Massachusetts Primary Campaigns Heat Up in Final Days — Weekly Recap of Beacon Hill

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By Matt Murphy

All of the words, money, and rubber burnt over the course of months of campaigning came together this week into a noxious nebula of anticipation and desperation that when inhaled could make it difficult to breathe.

Or maybe it was just the humidity.

Either way, candidates hoping to still be candidates next Wednesday made their final, sweaty push, braving several of the hottest days of the year to knock on a few more doors, make a few more telephone calls, and empty the oppo binders.

Television was awash with ads from those who could afford the airtime, while others conscripted any well-known political ally they could find to help excite their supporters and draw attention to the fact that in three days the polls will be open.

State Representative Jeffrey Sanchez (D-Jamaica Plain), for perhaps the first time in his political career, could have afforded to advertise on television if it made any sense for a House candidate to do so, but instead he’s leaning on Attorney General Maura Healey and Congressman Joseph P. Kennedy III (D-Brookline) to help him close the sale in the final days of the campaign.

Sanchez’s primary in Boston against Democrat Nika Elugardo continues to be one of the hottest legislative races to watch on Tuesday, both in spite of and because of Sanchez’s newfound friends and money. Elugardo has gone after Sanchez as someone who she says has become disconnected from his community the higher he has risen in House leadership, a charge that causes Sanchez to bristle.

But with a position like chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee comes benefits, and it appears, from the first campaign finance filings of the year posted Monday, Sanchez took full advantage in his first year on the job. The eight-term incumbent’s campaign bank account swelled with $242,632 raised this year, allowing him to pour over $198,000 into his re-election campaign so far.

Elugardo has been no slouch in that department either, raking in $93,792 this year for her campaign against Sanchez and spending $87,027, solidifying the 15th Suffolk District’s status as home to the most expensive House race in the state.

While only the unchallenged House Speaker Robert DeLeo has spent more money than Sanchez through mid-August, the list of big fund raisers and spenders saw the return of a familiar name this year in Barry Finegold.

The Andover attorney who served in the House and Senate before running unsuccessfully for state treasurer in 2014 raised a whopping $355,028 in 2018 and has spent $180, 571 on his bid to return to a much-changed Massachusetts Senate after a four-year hiatus.

Finegold’s decision to run statewide in 2014 opened the door four years ago for another candidate’s return to Beacon Hill. State Senator Barbara L’Italien (D-Andover) had been bumped from her House seat by a conservative Republican, but after taking over for Finegold in the Senate she is now repaying the favor as she seeks a seat in Congress.

The most recent poll in the Third Congressional District had L’Italien tied for second with former ambassador Rufus Gifford in the crowded Democratic primary north of Boston, but L’Italien is not going down without a fight.

In reality, the race is completely up for grabs, with the vote splintered among a handful of strong candidates and polling showing that the undecided bloc is larger than any one candidate’s base. But if you have to take a swing, why not go for the head.

That’s what L’Italien did when she targeted perceived frontrunner Dan Koh this week for his handling of sexual harassment allegations against a high-ranking City of Boston official during his time as Mayor Marty Walsh’s chief of staff.

L’Italien went on Boston Herald (or Braintree Herald?) Radio and accused Koh of failing a city employee who complained to him about harassment by former Health and Human Services chief Felix Arroyo. Koh’s campaign defended him by noting that Arroyo was immediately suspended, an investigation was launched, and he was ultimately fired.

But, according to L’Italien: “That was his chance to stand up and do the right thing, and he didn’t do it as evidenced by the fact that there is a lawsuit against the city of Boston and he is named in that lawsuit.”

L’Italien’s willingness to sling a little mud stood out this week in an otherwise polite sprint to the primary where the dirty work of peddling negative narratives to hungry reporters largely fell to the political operatives behind the scenes, while the candidates themselves tried to stay above the fray.

No one has stayed higher above the fray than Governor Charlie Baker, who has spent the weeks since “officially” launching his re-election campaign doing a standout impersonation of the three wise monkeys.

The governor has been less than eager to engage with either Democratic gubernatorial candidate until one emerges from the primary, and the fact that he has his own primary against conservative Springfield pastor Scott Lively may be lost on many voters given the amount of attention Baker has paid to Lively.

Instead, Baker has been criss-crossing the state on official, rather than campaign, business to cut ribbons and tour local businesses and celebrate the work of the past four years.

“Whenever the lieutenant governor and I are out — and we spend a lot of time out and about, she’s been to all 351 cities and towns — the sense of momentum and positivity that we all feel is quite real, and we’d like to have an opportunity to continue to build on that,” Baker told reporters this week after an event to review Plymouth’s quadricentennial celebration in 2020.

The governor has been slight on specifics for how he would spend another four years, but his “stay the course” mantra might be one helpful indicator. Asked to identify the most pressing issues facing the state, Baker named housing, transportation, and the opioid crisis.

On that last front, Baker said his administration may have something to say next month about steps the state could take to stem the availability of fentanyl in Massachusetts, which the latest data found to be present in nearly 90 percent of overdose deaths during the second quarter of 2018.

Wonder if that announcement will go on his official schedule, or his campaign schedule?

The opioid crisis was one of the reasons many pols cited for their opposition to recreational marijuana, but once the voters overruled opponents lawmakers on Beacon Hill embarked on a deliberate effort to refine the law to make sure pot sales would be safe and well regulated.

So one could imagine how Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commissioner Steve Hoffman’s suggestion that the law might need another tweak went over on Beacon Hill. The latest issue to bubble up before the marijuana agency is whether the commission should be reviewing host community agreements before deciding on licenses.

Businesses and marijuana advocates say municipalities are using the requirement of host community agreement to thwart a cap on local payments from marijuana retailers, but Hoffman suggested that the law was too “ambiguous” for the Cannabis Control Commission to try to police those pacts.

Needless to say, state Representative Mark Cusack (D-Braintree) and state Senator Patricia Jehlen (D-Somerville), the co-chairmen of the Joint Marijuana Policy Committee, fired off a letter to Hoffman defending their work and arguing that the Cannabis Control Commission has a legal duty to review the host agreements.

“I think this has less to do with ambiguity than it does reading comprehension,” Cusack said.


STORY OF THE WEEK: If you’re running for office and have extra money, info, or time, this was the week to use it.

SONG OF THE WEEK: The heat index says it’s almost Primary Day.