In his final months in office, Governor Charlie Baker has largely avoided the campaign trail, dispensing few endorsements, spending little political capital, and steering clear of the races to succeed him and lieutenant governor Karyn Polito.
Many of the Republican’s political allies weren’t so reticent, making an unusual foray into a little-watched lieutenant governor’s race to help their clear favorite: Democrat Kim Driscoll.
Donors and a longtime adviser to Baker were the driving force behind a super PAC that funded $1.2 million in advertisements ahead of the Sept. 6 primary, helping lift Driscoll in her three-way race for lieutenant governor onto the Democratic ticket alongside gubernatorial nominee Maura Healey.
In Driscoll, a five-term mayor of Salem, supporters see a pragmatic, business-friendly executive who ran on a “get stuff done” mantra that echoes Baker’s own political worldview.
The effort — fueled by a blend of contributions from developers, labor unions, and wealthy executives, some with a history of mixing donations to Republicans and Democrats — marked an unprecedented level of outside spending in a Massachusetts lieutenant governor contest, and, political operatives say, perhaps a sign of the growing influence of super PACs.
Spending by the Leadership for Mass Independent Expenditure Political Action Committee matched, if not overwhelmed, the reach of Driscoll’s Democratic rivals, particularly state Senator Eric P. Lesser and his once $1 million war chest. It even dwarfed Driscoll’s own spending during the final weeks of an otherwise low-profile statewide race.
Donors to the super PAC included some of Massachusetts’ wealthiest people as well as those who’ve given to other Baker-aligned causes, including Amos Hostetter Jr., a philanthropist and former cable television magnate, and Robert T. Hale Jr., chief executive of Quincy-based Granite Telecommunications. Nearly every individual who contributed has previously donated to Baker, and a quarter of all its contributors have also helped fund a separate Baker-aligned PAC.
The pro-Driscoll PAC’s leadership drew directly from Baker’s political orbit, too. Will Keyser, a longtime Democratic operative who has advised Baker for nearly a decade and was a key architect of his 2014 victory, and Eileen O’Connor, Keyser’s wife and business partner, helped launch and manage the group. The PAC’s chairman is former Braintree mayor Joe Sullivan, a Democrat who served as a Baker appointee to the Department of Transportation board and stumped for the governor during his 2018 reelection campaign.
Baker said he had no direct involvement in the super PAC and only learned of its existence through media reports. At least two of its donors told the Globe that they did not speak with Baker about the lieutenant governor’s race or about contributing to the PAC before they gave.
Keyser said the PAC also has no plans to “be active” ahead of the general election, when Healey and Driscoll face a Republican ticket led by Geoff Diehl, a Donald Trump-endorsed conservative who’s regularly criticized Baker’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Leah Allen is the GOP nominee for lieutenant governor.
“I’ve stayed out of most statewide politics this year, and that’s by design,” said Baker, who is not seeking a third term. “The voters gotta decide what they want to do in November and I’m going to leave that decision up to them.”
But the PAC’s target was clear: Support Driscoll, who’s been a regular partner to Baker, a resident of neighboring Swampscott.
She served as a lead municipal surrogate for one of his long-sought housing initiatives and stood with him this spring when he unveiled a new spending proposal that included money for an offshore wind port in Salem. Over the last 14 months, Baker or Polito have appeared at least nine times in Salem for public events, six of which with Driscoll.
“Kim Driscoll seems to have tapped into something that Baker-Polito did, to be able to move the middle, to get the unenrolled” voters with her, said Tony Cignoli, a Democratic strategist who was not involved in her campaign. “Her ads and the PAC ads kind of messaged to that middle.”
The PAC’s television ad touted Driscoll as a budget-balancer who would “keep delivering” for Massachusetts.
“Did Governor Baker direct that? Maybe not,” said Cignoli. But that Baker supporters were involved in the super PAC could create the perception of alignment, said Cignoli, who quoted a long-used political axiom. “Politics is perception, not reality.”
Driscoll, who is prohibited from coordinating with the outside group, declined to comment through a spokeswoman.
Those leading the PAC said they got involved because of their support of Driscoll, not Baker. Sullivan, the former Braintree mayor, said he’s known Driscoll for more than 10 years. “I’m a Kim Fan,” he wrote in a text message.
Keyser — who before advising Baker worked with, among others, the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy — said in an e-mail that the decision to manage the PAC was “based on our belief that Kim Driscoll would be a great Lieutenant Governor.” Baker said he personally never discussed the PAC with Keyser.
“I have known Kim Driscoll for over a decade,” Keyser said, “and have always admired the way she brings people together to solve problems.”
To be sure, several of the PAC’s contributors are prolific donors themselves or businesses run by those who give often to political causes. Hale has given to both the National Republican Congressional Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Hostetter has donated more than $2.5 million on the state level, the bulk of that being a $2 million contribution to a failed 2016 pro-charter school ballot campaign in which Baker was deeply invested.
More than $150,000 also flowed in from unions, likely reflecting more of Driscoll’s base of support — her husband is a union bricklayer — than Baker’s.
Hostetter, the co-founder of the Barr Foundation, said he never discussed the lieutenant governor’s race with Baker before giving $50,000 to the PAC backing Driscoll in mid-August.
“My support of Kim Driscoll was simply based on my view of the several candidates’ qualifications. It was that simple,” he said in an e-mail, noting that Driscoll had won the Democratic Party’s endorsement at its June convention and later the nomination. “Pretty straight forward.”
The donor list, though, also heavily overlaps with that of a Baker-aligned super PAC, known as Massachusetts Majority. At least 10 of the nearly 40 contributors to Leadership for Mass PAC gave to both, a group that includes Hale and Hostetter, but also Jim Mooney of the Baupost Group investment firm; Mark Development LLC, a firm founded by Robert Korff; and Paul Marcus of Marcus Partners, all of which gave at least $25,000 to both PACs. Hale gave at least $100,000 to each.
Charles Borstel, a former deputy undersecretary for consumer affairs under Baker now at Commodore Builders, gave $25,000 to the Leadership for Mass PAC. And Christopher Collins, a real estate investor who has a role in the Republican Governors Association, was among its top donors, contributing $100,000 personally, while Norstar Holdings LLC, where he’s listed as the manager, gave $150,000.
Mooney and Hale declined to comment through spokespeople on what prompted them to give to Leadership for Mass. Efforts to reach the others were unsuccessful.
John Fish, the chief executive of Suffolk Construction, was among those who last year personally urged Baker to seek another term.
He said he donated $25,000 to the PAC backing Driscoll this month — the contribution had yet to appear in campaign finance records — not because of Baker but because he believes Driscoll will do a “hell of a job.”
“I think for people who are getting involved in these races, it’s extremely difficult,” Fish said. “Winning depends on how much people are willing to invest in you.”
It’s not only through the PAC Baker allies have rode to Driscoll’s aide. Tony Ravosa, a seasoned Republican lobbyist and Baker fund-raiser, helped raise money for Driscoll at an event in Springfield in late August. But the former Springfield councilor was adamant that there was no “organized Baker-Polito effort” to coalesce around Driscoll, perceptions aside.
“I can tell you that’s bull [expletive],” he said.
Then is support from Baker-world for her simply organic? Ravosa paused for a moment. “I concur with that,” he said.