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Effort to undo undocumented driver’s license law gains steam, as wealthy GOP donor said to back it

GOP candidate for governor Geoff Diehl is backing an effort to repeal the law that lets residents without legal immigration status get driver's licenses.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

A Republican push to repeal a law that allows undocumented residents to apply for driver’s licenses could face a clearer path to the November ballot, after GOP leaders said a wealthy donor has committed to supporting the effort.

If activists gather enough signatures, voters will decide whether to keep or nix the law, which goes into effect next year.

Rick Green, an auto parts company executive, GOP activist, and onetime congressional candidate, “will certainly be helping to support us,” GOP activist and ballot campaign coordinator Wendy Wakeman told the Globe on Wednesday. “Rick loves this project,” she said.

State Republican Party Chairman Jim Lyons, who spoke with Green about the effort, said it’s not “a secret that Rick Green is certainly a supporter of this.”

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Green, who in the 2018 cycle loaned himself $195,000 in campaign funds, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

The repeal petition, which got the legal green light from the attorney general this week, faces a high hurdle and a short runway to actually get on the ballot. The committee has to deliver 40,120 certified signatures to the secretary of state’s office by Sept. 7. Assuming they have enough certified signatures, the question would go before voters in November.

The petition aims to undo the new law, which, come July 2023, will allow people without legal immigration status to obtain a driver’s license by providing two documents that prove their identity, such as a foreign passport and birth certificate or a passport and a marriage certificate

The current price for paid signature gathering, depending on the vendor, ranges from $4 to $8 a signature, Rob Gray, a longtime Republican operative who ran the successful 2020 automotive “right-to-repair” initiative, told the Globe. The whole process could take about three months and nearly half a million dollars, he estimated.

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In Massachusetts, donors can give unlimited contributions to repeal campaigns, meaning a wealthy donor like Green could significantly boost the effort beyond any contribution a candidate or party committee would make.

“Money talks when you’re trying to get on the ballot because paid signature gatherers are always more efficient and successful than volunteers,” Gray said. “If it’s $100,000 or more, it might give you enough paid signatures to get it over the threshold in this very short amount of time allotted . . . Every little bit helps, but they may need a lot of help.”

The committee backing the effort, Fair and Secure Massachusetts, started distributing signature sheets this week, and has scheduled events across the state through Thursday.

During a Wednesday news conference, Wakeman, who is coordinating the campaign, handed Diehl a large plastic box of blank petitions tied with a red satin bow.

Wendy Wakeman, left, presented GOP candidate for governor Geoff Diehl, right, with a box of unsigned petitions to repeal the law letting undocumented residents get driver's licenses. Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

“I brought along a present for you,” she joked. “I expect you to get every one of those signed for review.”

Wakeman has also worked on several ballot initiatives, including two 2022 petitions that failed to clear the signature requirement and will not be on this year’s ballot.

She said the repeal campaign will be different.

The committee has a base of volunteers from the previous GOP-led campaigns, she said, and leaders are tapping into the slate of Republican candidates who are already doing outreach statewide. There are also other groups from around the country who have reached out to help, and her post office box has started to fill with “fistfuls of checks” since the initiative launched its website earlier this month, Wakeman said.

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“We are determined we are going to make the number of signatures,” she said. “We are pretty optimistic about our ability to do it . . . we do have some people who are very interested in making this happen.”

Supporters Wednesday cited a recent Suffolk University/Boston Globe poll of Massachusetts residents that found a narrow plurality of respondents — about 47 percent — opposed the legislation. About 46 percent were in favor, and 7 percent undecided.

Earlier this month, after the Massachusetts House voted to override Governor Charlie Baker’s veto of the Work and Family Mobility Act, Diehl reached out to Milford resident Maureen Maloney, a member of the GOP state committee, and asked her to lead a recall effort.

In 2014, Diehl helped lead a successful ballot campaign that repealed part of a 2013 law that created increases in the state gas tax tied to the rate of inflation.

Maloney, whose son was killed a decade ago by a drunk driver who was in the United States without legal status, is chairing the committee.

Since then, a committee has formed to counter the effort, and is being led by veteran progressive organizer Harris Gruman, a top SEIU union official who has worked on ballot initiatives to raise the minimum wage, give employees paid sick time, and tax the state’s highest earners.


Samantha J. Gross can be reached at samantha.gross@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @samanthajgross.