In 3rd District, Clear Choices on Campaign Funds

October 31, 2018 GMT

For voters in the 3rd Congressional District, the Nov. 6 election is in many ways a referendum on how political campaigns are financed.

Question 2 on the ballot, brought forth by a petition, proposes a commission aimed at limiting the role of money in politics. The area’s congressional race, too, renders the debate in clear terms: each of the three candidates offers a different view.

Lori Trahan, the Democratic nominee, once worked on landmark legislation limiting the role of money in politics, although her campaign today is more successful at fundraising than either of her opponents. Republican nominee Rick Green’s company has waged legal battles attempting to expand the ability of corporations to spend on politics. And Mike Mullen, who is on the ballot as an independent candidate, has called for major structural changes while arguing the current campaign-finance system disproportionately benefits the two major parties.

“These two candidates,” said UMass Lowell political science professor John Cluverius, referring to Trahan and Green, “are really ideal polar opposites on this issue.”

Trahan’s experience on the issue stretches back to the early 2000s, when she worked for then-U.S. Rep. Marty Meehan as an aide and later as chief of staff. Meehan, who represented what is now the 3rd District, co-sponsored the House’s version of the landmark Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, and Trahan, at the time Meehan’s district director, worked to build a coalition of support on the bill.

The legislation, signed into law later that year, had significant effects. Before its passage, political parties could collect unlimited donations and use them on generic advertisements -- a mechanism that experts refer to as “soft money” -- but those ads ended up looking quite similar to the kinds of electioneering communications that might otherwise be permitted. The BCRA placed limits on what national parties could accept from any single source, and it also placed new regulations on what kinds of candidate-related communications corporations and unions could buy close to an election, although those latter portions were effectively gutted with the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United v. FEC decision.

“Opponents of campaign finance reform love to hate (the BCRA), but it’s actually been incredibly effective,” said Tara Malloy, senior director of appellate litigation and strategy at the Campaign Legal Center. “Those restrictions on party soft money are still on the books and pretty effective.”

Trahan has been fairly vocal about campaign finance as an issue on the campaign trail. She often cites her work with Meehan on the 2002 legislation, and she plans to vote yes on Question 2 as part of a broader set of advocacy.

“It was a crushing blow when in 2010, parts of the (BCRA) were overturned by the Citizens United decision,” she said. “But I’ve fought this fight before. I’m ready to go down to Washington and fight it again, and I think that’s the opportunity we have before us.”

Mullen, the race’s independent candidate, agrees with many of Trahan’s points. He, too, plans to vote yes on Question 2, and he, too, wants to see the Citizens United decision overturned.

But Mullen brings a different perspective to the issue as an independent who has run a far smaller campaign than either of his opponents. He provided invitations to recent fundraisers for all three candidates, showing he suggested attendees donate between $25 and $250, whereas Trahan and Green -- who have each raised orders of magnitude more than Mullen -- suggested contributions of anywhere from $500 to $2,700, the maximum an individual can give.

Mullen suggested a range of campaign-finance alternatives, from public funding of elections to “democracy vouchers,” a system of governments granting residents money that could be donated to candidates of their choice.

“I’d like to open it up past the two-party system,” Mullen said. “I think the primary system today is geared toward those parties.”

Green, however, stands apart from the other two. During the campaign, he has been reticent to discuss the topic -- he would not say how he plans to vote on Question 2, and asked broadly for his views on the current state of campaign finance, he said he is only “focused on the Rourke Bridge, Route 2 rotary and the opioid epidemic” -- but his record shows concerted efforts to increase the role of corporate spending and protect anonymity of donors.

Long before he launched a run for Congress, Green founded the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance, an ostensibly non-partisan, non-profit group that has drawn criticism from Democratic leaders in the state. The group, organized as a 501(c)(4), grades politicians on their performance and particularly on their votes regarding taxes, and it has long kept the origin of its hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding a secret. In early October of this year, the Fiscal Alliance -- from which Green stepped away last year -- filed a federal lawsuit seeking an immediate end to enforcement of that law.

Green has been involved in other legal efforts on campaign finance, too. The company he founded with his brother, 1A Auto, was one of the plaintiffs in a case earlier this year that sought to overturn state law banning corporations from donating directly to political candidates. That effort was unsuccessful, with the state’s Supreme Judicial Court ruling that such a ban can help prevent corruption.

In an interview this week, the Republican candidate criticized the decision, saying it was “unfair” that unions are allowed by state law to contribute to candidates while corporations are not. However, he would not say if 1A Auto would have made contributions to campaigns had the company’s case been successful.

“I believe that all voters, regardless of whether they support myself or my opponent, are best served by more political speech and freer political speech, not less political speech or government censored political speech,” Green said.

How voters will cleave on the issue remains unclear. Campaign-finance reform limiting the role of money in politics tends to be popular: a May survey from the Pew Research Center found 77 percent of voters in favor of capping how much individuals and groups could spend on campaigns, and Question 2 -- even if more symbolic than practical -- received support from 72 percent of likely voters polled in October by UMass Lowell and the Boston Globe.

But the topic will at least be on hand come Nov. 6.

Follow Chris on Twitter @ChrisLisinski.