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Union’s secretive ad brings Citizens United to Boston

This is local politics in the post-Citizens United era: A group that nobody had ever heard of showed up at end of the recent mayoral campaign and dropped $480,000 on a TV commercial for one of the candidates.

Last week, the veil came off: The money spent on behalf of Marty Walsh by a previously unknown outfit called One Boston came from the American Federation of Teachers, the parent organization of the Boston Teachers Union. The revelation wasn’t exactly shocking, since Walsh’s campaign had attracted strong support from both public- and private-sector unions, and other labor-affiliated groups had made independent expenditures on his behalf.

But the situation validates the worst fears about federal courts’ recent assault on campaign finance limits: A patchwork of weak federal and state rules opens up ways for special interests to evade disclosure requirements. And the groups most likely to make vast, disguised election expenditures are the ones with agendas that, if revealed, would turn off voters.


The local teachers’ union’s obstinate approach in contract negotiations with the Menino administration had alienated most mayoral hopefuls, including Walsh. The union’s ostensibly neutral stance in the general election campaign — until election day itself, when a message went out urging members to support Walsh — likely reflected a recognition that its backing could become a liability.

In the same spirit, One Boston was unusually secretive about its activities. The Boston Teachers Union insists it didn’t know about the contribution. The only person named in One Boston’s paperwork was a Roslindale woman who rarely even voted in local elections. The American Federation of Teachers channeled its contribution through a New Jersey political action committee that, under that state’s law, isn’t required to identify its donors. This is the campaign-finance equivalent of avoiding taxes by channeling one’s earnings through shell companies and stashing them in the Cayman Islands.

Most outside groups that poured money into the mayoral campaign at least made their agendas clearer than One Boston did. Two more explicitly labor-oriented groups spent about $1.9 million on Walsh’s behalf; Democrats for Education Reform spent $1.2 million on behalf of opponent John Connolly. These are huge sums for a city election; Walsh and Connolly each spent less than $3 million in regular contributions for the preliminary and final elections combined. It’s easy to imagine a future race in which outside groups outspend the candidates themselves.


In the 2012 federal elections, ideologically driven groups seemed to have less of an impact than many feared. But independent money could have more direct influence in strong-mayor systems like Boston, where one official — Walsh — will be responsible for negotiating salaries for the local union whose parent spent $480,000 to get him elected.

At a minimum, voters deserve to know who’s really paying for the commercials they’re seeing. The US Supreme Court, in creating vastly more latitude for independent expenditures, reaffirmed that disclosure requirements remain legal. Instead of allowing political action committees to wait until two months after an election to identify their donors, Massachusetts should demand instant disclosure — and seek out ways to prevent spending by out-of-state entities that don’t disclose their donors.