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Bay State Money for Bay State Races

Statehouse candidates consider pledges to ban or limit out-of-state donations.

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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Tim Allen, a candidate for the 1st Hampden and Hampshire state Senate seat, has proposed a cap on campaign contributions from out-of-state donors in the race.

Allen, who now serves as a Springfield city councilor, is calling on his fellow candidates to pledge to accept no more than $5,000 in contributions from donors outside Massachusetts. He also said that, if elected, he’d sponsor legislation to limit out-of-state money in Massachusetts legislative races.

Allen is one of five Democrats seeking their party’s nomination to succeed incumbent senator Gale Candaras, who is leaving the office to run for Hampden Register of Probate. The other Democrats are Ludlow School Committee member Chip Harrington; Aaron Saunders, Candaras’ former chief of staff; Tom Lachiusa, a member of the Longmeadow Democratic Town Committee; and Eric Lesser, a former aide in the Obama White House. The primary winner will face Republican Debra Boronski, a member of the East Longmeadow Select Board and president of the Massachusetts Chamber of Commerce, in the general election.

The district comprises East Longmeadow, Hampden, Longmeadow, Ludlow, Wilbraham and Granby, as well as parts of Springfield and Belchertown.

Allen told the Advocate that he proposed the pledge to ensure that the future of the district is shaped by the people who live there. “There’s so much big money in politics right now that we have to do something like this to make sure that people in the local area are the ones determining the fundraising and possibly the policies that get implemented from that area,” he said.

That’s especially important in this part of the state, which is often overlooked when important decisions are being made at the Statehouse, Allen added. “We’re Western Mass. We are the forgotten child, generally, in Boston. We need to stand up for ourselves.”

Allen pointed to the recent Supreme Court rulings in Citizens United and McCutcheon v. FEC as moves away from inclusive, participatory government. “At a time when it’s harder and harder to get people to feel engaged, we don’t need to make people feel their input doesn’t matter,” he said.

 

While Allen did not single out any of his competitors as being more likely to attract out-of-state money than the others, one does, indeed, seem likely to do just that: Lesser, a one-time Obama campaign staffer who went on to work for presidential strategist David Axelrod and then for the White House Council of Economic Advisers before returning to his hometown of Longmeadow. Lesser’s time in national political circles will, presumably, translate into campaign donations from out-of-state contacts—donations that could help him build a significantly bigger war chest than competitors who lack those kinds of connections. (Whether that plays out, however, remains to be seen; candidates for state Senate do not need to file campaign finance reports until this fall.)

Allen said his proposal does not target any particular candidate. “The idea stands on its own,” he said. “This isn’t about Eric Lesser. This is about good policy and good, fair democracy, and people having some self-determination in their own area.

“It’s a local race. We’re trying to elect someone who’s going to represent this area well,” Allen added.

The day after Allen called for the pledge via press release, Lesser told the Advocate that he’d not yet had a chance to talk to Allen about the idea and was therefore not ready to accept or decline the suggestion. “I don’t have enough detail on the proposal,” Lesser said. While he agrees with Allen “that we need to limit the influence of money in politics,” he said, “I’m not prepared in that current version to accept that [pledge].”

Lesser emphasized his local roots—his first foray into politics, he said, came as a teenager, organizing support for a Proposition 2 1/2 override to increase the school budget in Longmeadow—and described his campaign as a grassroots effort that relies heavily on local volunteers. “My orientation to politics and my philosophy on politics is that it begins on the grassroots levels, and it’s volunteers and community members first,” he said.

Those local connections, he said, are complemented by his national political experience. “The work I’ve done and the friendships I’ve developed beyond Western Massachusetts I think will make me a more effective advocate for local issues,” such as fighting for funding for local projects, he said. “I will have a group of people and a group of relationships already established that I’ll be ready to call on.”

“What is the future for our communities here, the future for Springfield, Chicopee, Ludlow, for all the cities and towns in Western Mass., if we build a wall around ourselves and we say, ‘Nobody need enter’? The world is becoming increasingly connected, and we need to encourage greater collaboration, greater investment—not the other way around,” he added.

Lesser told the Advocate that he has seen “a significant amount of both in-district and in-state support” in his fundraising, but said he has not done the accounting to say how many of his donations came from Massachusetts and how many from outside the state at this point.

 

At least one of the Senate candidates promptly agreed to the pledge: Harrington.

The same day Allen proposed his pledge, Harrington responded with a campaign release accepting the terms and suggesting the candidates also agree to a $5,000 cap on donations from lobbyists.

“It was, quite frankly, a very easy decision for me,” Harrington told the Advocate. “I don’t think anybody should be influenced by anyone outside the district or certainly the state. …

“This is absolutely the way to go. It shows transparency,” he added.

To date, Harrington said, all his campaign contributions have come from residents of the Senate district. While it’s reasonable to expect that a candidate might receive some donations from family or close friends who live outside the district, he said, a line should be drawn against accepting money from people outside Massachusetts who want to influence a local campaign.

So, too, should a line be drawn when it comes to accepting money from lobbyists, Harrington continued. “Even before I made my formal announcement, I kind of made a pledge to myself [that] I’m not going to allow any lobbyists to …. influence me as a legislator,” he said. As a former Statehouse worker (he was an aide to state Rep. Tom Petrolati in the 1990s), Harrington said, he’s seen firsthand the relationships that can develop between lawmakers and Boston lobbyists: “When the lobbyists write the check, they expect you to answer the phone when they call.” He’s more interested, he said, in answering calls from constituents.

While he hopes all the contenders in the race agree to the suggested pledges, Harrington said, “Each candidate is certainly going to have to make up their own mind how they’re going to pursue this thing.”

Allen and Lesser both told the Advocate that they were open to Harrington’s suggestion of capping lobbyist donations, but said that they’d need to consider the specifics before committing to accepting it.•

 

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