Mayor Michelle Wu has raised more than $1 million for her inaugural festivities, the bulk of it from Boston’s traditional power brokers, including big business, lobbyists, and real estate developers with projects before the city, campaign finance data show.
As an unabashed progressive with ambitions to transform the city, Wu has made it clear she intends to be a different kind of mayor. But her inaugural fund, while more modest than her predecessor’s, places her squarely within an age-old political tradition: tapping the wealthy and powerful to fund festivities where top donors gain access to the city’s new leader.
The event, originally set for January, was postponed until sometime this spring because of the pandemic, and the fund has not taken in any money since the first week of the year. Wu has raised less than her predecessor, though both leaned on a similar crowd of high-dollar donors. For his first transition and inauguration in 2014, former mayor Martin J. Walsh raised $1.4 million. For his first inauguration in 2015, Governor Charlie Baker raised $2.4 million.
Many of Wu’s contributors have business before the city, or will soon. That “does raise red flags,” said Geoff Foster, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts.
“Every inauguration has the same issue: perceived risk of undue influence,” Foster said. But the requirement that the donations are publicly reported helps ease those concerns, since ethics watchdogs will be able to track “if some of these developers do appear to be having undue influence,” he said.
A spokesperson for Wu’s inaugural committee said the donations do not present a conflict of interest.
“The mayor is proud of the support she has received from individuals and organizations across Boston — both during the campaign and following her election — but that support does not influence decisions made at City Hall,” said Julia Leja, who helped organize Wu’s inaugural fund-raising. “As she has demonstrated over the first several months of her administration, the mayor is guided by what’s in the best interest of creating a safer, healthier, and more equitable city for all Boston residents.”
Inaugural funds aren’t subject to the strict contribution limits that apply to standard campaign accounts, so wealthy individuals and businesses have an opportunity to spend on a greater scale. But the money collected for an inaugural fund must cover only expenses related to the event, under state campaign finance regulations, and can’t be spent on other political expenses, such as campaign advertising.
In interviews, several donors acknowledged that they are working to build or strengthen their relationship with Wu. But they said there was nothing untoward about donating to a leader who has the power to affect their business over the next four years. Some also said it’s better for inaugural festivities to rely on private donors than use public funds.
There aren’t “any issues that we want to exert any sort of undue influence over,” said Joe Boncore, a former state senator who now heads the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council, an influential trade group that donated $25,000 to the inaugural fund. Rather, he said, “the city’s interests and our interests are aligned.”
“The mayor’s a good partner to have when you’re working on issues like workforce development,” Boncore added.
Only a small fraction of the 72 donations to her inaugural fund came from individuals, and the smallest contribution was $1,000. Wu has continued to raise smaller amounts from individual donors through her separate candidate fund-raising account.
At least a third of the donations to the inaugural fund came from individuals or institutions with ties to real estate or development in the city. Given the vast influence the city’s mayor and Planning & Development Agency wield over building projects in the city, many in the real estate industry are major supporters of city politicians. And developers have a great deal at stake with many of Wu’s political priorities, such as adopting rent control and remaking the city’s development process.
The influx of money from developers marks a change for Wu. A Globe analysis in April 2021 showed that of the six mayoral candidates at the time, Wu had taken in by far the least money from executives at 50 prominent development, construction and architecture firms.
Bruce Percelay, chairman of the Mount Vernon Company, a real estate firm that gave Wu $15,000, described the contribution as “an expression that we want to work together and we support her.” But “it’s not as if we’re working to build a relationship with the mayor because we have something in the pipeline,” he said.
“To draw the connection that our donation, or anyone else’s donation, is designed to influence the outcome of a real estate development is naive,” Percelay said. “Michelle Wu is incredibly intelligent. She is very disciplined. And she is not going to change her position because someone made a donation.”
Developers also want to celebrate the first woman, and first person of color, elected mayor of Boston, said Pam McDermott, a real estate consultant who represents some developers who donated to Wu.
“Everyone wants Mayor Wu to succeed, and the development community is no different,” she said.
Like Walsh, Wu chose to cap donations at $25,000. She received 21 donations of that size, including one from “Rise Construction Management Inc.,” a prominent construction company, and a second from its development arm “Rise Together,” which is located at the same Dorchester address and shares some of the same executives. Rise recently filed with the city massive plans to remake the Sullivan Square area in Charlestown with a 900,000-square-foot office and lab complex.
Fifteen donors gave the $25,000 maximum contribution for Walsh’s 2014 inauguration.
Wu’s inaugural fund also received checks from other sectors, including hospitality, entertainment, and tourism. For instance, she received $25,000 from the company that owns and operates TD Garden.
And in mid-December, during a debate over whether the city should allow double-decker tour buses, Wu received $5,000 each from Boston Duck Tours and CityView Trolley Tours. In November, leaders of both companies had written to Wu criticizing the Boston Police Department’s apparent decision to allow double-decker tour buses without seeking public input. Leaders of both companies said the donations were not motivated by the double-decker bus issue.
Other donors included a who’s who of prominent Boston-area lobbyists and big businesses from across the country.
Wu drew $25,000 each from the Boston Red Sox and the New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft. (The principal owner of the Red Sox, John W. Henry, also owns The Boston Globe.) She also drew large donations from major companies based outside Massachusetts, including Dell, AT&T, Comcast, and Home Depot, which has five stores in the Boston metro area and is currently not planning any new store openings, a spokeswoman said. GrubHub, which is headquartered in Chicago but has hundreds of employees working in a major office across the street from Boston City Hall, donated $5,000.
“As a company that’s been based in Boston for more than 80 years, we are always proud to celebrate important civic moments in the city’s history,” said Amy McHugh, a spokesperson for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts, which gave Wu $25,000. “We have supported previous inaugurations of Boston’s mayors for many decades and we were honored to support the historic inauguration of Michelle Wu.”
Wu’s inaugural committee has not been actively fund-raising since the postponement was announced last month, Leja said, and the event has not yet been rescheduled. The committee is monitoring COVID-19 metrics and “looks forward to rescheduling an accessible, citywide celebration when safe to do so,” Leja added.
When it is held, top donors will be invited and given special recognition, according to a solicitation obtained by the Globe.
“Visionary” sponsors — those who give $25,000 — will get 10 tickets, while “bold” donors who give $15,000 will get five tickets and “champion” contributors who give $10,000 will receive three. That will put the city’s most powerful government officials in the same room as the business leaders who made the event possible.
“It sends a message that we want to work together,” Percelay said. “We all have to row the boat in the same direction.”