Here’s a heavy lift: Make the race for state auditor seem relevant, interesting, and meaningful to primary voters. That’s the task facing Senator Diana DiZoglio and former transportation advocate Chris Dempsey.
Since 1987, only two figures have held this little-known, largely managerial position, so the Democratic primary candidates are angling to bring a fresh perspective to excite voters about — let’s be honest — a not-so-exciting role.
The office, which is responsible for regularly auditing the state’s 200-plus agencies, has not been known for its reforming nature or outsized influence, but Dempsey, 39, and DiZoglio, 38, have committed to bringing fresh accountability to the seat, soon to be vacated by Suzanne M. Bump, a former lawmaker who is retiring after three terms.
On the campaign trail, the Democrats make promises of bringing climate action to the office, auditing agencies through a racial equity lens, and holding the Legislature accountable, all of which go beyond what’s required of the office by law: to audit the state entities at least once every three years and offer recommendations.
“The auditor can’t force anyone to do anything, let’s be clear,” Bump said recently.
Even so, the announcement of her retirement set off a race to usher in a new era for the office and to get people to care.
In the 2014 general election, 9 percent of voters — a whopping 198,844 people — left the auditor’s race blank, the biggest dropoff among statewide races that year.
The candidates are aware of what they are up against and say capitalizing on the position’s role as a watchdog will help people understand and, hopefully, remember to vote.
“I am not going to go and count beans in the back room,” said DiZoglio, a former state representative and union chief of staff. “The state auditor’s role is to stand up, speak truth to power, and hold the powerful accountable.”
Dempsey said his experience as an assistant secretary of transportation under former governor Deval Patrick — in the “guts of the bureaucracy” — is what makes him the most qualified candidate.
“There is an opportunity to use the full powers of this office to make sure we are making government work,” he said. “I have conviction that my background and experience . . . prepares me well for this important role within government.”
A government audit involves the collection of data from a government entity, program, or contractor to identify misspending or neglect of duties. The auditors who work for Bump also spend time unraveling missteps, like 2021 audits that found the state’s Center for Health Information and Analysis doesn’t update its consumer website every year like it should or that Division of Banks employees didn’t complete cybersecurity awareness training in a timely fashion.
Bump announced that she would not be running for a fourth term in May of last year, and DiZoglio announced her candidacy shortly after in June. Dempsey followed in July. Anthony Amore, the unopposed Republican candidate, jumped into the race this March.
When Bump won the seat in 2010 after longtime auditor A. Joseph DeNucci did not run for reelection, she inherited an office rife with problems. In the decade since, she has overhauled it to professionalize the operation. Among the audits she has published: ones that found the Department of Children and Families had failed to report rapes, abuse, and other crimes committed against children in its care, that the state had lost track of 1,800 registered sex offenders, and that people who were dead had received millions in welfare benefits and driver’s licenses. (The Registry of Motor Vehicles strongly disputed the audit’s findings.)
The Democratic candidates say they hope to bring their own values to the role, like Dempsey’s 15-point targeted audit plan for the State Police or his promise to incorporate carbon accounting into the audits. DiZoglio’s 14-point audit plan ranges from looking at gender and racial pay disparities within state government to ensuring the state is contracting with minority-owned businesses in an equitable and inclusive fashion.
Dempsey got his start in the public sector in the Patrick administration. In 2015, he gained attention as a leader of a campaign that ultimately helped sink Boston’s bid to host the 2024 Summer Olympics. A graduate of Harvard Business School, Dempsey works as a private consultant. He led the advocacy group Transportation for Massachusetts as its director for four years but stepped down in 2021 to run for public office.
Dempsey, of Brookline, has leaned on his experience running the campaign against the Olympics as a way to make voters remember a time he “stood up and questioned the powers that be and was successful,” he said.
DiZoglio, a Methuen Democrat and Wellesley College graduate, has served in the Legislature since 2013 and worked as a legislative aide before that. Before her time on Beacon Hill, DiZoglio worked for the Professional Fire Fighters of Massachusetts as a chief of staff to the president, various nonprofit organizations, and owned a small cleaning business.
On Beacon Hill, she is known for taking on legislative leaders for their handling of sexual harassment, use of nondisclosure agreements, and staff pay. In her current race, she is campaigning to keep holding the Legislature accountable, even though the auditor’s authority over the body is murky.
“A lot of folks feel disenfranchised and ignored by the Beacon Hill establishment and feel as though decisions continue to be made without their ability to be heard. Those decisions impact them the most,” she said.
At the end of the last campaign finance reporting period in April, DiZoglio led Dempsey in cash on hand, with $524,395 to his $339,701. Amore has about $5,701 in cash on hand.
In a recent UMass Lowell survey of likely Democratic primary voters, Dempsey led by 2 percentage points, within the margin of error.
Leaders who are backing the candidates in the race acknowledge that getting people to care will be a significant challenge.
“The position you are in is what you make of it,” said Senator Lydia Edwards, who has endorsed DiZoglio. “When you are talking about something as wonky as the auditor, if people can see themselves in you, then they can understand the job even more.”
She called DiZoglio “absolutely fearless,” and said her experience questioning institutions like the Legislature proves she’ll bring “urgency and honesty.”
James Aloisi, a former state transportation secretary who has mentored Dempsey since he started in the Patrick administration, sees Dempsey emerging as a fresh voice in a similar mold as Boston Mayor Michelle Wu or US Representative Jake Auchincloss, who are both around his age.
“I think this is going to be one of the more public-facing races for auditor we’ve had in a long time,” Aloisi said. “People are looking for something different.”
But Patricia Saint Aubin, a Republican and professional auditor who lost to Bump in 2014, said she feels candidates are trying too hard to relate to voters and, in the process, losing sight of what an auditor actually does. She holds a bachelor’s degree in auditing and spent her career as an auditor for banks, life insurance companies, and hospital systems.
“That position has nothing to do with social issues,” said Saint Aubin. “It’s a niche job.”