Metro

Even as donations flow, Third District candidates turn to their own checkbooks for help

Lowell, Massachusetts - 4/29/2018 - (Left to right) Jeff Ballinger, Beej Das , Leonard Golder, Patrick Littlefield, Bopha Malone, and Keith St. John take part in a debate between the Democratic candidates for the third district congressional seat in Lowell, Massachusetts, April 29, 2018. (Keith Bedford/Globe Staff)
Keith Bedford/Globe Staff
From left, Jeff Ballinger, Beej Das , Leonard Golder, Patrick Littlefield, Bopha Malone, and Keith St. John participated in a debate among Democratic candidates in Lowell in April. Ten Democrats and one Republican are running.

Since last fall, a staggering $8.2 million has flowed into the campaigns of candidates vying to replace retiring US Representative Niki Tsongas.

But while they trumpet the help of local, grass-roots donors, half of those running for the Third District seat are also relying on other highly motivated and deep-pocketed contributors: themselves.

Six of the 11 candidates have poured a combined $800,000 of their own cash into their campaigns, tapping personal savings, lines of credit, and, in one case, a previously undisclosed bank account to supplement their fund-raising.

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The heavy personal spending might be a political necessity for some, but it’s also a risky financial move — especially in the crowded 10-candidate Democratic primary from which only one nominee will emerge on Sept. 4.

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Still, the open congressional seat is a tantalizing enough opportunity to prompt candidates to dump anywhere from $50,000 to $325,000 into the race, which has already produced the highest fund-raising for a Massachusetts congressional seat this century.

“It was absolutely a necessity,” Abhijit “Beej” Das, a first-time candidate, said of loaning and contributing $325,134 to his campaign, the most of any candidate and about 56 percent of the total he has raised. Das, a hotel executive, said he tapped investments — even credit cards — and left open the possibility of getting an additional bank loan.

“Making the first set of phone calls, you would know pretty early that people are going to say, ‘You’ve never run. What faith do we have that you’re going to have viability?’ ” he said. “So you loan your own money to say, ‘I’m serious.’ ”

All told, the $798,261 that six candidates have given their campaigns accounts for 10 percent of what they’ve raised. It’s not short money, especially in a congressional district where the household median income hovers at $77,995 , and in Lawrence, its second-largest city, it dips to $36,754.

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Many candidates said their donations to their campaigns are an indication of how invested they are in the race.

They include state Senator Barbara L’Italien, who has buttressed her $633,000 in contributions with $70,000 in loans even though, according to filings, she did not report the type of significant assets enjoyed by several of her competitors.

The loans, according to her campaign, stemmed in part from a “joint family checking account” that L’Italien hadn’t divulged on a federally required financial disclosure. Joe Katz, a campaign spokesman, said the Andover Democrat will file an amended form.

He said that L’Italien — one of five women in the race — is trying to compete with a crop of men that have an “easy time tapping wealthy networks.”

Registry of Deeds records filed Monday show that, months after making the loans, L’Italien also took a $746,400 mortgage on her Andover home. Katz would not say whether she planned to seed that money into her campaign.

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Lori Trahan, the onetime chief of staff to former US representative Martin T. Meehan, has loaned her campaign $100,000 — half of which she gave in June — in addition to raising $1 million from others. She made $400,000 last year as the head of a consulting firm, financial disclosures show, and plucked the money from savings, her campaign said.

‘You loan your own money to say, “I’m serious.” ’

She said she loaned the money because she believes she is the candidate best equipped for “standing up to Trump and standing up for working people.”

Rufus Gifford, a former Obama fund-raiser, has collected $1.3 million overall. But he’s also spent a greater share of his campaign funds than most candidates, and, in June, he loaned himself $70,000 to beef up his reserves. The former US ambassador, who made nearly $160,000 in speaking fees and book sales last year before launching his campaign, contributed another $13,000 in in-kind expenses.

“Like many other candidates, I’ve put in some of my own resources because I believe in what this campaign is all about with all of my heart,” Gifford said in a statement.

Even the race’s top fund-raiser has dipped into his own pockets. Dan Koh, who made $158,000 annually as the former chief of staff to Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh, loaned his bid $50,000 in September “to help get the campaign off the ground,” spokesman Justin Curtis said.

The sum came from savings, according to Curtis, and Koh hasn’t contributed any more of his own cash while raising nearly $3 million over the last year — more than double the next closest candidate.

And with just weeks until the primary, and less than three months until the general election, there are signs more could be coming.

Rick Green, the race’s lone Republican and the founder of an online auto parts company, has put his personal wealth to work, dropping $170,000 from savings into his campaign. That’s about 20 percent of his total fund-raising.

Green, who reported making $350,000 last year, said he’s also willing to make “additional investments” if necessary. “We have no idea who we will be facing [in November],” the Pepperell Republican said, “and what their ability to raise money is.”

State Representative Juana B. Matias is one of the candidates who hasn’t kicked in any of her own money. The Lawrence Democrat made $77,917 last year at the State House, but also reported few assets and said she has $150,000 in student loans. She has raised $472,454 through the end of June.

“It’s really simple for me: I can’t afford to loan myself money,” said Matias, who described herself as the field’s “working-class candidate.”

Democrats Alexandra Chandler and Bopha Malone have not loaned their campaigns money, either.

In a race where easing the burden on middle-class families has been a constant theme, the reliance on hefty personal loans undercuts the message of understanding the financial challenges facing voters, Matias argued.

“I know about student debt because I will be paying it off for the rest of my life,” she said. “I’ve lived it.”

Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout.