Can the Commonwealth have a governor’s race about issues when money is the only thing that matters?
Setti Warren’s decision to drop his bid for Mass governor last month shocked those who closely follow Bay State politics. More than the announcement itself, however, what’s alarming for some is the context of the former Newton mayor’s departure and the light it shines on major issues facing Commonwealth progressives in 2018. In extinguishing his candidacy, Warren, after all, cited the lack of campaign funds to compete with popular Republican Gov. Charlie Baker.
“Even though we raised a lot of money from small-dollar donations, raising the kind of money we need to build a grassroots campaign that can take on Charlie Baker has been our biggest challenge from day one,” Warren said in a statement. “I have come to the difficult realization that this challenge is insurmountable. The money just isn’t there to run the kind of campaign I want to run.”
In the end, Warren had just $51,644.43 in the bank, and only once was his campaign able to get over the $100,000 marker. For reference, Baker spent $111,776.59 in campaign funds over the first two weeks of April alone. (The governor’s total campaign balance is nearly $8 million as of his filing on April 15.)
The financial situation isn’t much better for the two remaining candidates for the Democratic nomination—Bob Massie and Jay Gonzalez. At the time of this writing, Massie, an environmental activist and former candidate for lieutenant governor, is sitting on less than $20,000, while Gonzalez, the former secretary of administration and finance in the Deval Patrick administration, is hanging in a bit stronger at about $144,000.
Regarding Warren’s dropping out, it’s not unusual for certain campaigns to flounder due to inadequate funding. But it’s nonetheless a bit strange (or unsettling, depending on whom you ask) in a blue state, especially for a locally popular Dem from a wealthy suburb of Boston like him to flame out so long before the September primary.
“I think it is certainly discouraging,” Rep. Mike Connolly (D-Cambridge, Somerville) told DigBoston. While Baker’s opponents have fought hard to make this election about issues, the underlying predicament of the governor’s race has been the campaign finance disparity between the governor and his challengers. Connolly continued, “We have plenty to criticize Charlie Baker for.”
Issues drive political campaigns, but the influence of big spending tips the scales. In 2014, former popular Mass Attorney General Martha Coakley led Baker in an average of polls until the final week of the campaign, but Baker’s campaign outspent hers by more than $7 million, and in the end, the current gov beat Coakley by 2 percent of the overall vote.
“Up until [the 2014] election, Massachusetts has mostly held the line against massive infusions of outside spending in its politics,” Renée Loth wrote for WBUR. “But the 2014 campaign signaled an end to this distinction, as the US Supreme Court struck down donor limits and the People’s Pledge was thrown to the winds.”
Big-time campaign spending is an inherent foil to progressive politics. The left wing of the American political spectrum does not share anything close the same donor class as the right, for obvious reasons like taxation and antitrust legislation.
But the squeezing of the gubernatorial challengers isn’t just a symptom of right-wing moneyed interests.
In an election season oozing with Democratic enthusiasm and the general liberal desire to unseat every conservative on the map, the party itself has shown little interest in engaging with the Bay State’s Republican governor.
“Charlie, I think, is very popular and is doing a good job,” Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo, vice chairwoman of Democratic Governors Association, said at a national governors meeting in February. “I’ve enjoyed working with him, and we have a good bipartisan, collaborative relationship.”
Democratic support for Baker isn’t exclusive to Commonwealth outsiders either. Influential Massachusetts liberals have backed Baker too, while Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, who hasn’t officially backed the gov, has a well-known working bromance with Baker. Since July of 2015, former Democratic House Representative and current UMass President Marty Meehan even donated $3,750 to Baker and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito.
In April, Lawrence Mayor Daniel Rivera endorsed the governor’s reelection bid, citing their good relationship, as well as Baker’s refutation of the claims from President Trump and the governors of New Hampshire and Maine that the Merrimack Valley city has been the primary source of the region’s opioid epidemic. In 2014, Lawrence went heavily for Baker’s opponent, Martha Coakley, with the Democrat grabbing about 70 percent of the vote in the gubernatorial race. Driving out blue voters in cities like Lawrence will be integral to any hopes the party has at retaking the corner office, so endorsements like Rivera’s could be particularly damning. Never mind Baker’s reluctance to see Mass become a sanctuary state, a position that’s come under the fire of immigrant advocates recently. The support of Rivera and other seemingly unlikely Dems remains.
“It’s more than just money,” Rep. Connolly said. “It’s an overall failure by the Democratic Party to find themselves in this position.”
Despite the hindrance of big money and the Democratic establishment, progressives, some of whom have historically worked outside of the major party folds, have made strident gains over the past few election cycles, galvanized by the Occupy movement and Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign. The 2017 elections marked a high point for left-wing politics in Massachusetts. In the Greater Boston area, eight of the 10 candidates endorsed by the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) won their races for local office.
“In my communities, we’ve witnessed nothing short of a revolution,” said Connolly, who represents parts of Cambridge and Somerville and was initially driven to electoral politics by the influence of money on campaigns. “Short term, I think we can look and we can see that some very exciting things are happening.”
Connolly said that he is optimistic about the Sanders method of raising money for large-scale political campaigns from a plethora of small donations. But that strategy is unlikely to reap the same success for a relatively unknown candidate who lacks the legacy and record of someone like Sanders. As a result, there is a widely held belief that more so than their conservative counterparts, progressives need to continue to build that political infrastructure at the lower levels to eventually cultivate the organization to run candidates for higher office.
“Overall, I’d say there are a lot of hopeful things happening,” Connolly said, “but that needs to be sustained and percolate to the top.”
In the longer term, many progressives advocate for legislation overturning the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, publicly financing elections, and employing ranked-choice voting.
“I think the Democratic Party itself needs to rethink many of its procedures in order to bring younger people and people with new ideas,” Massie said at a recent candidates forum. “The system itself is broken. I fought for clean elections and public financed [elections] not recently, in 2000. And that was gutted by a Democratic legislature.”
With Setti Warren out of the picture, it’s a two-horse race for the Democratic nomination.
Jay Gonzalez and Bob Massie will first head to the state Democratic Convention in June, where they will both likely coast to the 15 percent delegate threshold for ballot access and will also vie for the party’s official endorsement. (Whichever candidate picks up a majority of the delegate vote earns the endorsement, which counts for relatively little. Coakley, for example, lost the delegate battle to former Mass Treasurer Steve Grossman in 2014 before winning the September primary.)
Both candidates are pushing platforms to the left of the mainstream Democratic Party, emphasizing the need for single-payer healthcare, environmental sustainability, fixing the T and expanding the commuter rail, and addressing income inequality.
So far, Gonzalez has garnered strong support in Democratic caucuses. While a majority of delegates elected to the state convention in June remain uncommitted, according to Politico, Gonzalez leads the field when it comes to those who have made up their minds, closely followed by Massie and Warren.
And Gonzalez’s proximity to a mainstream Democratic governor like Patrick hasn’t done any damage to his progressive bona fides. State Sen. Jamie Eldridge, part of the backbone of the party’s left wing in the Commonwealth, endorsed Gonzalez early on in the primary. Eldridge referred to Gonzalez as a “bold progressive Democrat who has laid out a vision of investing in our communities, including in education; making progress on social justice, including reforming our criminal justice system; dramatically improving our state’s entire transportation system; and making healthcare a right in Massachusetts” in his endorsement.
“[This election] is about whether we want to continue to have a status quo governor, who basically accepts the world the way it is and tries to manage it better,” Gonzalez said, “versus a governor who wants to aim higher and make a meaningful difference in people’s lives, and make real progress on issues which are holding people back. And that’s what I’m offering.”
Massie, to this point, has run the insurgent anti-establishment campaign of this election.
“I’m the only candidate here who voted for Bernie Sanders,” Massie said at the Suffolk University candidates forum to some whistles and claps from the crowd. “I’m part of the [Sanders-inspired political organization] Our Revolution.”
Massie cleaned house in the ultra-progressive Somerville caucus, picking up 51 of the 62 delegates up for grabs in a room jam-packed with his supporters.
“[Massie] is a lifetime progressive activist, executive leader and systems thinker, not just another politician,” Somerville Alderman Wilfred Mbah said in his endorsement of the candidate. “He’s led campaigns for racial and gender justice going back to the anti-apartheid movement, he’s founded and run environmental and economic efforts nationally and globally, and he’s pioneered efforts on corporate responsibility and accountability. I feel personally connected to him and see him as our next governor.”
Is any of that enough to beat Baker? Only time, and perhaps campaign finances, will tell.
The convention will take place at the DCU Center in Worcester on June 2 before the last-in-the-nation primary on Sept 4.