An unexpected test is emerging in the early going of next year’s election for state office. How well can those who would lead us navigate the state’s campaign finance laws?
It should not be as complicated as it has become. The hand of government, however, continues to regulate what candidates can say and do in return for the tens of millions it doles out in taxpayer funds to campaigns.
Luke Bronin, halfway though his first term as mayor of Hartford, announced on Dec. 7 that he will explore a race for governor. If you harbor any doubts about Bronin as a continuation of the failed Malloy administration, toss them away. Right out of the gate, Bronin’s unseemly fundraising practices reminded the world he is Malloy’s boy.
On announcement day, Bronin sent an email to many people sharing his news and seeking contributions. Among those recipients were city employees, who found the message in their city email account inbox. Dan Drew, the Middletown mayor seeking the Democratic nomination for governor, got into trouble when he obtained a protected list of city employees’ home addresses and used it to solicit them for money. Drew faced a ferocious backlash for his heavy handed tactics, including a call in a Courant editorial to exit the race.
When these egregious acts occur, candidates may be surprised that people they think should be their natural supporters quickly let others like me know about them. They should not be. Mayors develop a proprietary sense of their city’s employees that workers often do not share.
When the Bronin email was exposed, his campaign addressed it in a telling manner that serves as a cautionary tale. While Bronin attached his name to the offending message, his campaign manager issued the apology that was sent to scores of city employees who’d received the offending solicitation.
The rules for people who are exploring a candidacy before declaring for an office can confound the most experienced enforcers of the law. Tim Sullivan, a political activist who works for the New England Regional Council of Carpenters, pays attention to campaigns and appears to enjoy a keen understanding of our complex laws.
Sullivan noticed that former federal prosecutor Christopher Mattei placed himself in that murky area of a candidate exploring a run for statewide office earlier this year. By not designating an office, a candidate is limited in what he can say about his intentions. In return, he can accept a maximum $375 contribution from each supporter, instead of the $100 for candidates who have declared for a specific office.
You can see from that brief explanation of just one part of the rules how complicated this can become. Last summer, the Boston Herald featured a piece on its opinion page hailing Mattei as a fine prospect for governor. It seemed an odd place for it at the time since the Herald pays little attention to Connecticut politics and does not run puff pieces for candidates as left wing as Mattei.
Still, there it was and it soon began appearing in Mattei fundraising emails. A case can be made under our campaign finance rules that if you are exploring a campaign for an undeclared office and disseminate something (like an early union endorsement, for instance) that says you would make a fine governor it may count as a declaration of candidacy and require you to take certain acts.
It has happened to others and now it has happened to Mattei. Sullivan filed a carefully written complaint against Mattei, alleging he has broken some campaign finance rules. “This is the guy who decided who to prosecute,” Sullivan said last week. Mattei made his name pursuing federal campaign finance violations and putting people in jail for them.
The Mattei campaign spokeswoman Julie Edwards told the Connecticut Post the complaint is “politics as usual” and the sort of thing people are sick of and that Democrat Mattei, now settled on a run for attorney general, “has been fighting his whole career.”
Hold on, Sullivan’s complaint points out and requests action on possible campaign finance violations. That’s what Mattei says he spent his career doing, but now belittles. On Wednesday the State Election Enforcement Commission will have a chance to investigate Sullivan’s complaint. It should proceed because the rules need to be clear, fair and equal. No candidate should object to that.
Kevin Rennie is a lawyer and a former Republican state legislator. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.