Ties to City Hall bolster Dan Koh’s bid for Congress
Large donors have interests in Boston, not Third District
Adam Weiner and his firm, Weiner Ventures, have no discernible development interests in the Third District, but that has not stopped him, his wife, his father, his mother, and his sister-in-law from donating a total of $13,500 to Democrat Dan Koh’s campaign for the open congressional seat there.
Nor do the officials at WS Asset Management, which was cofounded by Weiner’s father, seem to have any major business in the Lowell-based district, according to the company’s website. But during the same week in September 2017, its officers and staff donated $10,900 to Koh’s campaign.
The Schuster family, owners of the Boston’s Wingate Companies, ponied up $13,500 days later. A multistate housing firm, Wingate has for years developed scores of properties around the state, although comparatively few in the Third District.
What those donors — and others reviewed by the Globe — have in common is that their projects are dependent on approvals from Boston agencies under the control of Koh’s political mentor and recent boss, Mayor Martin J. Walsh.
To be sure, there’s no evidence that Koh stepped over legal lines in collecting the funds. But the donations highlight how Koh’s time at City Hall has bolstered his campaign for Congress — and demonstrate, yet again, the perceived conflicts that can arise where business intersects with politics.
Real estate developers, law firms, corporate executives, and construction companies with business in Boston contributed more than $155,000 of the approximately $750,000 Koh raised in the first few weeks of his candidacy in September.
At the time, it was a stunning display of political muscle, helping Koh’s first-time candidacy in a crowded race.
Of that total, less than 5 percent — or $33,000 — came from within the Merrimack Valley-based district that he wants to represent.
Although other candidates in the race have also fund-raised heavily outside the Third District, the average for in-district fund-raising nationwide, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, is 30.5 percent.
By the close of the year, Koh had raised nearly $1.6 million.
Aides to Koh and Walsh downplayed the mayor’s role in the congressional campaign of his former chief of staff, and they declined to say what exactly the mayor did for his political protege in those key first weeks when Koh’s donations surged.
“Mayor Walsh has been supportive of Dan Koh’s campaign since day one, however the mayor did not play a big role in early fund-raising efforts due to focusing on his own campaign,’’ said Walsh spokeswoman Laura Oggeri.
Walsh won reelection in November by more than 30 percentage points.
Koh, 33, said his success was a result of his wide swath of connections and personal relationships built during his educational and professional life.
“I’ve been fortunate to develop close relationships with many great people from my time at Harvard, at Huffington Post, and through my other work experiences,’’ he said in a statement.
An Andover native who recently moved back into the district, Koh said he understood that he needed substantial funds to have “sufficient resources to engage with voters” and build “a strong grass-roots campaign.”
Koh was not the only candidate to raise a vast majority of donations from outside the district in the initial months of the campaign.
State Senator Barbara L’Italien, the Andover Democrat with deep roots in the district, raised $269,753, with 90 percent coming from outside the district, according to her 2017 fund-raising report.
Another candidate, Rufus Gifford, former US ambassador to Denmark, raised $496,577 in November and December of 2017, with only 13 percent coming within the district.
In contrast, Lori Trahan, a Lowell native who now lives in Westford, raised a slight majority of her $551,622 from district donors.
Developers and other off-shoots of the building industry are frequent contributors to political campaigns, providing an undeniable benefit to candidates’ bottom lines but also sparking awkward questions about whether they are hoping to receive a benefit in return.
When these entities are awaiting government approval for a project, as was the case with some of Koh’s donors, it can give the appearance of undue influence , even where none may exist.
Two months after the officials at WS Asset Management donated to the Koh committee, they won their permit to develop Seaport Square.
At the same Boston Planning & Development Agency meeting on Nov. 16, the Schusters’ Wingate Companies won approval for a six-story, 115-unit apartment complex at 95 St. Alphonsus Street in Boston’s Mission Hill — a project that faced a ripple of neighborhood opposition.
Officials at National Development, who wrote out $5,000 worth of checks to Koh’s campaign in September, won BPDA approval on Nov. 21 for the construction of a 245-unit residential building adjacent to the newly developed Ink Block in the South End.
The company’s portfolio of projects shows dozens of developments, mostly in Boston and surrounding communities — and only one 48-unit property in the Third District.
Phone calls to Weiner Ventures, Wingate, WS Asset Management, and National Development were not returned.
There are more Koh donors who have deep connections to City Hall and helped the first-time candidate kick off his campaign.
Helping the BPDA with its legal issues is the 200-lawyer firm Goulston & Storrs, which has a contract to be the agency’s general counsel.
Its lawyers gave $5,500 to Koh. The firm has donated $28,400 to Walsh since he became mayor. A spokesman said the firm leaves political giving up to individual lawyers.
Walsh and Koh, then his chief of staff, publicly offered support to DraftKings, the online fantasy sports betting startup, in the heat of the company’s legal battles. Seven of the firm’s staff donated a combined $10,500 to Koh’s congressional committee in September.
The lawyers and lobbyists at the well-connected Boston law firm Mintz Levin have donated $6,000.
The two cofounders of Big Night Entertainment, which has four licensed upscale nightclubs in Boston, gave donations totaling $5,400.
Some of the brass at the Boston Red Sox — including team chairman Tom Werner and former chief executive Larry Lucchino — which has often dealt with City Hall over issues at Fenway Park, donated a total of $10,600 to Koh’s campaign. John Henry, the principal owner of the Sox, also owns the Globe.
At least a dozen more Boston-area developers contributed a total of more than $35,000 to Koh’s campaign, including John Fish of Suffolk Construction; Paul Grossman of CBRE/New England; Seaport developers Jon Cronin and his wife Nicole; Patrick Keohane of Avala Association and his wife, Kiara; and Boston Properties.
Other contributions came from officials at Mark Development, a commercial real estate firm, where the founder, his son, and his daughter gave a combined total of $8,100 to Koh.
Koh’s senior campaign consultant, veteran Democratic adviser Doug Rubin, said the candidate’s success in fund-raising was the result of his intense hard work, spending hours making calls to potential donors.
“Unlike most candidates, Dan was most willing to do the work,’’ Rubin said, describing how Koh spent up to six hours a day making to calls to potential donors. “I personally saw him sit in a room, day after day, for five to six hours, making calls.”