People’s Pledge becomes flashpoint in Senate primary race

Markey, in shift from 2013, wants a carveout for ‘progressive organizations’

IN A US SENATE PRIMARY RACE where disagreements have been scarce, the issue of campaign funds has suddenly become a flashpoint for incumbent Ed Markey and challengers Joe Kennedy III and Shannon Liss-Riordan.

Kennedy and Liss-Riordan held a press conference on Monday where they called for a race funded only by direct campaign contributions. “No dark money. No unlimited spending. No independent expenditures. No SuperPACs. No loopholes,” Kennedy said.

Markey responded with his own proposal, calling for a ban on all negative advertising funded by outside groups. He said “positive campaign advertising” by “progressive organizations” should be allowed.

“We do not want to stifle or silence the positive voices that have a right to discuss the issues that matter most to residents of Massachusetts – the reproductive health community, labor unions, environmental and climate advocates, the LGBTQI+ community, among many others,” he said in a press release.

All three candidates appear to be seeking an advantage in the discussion around outside campaign spending. Liss-Riordan, who is self-funding much of her campaign, wants to limit outside spending on behalf of her opponents. The pledge may limit Kennedy’s outside help, but he apparently figures he will be hurt less than Markey, who stands to benefit from the support of a number of big spenders that tend to favor incumbents. Markey, meanwhile, is refusing to sign on to the pledge backed by Liss-Riordan and Kennedy because he says it would hinder progressive groups he is targeting in his campaign. “We need these positive, engaged, and active voices in our political debate in 2020,” he said.

Labor attorney Shannon Liss-Riordan signs a pact to keep outside money out of the 2020 Senate race, an agreement that can only go into effect if Sen. Ed Markey also signs. (Photo by Sarah Betancourt)

The money debate is a replay of sorts of what happened in 2012, when Elizabeth Warren challenged then-US Sen. Scott Brown and the two candidates agreed to a People’s Pledge, which sought to limit the influence of outside money in the race. Many hailed the Brown-Warren People’s Pledge as a major campaign finance innovation, one that helped bring civility to the race.

Kennedy first broached a repeat of the People’s Pledge in September and has been pestering Markey to sign on ever since. After claiming that Markey has been ducking them on the issue, Kennedy and Liss-Riordan decided to go ahead and sign a blow-up of the People’s Pledge at Liss-Riordan’s campaign headquarters.

Markey’s campaign denied he has been ducking Kennedy and Liss-Riordan on the People’s Pledge issue. In a statement, he voiced support for what he called an “updated” People’s Pledge, one that would ban all negative ads while allowing positive ads by progressive groups.

The People’s Pledge backed by Kennedy and Liss-Riordan would require the candidate who benefits from an independent expenditure on television, radio, digital, or direct mail to donate half of the ad’s cost to a charity of the other two opponents’ choosing.

Under Markey’s version of the pledge, there would be no financial penalty. All three campaigns would first have to agree that a negative ad had been run and then hold a joint press conference condemning the ad and calling for it to be pulled from the air.

During the 2013 US Senate Democratic primary, Markey and Stephen Lynch agreed to the penalty in the original People’s Pledge. Markey also criticized his Republican opponent, Gabriel Gomez, for not signing the pledge.

Liss-Riordan highlighted the shift in Markey’s thinking on Monday. “Sen. Markey, the person who described accepting outside money as ‘political pollution’ just a few years ago, seems to no longer believe that special interest money has no role in our politics,” she said.

Kennedy said Markey’s exception for positive messages undermined the whole point of the People’s Pledge. “That’s a loophole big enough to drive a truck through,” he said. “Anybody can come up with a positive message. Any interest, any corporation, has something positive to say. That loophole swallows the rule.”

The People’s Pledge backed by Kennedy and Liss-Riordan would penalize Markey for independent expenditures made by the many environmental groups supporting him, including Environment Massachusetts, which announced a $5 million independent expenditure campaign in September to support the senator’s re-election.

Kennedy himself has had outside committee contributions to his campaign, including from the General Electric Company Political Action Committee ($3,000 in August) and Comcast Corporation & NBC Universal PAC ($2,500, also in August), among many others. From January through September, Kennedy lists a total of over $241,000 in “other committee contributions.” Markey dwarfed that amount, with more than $529,000 in “other committee contributions. Liss-Riordan had $6,500.

Comparing Markey’s version of the People’s Pledge to the original 2012 People’s Pledge by Warren and Brown isn’t quite fair, according to John Walsh, senior campaign director for the senator. Citing election interference of outside groups and countries under President Donald Trump, he thinks makes for a different playing field.

Walsh pointed out that labor unions have endorsed all three candidates. “If they want to spend money advocating to members and to the people at large that Joe or Shannon are great, we’re not interested in limiting that,” he said.

Meet the Author

Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth magazine

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

Liss-Riordan has been endorsed by a group of IBEW local unions representing telephone workers. Kennedy is supported by Teamsters Local 25 and the Massachusetts State Council of Machinists. Markey still carries the backing of government service union AFSCME Council 93.

Any People’s Pledge would not take effect until all three candidates sign on, which means a People’s Pledge is unlikely to take effect.