Some Senate Hopefuls Cry Foul Over Union Money Loophole
LOWELL -- Scrolling down campaign-finance reports for candidates in the 1st Middlesex Senate District, you see a plethora of $25, $50, $100, $250 and $500 donations.
But then there’s John Drinkwater’s campaign-finance report -- causing one to stop scrolling their computer mouse.
The legislative director for the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, boosted by unions throughout the campaign, received two significant donations: $5,000 from I.B.E.W. Local 103, based in Dorchester; and $2,500 from I.U.P.A.T District Council #35, based in Roslindale.
These noteworthy contributions and tens of thousands of dollars from other unions led to Drinkwater raising the most money in the crowded primary field.
In the wake of this campaign-finance report, the executive director of the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance is sounding the alarm on “the most unfair campaign finance law in the country.” Paul Craney, the executive director, says Drinkwater is using the “union loophole” to help fund his campaign.
Unions and non-profits that aren’t corporate-funded can give up to $15,000 to a single candidate in a year, which is 15 times the limit on an individual contribution ($1,000). The founder of Craney’s group, congressional candidate Rick Green, has filed a case on this issue with the state Supreme Judicial Court, arguing that campaign-finance laws in Massachusetts favor unions and disadvantage employers.
“The law is clear, but it’s completely unfair,” Craney said Wednesday. “We’ve seen time and time again candidates exploiting this loophole and win close elections.
“It’s quite an advantage you got there,” he added.
Drinkwater strongly defended his fundraising on Wednesday, saying he doesn’t believe the union threshold gives him an advantage, adding that he disagrees with the characterization of a “loophole.”
The union money is from working-class people who can’t afford to donate significant sums, Drinkwater said.
On the other hand, he said a candidate can get five wealthy people together in a room, who have very specific business interests, and the candidate can walk away with $5,000.
“The unions get to pool their money together, and make sure the average working people are represented,” Drinkwater said.
“All of our contributions are totally legal and completely transparent,” he added.
If elected, would Drinkwater represent unions or the people of the 1st Middlesex District? He said “absolutely without question” the people in the district.
“I believe truly that I can be the best advocate for everyone in the 1st Middlesex,” Drinkwater said. “From the very beginning of this campaign, I haven’t been shy about advocating for working people. Having a strong labor movement will ultimately help everyone in the 1st Middlesex.”
Drinkwater, a newcomer to politics in Lowell, easily raised more money than his veteran competitors in the district. His total this period was $74,173.
Former City Councilor Bill Martin raised $57,750 this period; he had a beginning balance of $13,104, bringing his total to $70,854.
City Councilor Rodney Elliott accumulated $24,849 this period; his beginning balance was $21,749, resulting in a total of $46,598.
City Councilor Edward Kennedy had $24,813 in receipts this period; he had a beginning balance of $15,175, bringing his total to $39,988.
Former Westford School Committee member Terry Ryan had $36,072 in receipts this period; his beginning balance was $443, resulting in a total of $36,516.
When asked about the union contributions for Drinkwater, Elliott said the “playing field should be leveled.”
“We need to reform campaign-finance laws to make the election process more fair,” Elliott said. “Elections shouldn’t be about fundraising. It should be about the issues.”
Money from outside the district is always a concern, he added.
“Voters will be concerned the candidate will make decisions for outside influences,” Elliott said. “You should stick to your roots within your district. Those are the individuals we’re running to represent.”
Even though a union may have an office located in Boston or outside the district, those unions have members who live here in the district, Drinkwater responded.
“Many of the union members live and work across the state, so I disagree with that characterization,” Drinkwater said.
Kennedy said the entire way campaigns are financed should be overhauled.
“Money is playing way too much of a factor in campaigns,” he said. “You can have special-interest groups spending a lot of money to put forward their message.”
When asked about Drinkwater’s fundraising, Martin said he was focusing on raising money within his own network.
“I haven’t had a chance to see where his money came from,” Martin said. “I’m just humbled and gratified that so many people have contributed to our effort.”
Ryan, like Elliott, said money should come from within the district.
“I raised money from hard-working people in the district, and I’m proud of the donations I received,” Ryan said.
Should the Supreme Judicial Court side with the founder of the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance? Drinkwater said he hopes the court rules against the founder, adding that he doesn’t believe businesses should be able to give directly to candidates. That would be “absolutely disastrous,” Drinkwater said.
“There’s already too much corporate money in politics,” he said. “I definitely don’t think we need more.”
Information from the State House News Service was used in this report.
Follow Rick Sobey on Twitter @rsobeyLSun.