Quentin Palfrey, one of three candidates competing in the Democratic primary for Massachusetts attorney general, wants Beacon Hill to rein in the clout large financial donors have over state politics.
In an exclusive to Boston.com on Thursday, Palfrey called on state lawmakers to address a variety of issues surrounding campaign finance reform, citing his own primary race as a strong example of what needs to change.
“This election is a textbook case of what is wrong with our campaign finance system,” Palfrey said in a statement. “With rich candidates self-financing multi-million dollar advertising campaigns and corporate special interest donors polluting our campaigns through super PACs, big donors have too much power on Beacon Hill and special interest money threatens to drown out grassroots voices in our elections.”
Palfrey, a former assistant attorney general, has been vocally critical of campaign financing practices through out the race leading to the Sept. 6 primary.
Most recently, on Tuesday, his campaign released its first television ad, with a sign-off from Palfrey saying, “The Attorney General’s Office is not for sale.”
He’s called on opponents, labor attorney Shannon Liss-Riordan and former Boston City Councilor Andrea Campbell, to sign a “people’s pledge” — a campaign finance agreement meant to reduce the influence of super PACs in an election.
Liss-Riordan has poured approximately $3 million of her own money into her campaign, with the vast majority of that total having made its way into her war chest in last month.
Still, she and Palfrey have both sworn off corporate donations, while Campbell has not signed the pledge.
Palfrey has repeatedly accused Campbell of taking cash from super PACs. Campbell, in a debate earlier this month, insisted she has taken from only one, the Environmental League of Massachusetts Action Fund.
Palfrey, meanwhile, has opted for funding through the state’s public financing system and received $165,412 last month.
According to the latest state campaign finance filings, Campbell ended last month with the highest balance among the trio, with $691,526 on hand. Liss-Riordan reported $494,352, while Palfrey reported $335,606.
As for reforms, Palfrey is focused on four specific areas: the public financing system, the practice known as “red-boxing,” closing loopholes that allow undisclosed donations, and conflict-of-interest rules for elected officials.
“Some of these specifics are a reaction to the spending that we’re seeing and the donations that we’re seeing happen in real time, but the problem has been with us the entire campaign,” Palfrey said in an interview.
Through the public financing system, initially created in 1975, candidates for various offices, including attorney general, are allowed to receive matching public funds for their campaigns if they agree to abide by statutory spending limits and raise threshold amounts of contributions that qualify.
Palfrey is calling for the expansion of this system, so all candidates who agree to limit their expenditures can be better equipped to “counter the effect of multi-million-dollar self-financed candidates and corporate super PACs.”
In the current election cycle, this system is only available to Palfrey and Democratic lieutenant governor candidate Tami Gouveia.
Palfrey said though this system should be available to any candidate who is running a “clean election” campaign, particularly if they are running against candidates who are either self-financing to a large degree or who are supported by corporate super PACs.
Palfrey also wants the Legislature to ban “red-boxing,” a move designed to keep campaigns from coordinating preferred messaging with super PACs.
Candidates are prohibited from directly coordinating with super PACs. But in red boxes, typically found in the “Media Center” or “Media Resources” sections of campaign websites, candidates put forth information they want to amplify with messaging or details on their opponents they want to make known. In turn, super PACs know just where to look for directives.
The practice is becoming more popular in races around the country.
Last week, Palfrey called out Campbell’s campaign for appearing to use the tactic.
“It’s a bad practice, it may well already violate the law, but I think the Legislature should make it clear that that is not a practice that is allowed,” Palfrey said.
Third on Palfrey’s wish list is a crackdown on super PACs that receive so-called “dark money,” political spending by 501(c)(4) nonprofits that are not required to disclose their donors. A current loophole exists to allow Massachusetts campaigns to reap the benefits of unlimited, undisclosed donations, Palfrey said.
The solution? Palfrey thinks Massachusetts should should follow other states and get “long arm statutes” on the books.
In essence, the laws say “if you’re going to put money into a super PAC from a dark money source, it triggers a disclosure obligation,” Palfrey said.
Lastly, Palfrey wants to see state lawmakers clarify conflict-of-interest rules so that elected officials who are covered by the Rules of Professional Conduct for Lawyers cannot work on issues that involve corporate donor-funded super PACs.
Outgoing Attorney General and gubernatorial hopeful Maura Healey took on Exxon Mobile, Purdue Pharma, Walmart, and other large corporations during her tenure, Palfrey noted.
“If you want the attorney general to be the people’s lawyer and take on big companies … you can’t also have those big corporations funding superPACs supporting the A.G.,” he said.
Asked if he is optimistic lawmakers can tackle these issues, Palrey said he thinks the Legislature “has the power to make our elections free and fair.”
“This represents a major threat to our democracy, and I think the Legislature should take campaign finance seriously,” he said. “People understand how dangerous corporate money is in our elections, and how skewed our elections have become since Citizens United. They ought to look at this campaign and other campaigns that are playing out right now in Massachusetts and realize that we have a lot of work to do to clean up the election system.”
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