The campaign money man

Sullivan makes sure candidates follow the rules and also sets some rules

MICHAEL SULLIVAN FOLLOWS the money.

Sullivan is the director of the state Office of Campaign and Political Finance, which monitors and publicizes how candidates for office in Massachusetts raise and spend their campaign cash. He makes sure politicians follow the rules, and in some cases he has to set the rules.

He recently proposed a new rule covering expenditures by unions on behalf of political candidates. Labor unions are currently allowed to give no more than $15,000, or 10 percent of their gross income, to a political candidate before having to register as a political committee and face tighter regulation. Sullivan’s proposal would impose a $1,000 limit on union contributions to political candidates, a $500 limit on contributions to political action committees, and a $5,000 limit on donations to a political party’s committee.

The issue came to the fore after the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court upheld a ban on corporate donations to candidates. That case was brought by two men who serve on the board of the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance, which has repeatedly argued that it was unfair that unions could give large amounts of money to candidates for office when companies could not. After the decision came down, the advocacy group Common Cause urged Sullivan’s office to review the existing rules on union donations, which led to the proposed rule.

The Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance is now trying to entice the US Supreme Court to weigh in on the state’s ban on corporate political donations even though the organization’s chief public argument – that unions are benefiting from a loophole in the law – appears to be closing. Sullivan said the case filed with the US Supreme Court is focused on giving corporations the right to donate to state political candidates and has nothing to do with the so-called union loophole issue. “There’s a conflation of the two issues and in the public’s mind that’s as good as gold for people pushing that agenda,” he said on CommonWealth’s Codcast.

He also said the “union loophole” hasn’t been that big of a loophole. “There’s been a race here or there [Marty Walsh received big union donations in his initial run for mayor of Boston], but not to the extent it’s made out to be, quite frankly. If you look in 2017 and 2018, there were very few $15,000 checks floating around,” Sullivan said.

Sullivan also talked about the power of money in Massachusetts politics. “Our studies show people who raise the most money win the races 90-something percent of the time,” he said.

According to the website of the Office of Campaign and Political Finance, Sen. Mark Montigny of New Bedford would appear to be a prime example of the power of money. Montigny had more than $890,000 in his campaign account at the end of 2018, which is actually down a bit. (At the end of 2009, he had more than $1.2 million in the account.) Since 2002, Montigny has run unopposed during each election except for once in a Democratic primary (2006) and once in a general election (2008). He won both times easily.

Meet the Author

Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

A handful of states have tried to limit this power of incumbency by restricting how much money a candidate can roll over from one campaign to the next. Sullivan steered clear of making any policy recommendations to the Legislature, but he acknowledged: “I don’t know how that would fly here.”

He also raised an interesting issue about how campaign receipts and expenditures are reported in Massachusetts. He noted statewide candidates have to maintain depository accounts, where all funds coming into and out of the campaign are reported by the bank holding the candidate’s money. He said depository accounts are accurate and precise, and he would like to see their use extended to legislative candidates, who are currently allowed to handle the accounting on their own.