StateLine: Mass. pols heavy on cash, not opposition

Tom Benner

When you're a Massachusetts politician, you can't be too rich.

That's the axiom of the many state politicians who maintain six-figure campaign accounts -- in three cases, million-dollar accounts -- even if they haven't faced a serious election opponent in years.

Massachusetts politicians are allowed, under the laws they write, to amass as much money as they want in their campaign kitties. Money comes from special interests trying to sway their votes, donors who may or may not live in the districts they represent, and fellow politicians hoping to buy goodwill among colleagues.

The pols can spend the money on virtually anything, from leased vehicles and meals at pricey restaurants to gifts and flowers for constituents.

Government watchdogs have long complained that elected officials, particularly those who run unopposed, allow themselves to raise far too much money. The money gets spent on items that are a far cry from the lawn signs and fliers typically associated with political campaigns.

The rules allow even retired politicos to maintain campaign accounts, accept donations and spend money. Former House Speaker Thomas Finneran, for example, now a radio talk-show host, closed the year 2006 with $169,587 in his campaign account. Former Senate Presidents William Bulger and Thomas Birmingham also maintain open campaign accounts, although Birmingham's account dwindled from $2.2 million in 2000 to $55,000 at the end of 2006, records show.

All spending has to meet one requirement only: It must be "for the enhancement of the political future of the candidate," according to the rules set by lawmakers. Candidates may receive no more than $500 a year from an individual donor. 

Politicians don't publicize who gives them money and how they spend it, but the information is publicly available. The clearinghouse for campaign finance activity, the Office of Campaign and Political Finance, maintains a Web site, mass.gov/ocpf, that allows anyone to punch in the names of elected state and county officials to follow the campaign money.

Two statewide officeholders have million-dollar accounts: state Treasurer Timothy Cahill has $2.5 million, and Secretary of State William Galvin has $1.8 million, both as of July 31. Among legislators, as of Dec. 31, 2006, the latest figures available for lawmakers, Sen. Mark Montigny, a New Bedford Democrat, tops the list with more than $1 million in his campaign account.

Closely trailing Montigny are two senators who have since left office: Jarrett Barrios of Cambridge, with $552,976, and Robert Travaglini of East Boston, with $296,788.  Despite exiting elected office, both pols have kept their accounts open for business.

Sen. Michael Morrissey, a Quincy Democrat first elected to the State House in 1977 who hasn't faced a formidable opponent in most elections since, has $291,830 on hand. Sen. Joan Menard, a Fall River Democrat has $271,200, even though she ran unapposed last year. So did Sen. Marc Pacheco, yet the Taunton Democrat has $224,034.

Senate President Therese Murray of Plymouth, who fell just shy of the top 10 Senate campaign accounts with a $126,835 balance as of Dec. 31, took in $232,593 in contributions in 2006, with a generous helping of donations from out-of-district corporate and legal heavies reflecting her role as the top Senate Democrat.

Murray's spending in 2006 included $603 monthly payments on a Chrysler vehicle lease, monthly mobile phone bills ranging from $200 to more than $700, and thousands in consulting fees: $16,975 to Creative Strategies & Communications and $6,000 to The Point Group. Murray also contributed $10,000 for the Democratic gubernatorial ticket, and $2,500 to the state Democratic party.

On the House side, the biggest campaign account belongs to Rep. Peter Koutoujian, a Waltham Democrat with $360,582, just $7,000 less than Gov. Deval Patrick. House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi, a Boston Democrat, has $324,314.

Government watchdog groups have tried unsuccessfully to tighten restrictions on contributions and spending, saying big money has a corrupting influence on public figures.

“Massachusetts is certainly not the most lax state, and it certainly isn't the most restrictive,” said Pamela Wilmot of Massachusetts Common Cause.

For example, seven states prohibit carrying over campaign funds from one election to another, while other states have no restrictions whatsoever, she said.

U.S. senators and congressmen, who operate under separate Federal Election Commission rules, also have no limits on the size of their campaign coffers. U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy has $6.2 million in his campaign account, with U.S. Sen. John Kerry just behind at $6.1 million.

U.S. Rep. Ed Markey of Malden leads all Bay State representatives with $2.2 million in his account, followed by U.S. Rep. William Delahunt of Quincy with $1.8 million. U.S. Rep. Barney Frank of Newton has $591,735; U.S. Rep. James McGovern of Worcester has $297,271; and Congressman Stephen Lynch of South Boston has $1 million.

The Patriot Ledger