With union loophole closed, super PACs on rise

Citizens United is enabling more political speech

BOSTON’S POLITICAL LANDSCAPE is about to undergo it’s second seismic shift in under a decade, and this one couldn’t be more different from the event which brought former mayor Marty Walsh into office in 2013. Back then, Walsh won with the help of a “union loophole “in campaign finance law. In this year’s campaign between Michelle Wu and Annissa Essaibi George, that loophole is gone, replaced by the growing emergence of super PACs that in this race have aligned behind both candidates.

The Supreme Court decision Citizens United enables more political speech through independent expenditures, which are often done through super PACs. Just in the last few days, the Boston Turnout Project super PAC spent $232,000 supporting Wu’s campaign, while the Real Progress Boston super PAC spent $282,000 on behalf of Essaibi George.

This year’s situation couldn’t be more different than the one that occurred in the last open mayoral election in the city. In the closing days of the 2013 race, Walsh received an influx of large, out-of-state direct donations as a result of a union loophole in campaign finance law. This infusion of campaign cash was a major factor in the victory of Walsh, himself a former union boss.

The union loophole had its origins in a footnote to an advisory opinion written by a bureaucrat at the Massachusetts Office of Campaign and Political Finance. The footnote had as much legal standing as a gentleman’s agreement, but it permitted unions to donate up to $15,000 to candidates, while individuals were limited to $1,000 and PACs to $500. Corporations were prohibited from donating anything at all.

The unfair campaign finance limits no longer exist because Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance applied legal, political, and public pressure on the previous director of the Office of Campaign and Political Finance to eliminate the union loophole in May 2019. MassFiscal challenged the union loophole in court and even petitioned the Supreme Court of the United States to right this wrong. In May 2019, while the petition was before the Supreme Court of the United States, the former director at OCPF eventually eliminated this unfair advantage.

On Election Day, Wu and George can rest assured that out-of-state unions are not tipping the scale through the union loophole. Super PACs treat unions, individuals, and corporations the same, which means Wu and George have the same advantages.

Even in some of the state’s most progressive communities, Super PACs have found a receptive audience and there is a demand for them. In Cambridge’s election, left-wing donors are making independent expenditures and spending money to influence “woke” voters. Super PACs are even receiving West Coast “green” money to influence Boston voters. On September 30, a Super PAC run by one of the Environmental League of Massachusetts’ staffers accepted a $50,000 donation from an organization located in California only to spend similar amounts over the next two weeks to bolster Wu in Boston.

Unlike a regular PAC, which can donate directly to a candidate, a super PAC elects or defeats a candidate for office on their own. Super PACs do come with their disadvantages. They have to pay a premium for direct mail. The Republican and Democratic parties of Massachusetts have their own non-profit mail permit, as do most non-profits, but super PACs do not. The difference can add up quickly when doing large volumes of direct mail.

Super PAC messages can become a distraction for the candidate they are trying to help. Case in point, the super PAC helping Essaibi George in Boston came under fire because one of its largest donors was a well-known donor to former president Donald Trump. While that is very helpful in a Republican primary, it’s not so much in a Boston election. Similarly, a super PAC affiliated with Gov. Charlie Baker attempted to help several candidates last year, but sent mixed signals when it sent out mailers supporting one candidate while using a photo of a different candidate.

Meet the Author

Paul D. Craney

Board Member & Spokesman, Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance
In the end, super PACs often have limited success and voters sometimes tune them out. However, there is a demand for them in Massachusetts elections and there’s none for the defunct union loophole. You can thank the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance for its work in closing the union loophole and preventing another Boston mayoral race from being tainted, and thank the Supreme Court for its Citizens United decision, which provides more voices in elections.

Paul Diego Craney is the spokesperson for Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance.