Super PACs spent big in Boston's city council election

Election posters on a lamp post outside English High School in Jamaica Plain. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Election posters on a lamp post outside English High School in Jamaica Plain. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Well-funded super PACs spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in this week's Boston City Council elections, which experts say is emblematic of a "new normal" — big money in local politics.

These "independent expenditure" political action committees, often known for supporting conservative causes, also have formed to shell out money in support of progressive candidates.

For example, a super PAC called "Bold Boston" spent more than $93,000 during the month of October on progressive city council candidates endorsed by Mayor Michelle Wu.

State campaign finance data show the PAC paid for campaign mailers advertising at-large candidate Henry Santana, District 5 candidate Enrique Pepén, and District 6 candidate Ben Weber.

All three won their elections Tuesday. The PAC's chairman, Ben Martello of the Lowell-based campaign consulting firm North Side Ventures, did not respond to a request for comment.

Super PACs can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money, as long as they don't directly coordinate with campaigns, following the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark Citizens United decision.

The super PAC spending continued a trend from September's preliminary election, but paled in comparison to the millions spent in the 2021 mayor's race.

"Bold Boston" was funded with $100,000 in contributions from four major unions: the Boston Teachers Union, SEIU Local 32BJ, SEIU 1199 and UNITE HERE.

While progressive political operatives often criticize the Citizens United decision, it's not uncommon for them to also tap super PACs' unlimited spending capabilities, according to Jerold Duquette, a political science professor at Central Connecticut State University.

"Organizations across the ideological spectrum are going to take advantage of the opportunity," he said. "Not doing it is strategically problematic, even if you're against it."

The Boston Teachers Union also spent nearly $5,000 through its own super PAC supporting teacher Joel Richards in Dorchester-based District 3. Richards lost to Boston planning official John FitzGerald in Tuesday's election.

Another PAC aligned with SEIU Local 32BJ, which represents property service workers like janitors and security guards, spent $2,000 on various progressive candidates' committees. At-large candidates Henry Santana, Julia Mejia, Ruthzee Louijeune, and District 3 candidate Joel Richards all received $500 contributions from the union's PAC.

On the other side, a super PAC called "Forward Boston" spent nearly $183,000 supporting more conservative city council candidates in the weeks leading up to the general election. Forward Boston is primarily funded by Jim Davis, the chairman of New Balance and a major Donald Trump donor.

Much of that activity occurred Oct. 31, when records show Forward Boston spent $70,000 on digital ads and get-out-the-vote texts.

A text sent out to District 5 voters at the time highlighted former Mayor Marty Walsh's endorsement of José Ruiz, a retired police officer. "Jose Ruiz has been an amazing mentor to so many youngers in the city," the message reads.

Ruiz lost his election Tuesday, alongside other Forward Boston-supported candidates William King in District 6 and Bridget Nee-Walsh in the at-large race.

The other candidates supported by the PAC — At-large Councilor Erin Murphy, Council President Ed Flynn, and District 3 candidate John FitzGerald — came out on top.

Neither a representative of Forward Boston nor a spokesperson for Jim Davis returned requests for comment.

Some of the more moderate candidates also drew support from Democrats for Education Reform, a dark money group with a national presence. The pro-charter school super PAC has been linked to major conservative donors like the Walton family, who founded Walmart.

"The goal of their organization is to privatize education," said Maurice Cunningham, a retired UMass Boston political science professor who tracks the group's spending. "They've been very clear about trying to undermine teachers' unions and promote charter schools."

Democrats for Education Reform's PAC spent nearly $31,000 in the days before the Boston election on texts, post cards, and digital ads for Ruiz, the former police officer.

In a statement, a spokesperson for the group said both Murphy and Ruiz "have proven and longstanding track records of being focused on Boston's children."

Duquette, the political science professor, said the mixed success of candidates supported by Forward Boston and Democrats for Education Reform shows the limits of big money.

"In person, face-to-face, retail politics, the kind of political organizing that we talk about sort of being old-fashioned," he said, "well, that's still crucial."


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Walter Wuthmann State Politics Reporter
Walter Wuthmann is a state politics reporter for WBUR.



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