Less than a year ago, Massachusetts progressives proved they could win big at the ballot box when voters approved a new tax on high earners to fund transportation and education.
But if the victorious campaign for the so-called “millionaires tax” is a playbook for those who hope voters will end the state’s three-decade ban on rent control in 2024, they’re missing some crucial pieces — which has many in the prorent-control movement planning to sit this round out, or oppose the ballot push altogether.
State Representative Mike Connolly, a Cambridge Democrat, is forging ahead with the ballot effort; his campaign recently made its first hire and formally began gathering signatures. Yet he’s doing so amid opposition not just from the deep-pocketed real estate industry, but from a number of prominent progressive groups who support rent control but say it’s the wrong time to put it before voters.
It’s a split that underscores both the complex coalition-building required to win a high-profile ballot fight, and the stakes involved should prorent control forces lose. By state law, a losing measure can’t go back on the ballot for six years. And defeat by the voters would likely squelch any chance rent control laws might have of being approved by an already skeptical Legislature.
While rent control has earned increased attention on Beacon Hill in recent years, Connolly’s ballot campaign — which would allow communities to write their own rent laws for the first time since 1994 — began just this summer, with a handful of activists gathering signatures a few days before the Aug. 2 deadline to file petitions for the Nov. 2024 election. By contrast, community organizations, religious groups, and labor unions spent nearly a decade strategizing and organizing around the so-called millionaires tax before they ultimately landed it on the 2022 ballot.
Perhaps most important: The “Raise Up Massachusetts” campaign for the wealth tax had support from more than 150 organizations, said Steve Crawford, a consultant who led that push and other ballot efforts over the years. Labor unions were key, both in terms of funding and manpower; their large membership bases provided foot soldiers for signature drives and other campaign efforts.
As of now, Connolly’s effort lacks the support of many of the state’s most influential labor and housing organizations. The SEIU Massachusetts State Council, a local arm of the national service workers union, has not jumped in the fight. And Homes for All Massachusetts — a coalition of community groups that have long pushed rent control and other tenant-protection measures on Beacon Hill — is directly calling on Connolly to scrap the ballot question.
“We have serious concerns about Representative Connolly’s unilateral decision to move forward on a 2024 ballot question against the wishes of movement leaders, and without collaborating with the statewide anti-eviction and anti-foreclosure coalition,” the coalition said in a statement earlier this month. “We ask Representative Connolly to drop his effort to pursue a rent control ballot question campaign, which will detract from the effort to win the policies our communities need and is not supported by the vast majority of rent control advocates.”
Some of those advocates are even trying to quash the effort by attempting to persuade potential donors to not fund the rent control ballot question. Organizers said they have made the case to a major potential funder based in California that the effort is not ripe in Massachusetts and would set the movement back here.
Some progressive organizations point to polling they conducted earlier this year that showed while there is majority support for rent control, it is too “soft” to risk attempting a statewide ballot push.
“It was good, but not good enough, in our opinion,” said Harris Gruman, executive director of the SEIU Massachusetts State Council, which is separate from the Homes for All coalition but supports its push for rent control.
Other advocates said their movement needs more time to build support statewide before they take on an effort as high-risk as a ballot initiative. Instead, they say, they’re focused on lobbying state lawmakers on Beacon Hill.
So far, Mayor Michelle Wu of Boston — the most prominent prorent control politician in the state, who could be an enormously influential ally — is staying quiet on the 2024 ballot push.
Wu said on the radio earlier this month that she has yet to “decide my particular involvement in that campaign,” though she “absolutely [supports] the concept” of allowing cities to control annual rent increases. Her proposal to cap rent increases in the City of Boston cleared the City Council in March but has since languished on Beacon Hill.
“There’s still more conversations to be had among the larger advocacy community about whether this is the moment to mount that kind of large-scale groundswell that would be needed,” Wu said during the radio interview.
For his part, Connolly won a recent victory when the attorney general’s office said the initiative passed legal muster to appear on the ballot. But he has been slow to begin the grueling, potentially expensive process of collecting at least 75,000 signatures to qualify.
To start collecting signatures, ballot campaign proponents must file paperwork with the secretary of state’s office — a step most take as soon as possible to maximize their time, a spokesperson for the office said. Connolly did not file his paperwork until Wednesday, two full weeks after the certification decision, and a day after The Boston Globe inquired about why the paperwork had yet to be filed.
Last week, the campaign made its first hire. Art Gordon, a pastor who has worked for both Representative Ayanna Pressley and Senator Edward J. Markey, will be the campaign’s organizing director. Organizers are interviewing for a second post focused on digital infrastructure, Connolly said. And they’ve begun active signature-gathering, including at the Somerville Fluff Festival on Sunday. Signatures must be submitted to local officials around Thanksgiving.
Connolly said the effort has raised roughly $100,000 so far, with more donations in the works. He’s had “very, very encouraging dialogue” with the deep-pocketed California advocacy organization Housing is a Human Right, which he said has already given $50,000 to the ballot effort. He is also touting new research by veteran pollster Dan Cohen, who found 65 percent of likely voters would vote for a question “that would give cities and towns the ability to institute rent control.”
But Massachusetts operatives who’ve run successful efforts in the past say even high support numbers can dwindle during a bruising ballot campaign. For example, the “millionaires tax” had early on enjoyed more than 70 percent backing in public polling, supporters recalled; when it passed on last year’s ballot, it earned just 52 percent support.
That’s one reason why locking in as much support as possible, as early as possible, is crucial for successful ballot questions, say political consultants who have worked to both win and defeat them in recent years. And usually, proponents of a measure have more work to do.
“The ‘yes’ side has to start much earlier than the ‘no’ side,” said Dan Cence, the spokesperson for last year’s “No On 1″ campaign against the millionaires tax. “‘No’ only has to put doubt in voters’ minds on one specific part of the proposal. ‘Yes’ has to get someone convinced of the entire proposal.”
And unlike last year, when opposition to the millionaires tax never quite came together in force, the real estate industry is primed for a fight. Greg Vasil, chief executive of the Greater Boston Real Estate Board, estimated earlier this year industry groups could spend up to $30 million to defeat a rent control ballot question.
“One of the best things that Representative Connolly could have done for the real estate industry is file this thing,” Vasil said. “It has really brought us together in a way we never have been before.”
That $30 million would exceed the $29 million — mostly provided by state teachers unions — that Raise Up Massachusetts spent on the millionaires tax campaign last year. For the prorent control campaign, that money is nowhere to be seen, at least for now, perhaps in part because national unions have their eyes on the 2024 presidential elections, and key Senate and governors races.
Either way, some prorent control groups don’t feel they currently have the statewide organizing infrastructure or the funding to take on that opposition.
“It’s a hard fight,” Gruman said. “You have to know you have those resources if you’re going to take that on.”