Tran’s ethics problems at heart of reelection campaign
2 senators on Ethics Committee contribute to Cronin
ON MARCH 26, the Senate disciplined Fitchburg Republican Dean Tran for using his State House staff to do campaign work – stripping him of his leadership position for the rest of this term, removing him physically from his office, and requiring him to communicate with aides by email only.
Two days later Democrat John Cronin of Lunenburg, who had opened a campaign account for a Senate run in late February, formally announced his candidacy. Incumbents rarely lose on Beacon Hill, but Cronin clearly thought Tran’s ethical problems made him vulnerable, giving the Democrat the opening to take out one of the four Republicans left in the 40-member Senate.
Cronin, a 30-year-old newcomer to politics who is working toward a law degree at Suffolk University after graduating from West Point and serving two tours in Afghanistan, is happy to talk about issues facing the district. But he is upfront about how Tran’s support for President Trump and the senator’s ethics problems on Beacon Hill are center stage in the campaign.
“My background is in leadership,” he says, referring to his military service. “I don’t know how you can lead if you can’t speak with your staff or be in the same office with them.”
In August, when he announced his campaign for reelection, Tran characterized the report by the Senate Ethics Committee and the Senate legal counsel as a partisan and politically motivated effort based on anonymous letters. But to the extent that the line between campaign and official work by his staff had been blurred, he said he apologized and took responsibility.
“I will continue to take my ethical obligations seriously,” he said. “They can tell me where to sit but they cannot tell me how to serve my district.”
The Senate Ethics Committee, which has seven members, including two Republicans, voted unanimously to release the report. Two of the Democrats on the Ethics Committee, Sens. William Brownsberger of Belmont and Michael Barrett of Lexington, have donated $100 each to Cronin’s campaign.
The district, which includes Berlin, Bolton, Clinton, Fitchburg, Gardner, Lancaster, Leominster, Lunenburg, Sterling, Townsend, and Westminster, leans conservative. Trump polled fairly well in many of the communities in 2016 and won two of them.
Tran won a special election in 2017 to replace Democrat Jennifer Flanagan, who was appointed by Gov. Charlie Baker to serve on the Cannabis Control Commission. Between Flanagan and her predecessor, Robert Antonioni, the seat had been in Democratic hands for 24 years.
Tran was born in South Vietnam and came to America with his family when he was four. He served on the Fitchburg City Council for 12 years before finally making the jump to the state Legislature in 2017 after one earlier failed attempt to win a House seat.
Tran is one of the more conservative lawmakers on Beacon Hill. He opposes efforts to create sanctuary cities and turn Massachusetts into a sanctuary state. He voted for legislation that would have deemed a state ban on conversion therapy unconstitutional. He was one of two senators to oppose legislation creating a standardized sex education curriculum and ripped the Senate version of policing reform legislation, which he described as an “ill-conceived and politically driven” attack on law enforcement.
Cronin’s politics are very different. He supports women’s reproductive rights, would vote to keep conversion therapy banned, wants 100 percent renewable energy by 2045, supports a millionaire’s tax, and wants to bring down the cost of commuter rail rides into Boston.
Paul Weizer, a professor of political science at Fitchburg State University, said the race is not easy to handicap because of the pandemic. Weizer lives in the district and has seen little evidence of campaigning – few lawn signs, no campaign mailings, and little to no visibility for either candidate.
“Almost all local politics is meeting people, going to events. It’s personal,” Weizer said. “With COVID, the candidates are generally invisible.”
In such an environment, Weizer said incumbency and the name recognition that comes with it is a big advantage for Tran. While Weizer said turnout for the presidential race is likely to be heavy, the conservative tilt of the district may help Tran. “I’m not sure being a Republican is a big disadvantage for him,” he said.
For Weizer, the race will come down to the disciplinary action by Tran’s Senate colleagues. “It depends on how much voters pay attention and are concerned about his ethics problems,” he said.
The disciplinary action focused on Tran’s use of Senate staffers for campaign activities, including raising money. The punishment was embarrassing because Tran was kicked out of his own office.
The Senate Ethics Committee said it also received an anonymous letter questioning Tran’s filing of an amendment in October 2019 on behalf of Leominster developer Gregg Liscotti. The committee took no action on the amendment, issue, referring the matter to the State Ethics Commission and the Office of Campaign and Political Finance, neither of which have taken any action.
The amendment filed by Tran would have eliminated the ability of towns in Barnstable County to make discretionary referrals for projects under 10,000 square feet to the Cape Cod Commission for review. Liscotti presumably had projects of that size he wanted to pursue on the Cape, but he declined to comment.
Officials from the Cape howled about the amendment, which was hastily withdrawn. Liscotti, who is the chair of the Massachusetts Majority PAC, which is affiliated with Gov. Charlie Baker and pays for campaign mailings supporting Republican and Democratic candidates, personally donated $1,000 to Tran in September 2018. Tran’s campaign finance report indicates the senator returned the contribution in December 2019.
Tran is also dogged by a criminal investigation by Fitchburg police and Attorney General Maura Healey’s office into a murky dispute involving an elderly woman and guns belonging to her late husband that Tran allegedly took. The incident occurred in 2019. No charges have been filed.
Cronin, despite being a newcomer, has been raising more money than Tran. According to campaign finance records, Tran came into this year with $54,761 in his account, raised another $56,925, and spent $58,667. In addition to a number of campaign expenditures, his campaign donated $7,500 to a legal defense fund Tran established for himself. The defense fund had raised a little over $25,000 by the end of July. Defense funds are not required to list expenditures.Cronin has raised $111,184 so far this year, buttressed by a $30,000 loan he made to his own campaign on April 17.
“It’s my life savings,” Cronin said of the loan. “Most people would have used it to get a mortgage on a house. I put my life savings into my campaign.”