh won, was reelected in 2017, and appeared set to seek a third term until President Biden nominated him as labor secretary, a move that set in motion this rare open mayor’s race.
It’s early to handicap who’ll prevail in November, but when it comes to money and politics, the biggest winner Tuesday night was clearly Davis.
Gal Tziperman Lotan of the Globe staff contributed to this report.
Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com.