In a major victory for an underdog candidate, Mark R. Fisher won his legal battle against the Massachusetts Republican Party Friday when a judge called for resolving a lawsuit by putting Fisher's name on the primary election ballot.
The stunning turn of events should make Fisher, a member of the Tea Party movement, an official candidate for governor, provided he also submits 10,000 valid voter signatures to election officials.
Fisher said he met the signature threshold by Tuesday's deadline, but election officials are certifying signatures and the accuracy of individual signatures may yet be challenged.
Fisher filed a suit in Suffolk Superior Court last month contending that the party failed to follow its own rules at its convention and cheated him out of a spot on the primary ballot. Though party leaders disputed that claim, maintaining they had done nothing wrong, they relented this week and filed a motion agreeing to let Fisher be on the ballot if the court delayed the trial, discovery, and the deliberation over damages until after the election.
Fisher has opposed that move, saying he would need to recover damages to have resources for a campaign. He also said he still wanted the GOP to hand over documents he thinks would vindicate his claims, tally sheets showing the vote on the day of the convention.
On Friday, the GOP agreed to put him on the ballot, without a guarantee that all their demands would be met.
Suffolk Superior Court Judge Douglas H. Wilkins agreed to postponed the trial, which had been scheduled to start June 16, but did not immediately rule on whether discovery and discussion of damages would also be delayed. He did, however, question why Fisher would still want tally sheets if his name is on the ballot.
Thomas Harvey, Fisher's lawyer, argued that the tally sheets could show Fisher was a qualified candidate all along and support his continued claim for damages.
"Right now, I don't think Mr. Fisher is considered a really legitimate candidate," Harvey said, adding that voters might view the court's resolution as a generous gesture on the part of the Republican Party.
But Wilkins said the debate over tally sheets could cross over from a legal dispute to a political one.
"That's the kind of thing I don't think I should get involved in," Wilkins said.
Still, he did not rule out discovery. Instead, he allowed Harvey to amend his complaint and to include information about whether Fisher, or any candidate, has a legal right to see the tally sheets.
The Republican Party, roiled by accusations that it tried to skew its nomination for governor toward a favored candidate, did not admit to any wrongdoing in agreeing to put Fisher's name on the ballot.
"The litigation has become a distraction to the Republican Party and a drain on its resources, which should be used for the election of its candidates," the party's lawyer, Louis M. Ciavarra, wrote in his motion this week seeking a resolution.
Even though they "do not believe they have violated any law and do not believe they can be compelled to provide Mr. Fisher with this relief," Ciavarra wrote, GOP leaders would put him on the ballot, having concluded "that it is in the best interests of the public, as well as the Republican Party."
The dispute became so fractious this week that it even produced charges and countercharges of attempted bribery.
In a letter the party's lawyer sent to state committee members this week, Ciavarra said Fisher had demanded $1 million from the GOP to end his legal battle with the party.
Fisher's lawyer confirmed he had quoted $1 million as a starting point in negotiations. But Fisher later said that the payoff offers originated with party insiders trying to get him to step aside.
The protracted dispute had many observers shaking their heads about how party leaders could become mired in such an election year debacle.
"I think what happened is terribly bad decision-making at the top," said Maurice T. Cunningham, an associate professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Boston who attended the convention. "They doubled down and tripled down on a position that could not be sustained. And now they find themselves paying a price for it." "Nothing good has come of it," he added.
Still, Cunningham, who wrote several posts about the dispute for his blog, called MassPoliticsProfs, said he does not think that Baker will be hurt by the dispute in November.
"The Republican brand is damaged again, and that doesn't help him," Cunningham said of Baker. "But I think having an opponent like Fisher will help him. "I think it gives Charlie Baker a chance to rev up an organization that frankly failed him at the convention," he said. "You can't wake up the day after Labor Day and jump-start that. You've got to get it out on the field now."
Friday's decision could not only shake up the Republicans' primary election ballot; it also has implications for the party's use of campaign funds.
GOP bylaws prohibit the party from helping any candidate who faces another Republican in a primary, unless approved by a two-thirds
vote of the executive committee. Nonetheless, Baker spokesman Tim Buckley said that he welcomes a primary race.
"Charlie welcomes Mr. Fisher to the race and looks forward to demonstrating that he is the only candidate, Democrat or Republican, with the experience necessary to lead state government and the values that are consistent with Massachusetts voters," Buckley said.