El Presidente’s Mayoral coup
After a vigorous three weeks of door-to-door, boots-on-the-ground organizing, 16 of the original 24 candidates remain in Boston’s mayoral race. Candidates had to turn a minimum of 3000 signatures in to city hall by 5 p.m. on Tuesday in order to secure their place on the preliminary election ballot in September.
A figure of intense loathing to many for his blog’s sexist portrayal of women, and a local celebrity to others for his bawdy frat-house humor and sports coverage, Portnoy’s candidacy is a longshot—especially alongside seasoned pols like City Councilor John Connolly. Despite having a strong fan base amongst the keg stand crowd, one has to wonder: how did 3000 people agree to give him a shot at being mayor?
The simple answer: he paid for it.
In an interview, Portnoy acknowledged having hired out much of the job to a company that specializes in gathering signatures for petitions.
“Once we started the process, we realized it was really difficult to do,” Portnoy said. “Without hiring an outside firm, we wouldn’t have hit the number.”
According to Portnoy, his campaign paid $5 per signature gathered. If a third-party company provided even half of the alleged 4,500 signatures he collected, it would mean Portnoy spent at least $11,250 to keep his hat in the race.
Freedom Petition, the Worcester-based company hired by Portnoy’s campaign, has a credentials list reaching back over 10 years. They’ve worked with political groups from all corners of the ideological spectrum, including a number of longshot candidates for higher office like Thomas Hall of the Natural Law Party, former Green Party Presidential candidate Ralph Nader, and former Libertarian senate candidate Michael Cloud.
“We do a lot of statewide things in New England. And initiatives,” Freedom Petition Owner Rob Wilkinson told the Dig. Indeed, Freedom Petition was contracted by pro-cannabis reform groups in 2007 to get marijuana related issues and Public Policy Questions on the ballot—initiatives that helped lead to marijuana’s decriminalization in 2008 and legalization for medical purposes this year.
Wilkinson said that Freedom Petition doesn’t usually take contracts for local political campaigns, and that no other candidates in the Mayor’s race have used his services.
“It’s rare that I get into something that small,” Wilkinson said.
This phenomenon goes well beyond of local elections and Massachusetts politics, however. Despite coming directly at odds with notions of traditional grassroots organizing, paid signature gathering has long been a feature of the political landscape (despite several attempts over the years to outlaw it).
For instance, in late 2011, while Wisconsin Democrats had thousands of volunteers canvassing the state to collect signatures to recall Governor Scott Walker, the state Republican Party decided to circumvent the pesky need for volunteers by hiring a regional signature-gathering agency named Kennedy Enterprises. Kennedy sent paid gatherers into the field, and successfully collected enough signatures to force the recall of three Democratic state senators.
It was later revealed that the signature gatherers repeatedly lied to signers, saying it was for work on a local park, or to recall a Republican Senator instead of a Democrat. Thousands of signers in central Wisconsin would later say that they were mislead about what they were signing, and in some cases never signed at all.
Thankfully, according to John Walsh, chair of the Massachusetts Democratic Party, it’s generally uncommon for candidates to pay a company to gather signatures for them. Traditional wisdom dictates that it underutilizes what can be an important part of the electoral process: getting volunteers on the ground, interacting with potential voters, building one’s base of support.
“When you pay someone to do it, you forgo that opportunity,” Walsh said. “I don’t think anyone would suggest it.”
Portnoy’s net worth is estimated at $2 million, and he runs a successful media company that continues to generate revenue. He could shell out a few thousand for a bad weekend in Vegas and not bat an eyelash. But that doesn’t mean he’ll be able to simply pay his way through each step of the election. In order to tap into his pool of potential voters, he needs real campaign machinery.
“Our demo isn’t on the traditional campaign trail, I don’t think that’s how we’re going to win. It’s going to center on making the city of Boston more appealing for the young professional crowd, which has been lost a bit over the last decade,” Portnoy said.
Nevertheless, the terms of Portnoy’s appearance on the ballot highlights a painfully simple truth about money in politics: if you have money, you can afford to get into politics.