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Candidate Forum Takes Unexpected Turn: The Gloves Come Off

With the primary just 18 days away, the six-way race among the Democrats for State Representative of the 8th Essex District has gone from harmonious to snarky, primarily with regard to lobbyist contributions. The tone still remains relatively tame, but during yesterday’s forum at Lynn Community Television, for several candidates, the gloves inched their way off.


Concerned Citizens of Lynn hosted the forum, with Lisa Pressman, Founder and President of the non-profit, hosting and time keeping, and former Lynn mayoral candidate Michael Satterwhite moderating. Pressman told Marblehead Beacon that questions purposefully deviated from some of the more standard questions the candidates had been asked at prior forums. “I feel the people who submitted the questions–the public–showed we have a lot of intelligent voters don’t want fluff answers.” 


Lobbyists: Returned Donations, Pledges, and Finger Pointing

Doug Thompson, who has been beating the drum against taking money from lobbyists, touted his own refusal to accept such monies, noting that he’d returned his lobbyist dollars after discovering them, stating, “I’ve been a champion of this issue in this race since the beginning.” In fact, Thompson only returned the lobbyist money several weeks after Marblehead Beacon called him in July to inquire about these donations for a story. At that point, Thompson had only received a handful of lobbyist contributions that he noted were from longtime friends, and after returning them, he began making the matter into a frequent campaign talking point. From his door-to-door rounds to his public statements, he has singled out Jenny Armini and Tristan Smith for support from lobbyists. 


Thompson also has pointed out that Terri Tauro has special interests supporting her through labor union contributions. “I don’t have friends and family that can donate thousands and thousands of dollars,” said Tauro. “That support is important from the union brothers and sisters.” 


Recently Armini announced that she had returned her roughly $3,000 in lobbyist contributions, many of which came from former colleagues and friends, while Smith has opted not to follow suit. Thompson has most loudly called out Smith for his nearly 50 lobbyist contributions. “Part of the problem–why some people have trouble answering this question–is because they have so many lobbyist donors they probably couldn’t even answer how many,” he said at the forum.


Smith shot back, noting that Thompson is the only candidate among the six who has not reported contributions in a month and a half. “We don’t actually know if Doug is following through on his pledge not to accept lobbyist money because Doug hasn’t reported a single contribution on the OCPF website since June.” Thompson responded that, per the law, he is permitted to wait until shortly before the primary to do so, and the other candidates have chosen to “report early.” 


Smith suggested that Armini wasn’t being transparent because before she returned the funds to lobbyists, as her campaign website had only listed one donor as a lobbyist (and she had 14). In fact, according to the Office of Campaign and Political Finance (OCPF)’s Education and Communications Director, who spoke with Marblehead Beacon, a donor’s profession listed by the donor is what is reported to OCPF by candidates and satisfies the disclosure requirement. Additionally, Smith’s campaign has done the same thing he accuses the Armini campaign of doing. Multiple donors list their other professions, rather than noting “lobbyist” in his filings. To deduce which contributions were from lobbyists, Marblehead Beacon cross-checked every donor who contributed $200 or less (the maximum allowed per lobbyist per campaign per year) against a database of registered lobbyists.


When asked to name the specific lobbyists who’d contributed, Smith spoke in generalities. Pushed by the Pressman, he mentioned his father and employees of his father’s lobbying firm, and named one lobbyist, but did not specify others of the dozens he’s received to date. Diann Slavit Baylis, Tauro, and Polly Titcomb have received no lobbyist dollars. Armini and Thompson, as noted above, returned their lobbyist monies and have pledged to accept no more.


“Lobbyist money is a part of Massachusetts politics,” said Smith, “Ed Markey, Maura Healey, Brendan Crighton, and yes, Lori Ehrlich–all of these people have accepted lobbyist money, many of the same people who’ve contributed to my campaign.” He added that he has “never taken a contribution with any implicit or explicit understanding that [he] would take a certain stance or vote a certain way.” 


Big Donors: Self-Funding and High Rollers

When asked about who their top three donors were, Armini, Smith, and Thompson all named themselves as their campaigns’ biggest contributors. Armini loaned her campaign $5,000, Smith roughly $14,000, Titcomb $6,000, and Thompson $20,000 (though Thompson hasn’t released his donations for July yet so it is unclear if there are more). Armini said, “like Polly, I’m my biggest donor, followed by my mother and some other relatives.” Armini has received 24 $1,000 contributions (the maximum allowed per donor, per campaign each calendar year). She also noted, “I don’t have the luxury of self financing at a large scale,” which to candidates who didn’t self fund at all is surely relative. Smith noted that the approximately $14,000 he loaned himself represents his “life savings” made in tips from The Tides and his earnings as the track and cross-country coach at St. Mary’s. It is widely understood that loans are very unlikely to be repaid to any candidate but the winner. 


Tauro, in her closing statement and in an apparent response to earlier remarks made by Thompson, looked at him and said, “Try making a budget when you don’t have any money; that’s the toughest thing to do.” As he tried to respond, she snapped, “No; my time, Doug.” She went on to say, “we’re supposed to be representing our people, not making a fortune off the people we mean to represent,” an apparent poke at Thompson’s work in the private sector where he co-founded a healthcare company that ultimately merged with another.


The Cost of Running a Successful Race: “You Don’t Need Billboards”

The candidates were also asked what they believed was necessary to raise in order to win the race. Armini said approximately $75,000; Slavit Baylis said $35,000 to $40,000; Tauro said she was working within what she’s raised, approximately $22,000; Smith said $100,000; Thompson said “north of $100,000;” and Titcomb said that while $45,000 to $50,000 is probably needed, she hasn’t raised nearly that amount.  


Tauro, who is in the bottom half of the slate of candidates in fundraising, said, “You don’t need billboards and signs as big as a house; you just need to be a person,” presumably referring to Smith’s billboard located on Eastern Avenue in Lynn, and an enormous sign on the side of a house in Swampscott. 


Endorsements: Jabs at Unions and Family Connections

When asked about endorsements, Tauro, who has 16 endorsements from public officials, unions, or public-interest groups, leads the pack, and Smith is next in line, with endorsements that include Marblehead Select Board member Jackie Belf-Becker, former congressmen John Tierney and Barney Frank, and several others. Thompson, who noted that he has two endorsements, took a swipe at Tauro as she shook her head. “I don’t have long-lasting alliances with unions that basically…created a very clear path for Terri to get all those endorsements; I think we can all acknowledge that.” 


Thompson also made a clear dig at Smith, whose father–a longtime lobbyist and former politician–has played a role in securing support and donors for the 26-year-old candidate. “I don’t have a dad who’s basically calling up people to get endorsements for me,” he said.


Charter Schools: Nay for All

Another noteworthy part of the forum included a question about whether the candidates support lifting the cap on charter schools in Massachusetts. All six candidates rejected  making more charter schools available in communities, including Armini and Tauro, whose own children attended Marblehead Community Charter Public School, and Doug Thompson, whose daughter has attended a private school. 


Post-Forum Candidates' Commentary

Because the tone of the forum, particularly among certain candidates, reflected a departure from that of prior such forums, Marblehead Beacon reached out to the six candidates for comment about the nature of the event. All but Smith responded. 


Thompson’s statement read, “I was honored to answer terrific questions from the Concerned Citizens of Lynn. I was able to clearly demonstrate my unrivaled experience in large scale change management, budget management, legislative process and healthcare.  I was also able to highlight my clear leadership on getting lobbyist money out of this race.” He went on to add that, “[u]nfortunately, as has been well covered here in the Marblehead Beacon, Tristan Smith did not disclose that he has upwards of 50 lobbyists funding his campaign. These are from industries such as oil and gas, defense, pipelines, and pharmaceuticals.  How can someone hope to make progressive change with contributors like this? I urge him to return these contributions for the sake of this district.”


Tauro’s statement read, in part, “I have made no secret that I am a labor leader and my stance on the importance of unions to our economy, transition to green energy, and basic human dignity. Unions are supporting me because they know I have this stance and not to get something from me. The labor movement is often the only place a working person has to turn to that will defend their livelihoods, health benefits, and keep them safe at work,” She went on to discuss the fundraising arena of the campaign: “We do not have the funds or choices that the other candidates have, especially the wealthy candidates in this race. I find it appalling that people are spending 75k to 100k on a district campaign when so many in our district are struggling to buy groceries. I do not like the money I am spending and it is a fraction of the rest. No one should be able to buy their way into an elected spot.” Tauro also pointed out some behavior she alleges has transpired during the race when she said, “I have seen examples of extreme bullying behind the scenes with political connections trying to over take what should be an election of the best candidate. I have had my best friend's 85-year-old mother harassed at her door by another candidate because she had a Terri Tauro sign and another followed up her stairs while trying to carry in groceries after a long day at work. We should be better than this! While I appreciate the friendly relationship between the candidates, I cannot help but see the dirty side of politics.” Tauro did point out a positive exchange, saying, “[o]ne of my more truthful and conscientious opponents made a great statement to me: ‘We are all from the same community and we have to live together.’ I applaud that statement.”


Armini said, “The goal is to stay positive and remember that on September 7th, we all still live in this community. We are talking to our neighbors and our friends. That’s the difference between a state rep race and a statewide race. This is our home.”


Titcomb stated, “I’m happy to have been able to answer questions directly from the Lynn residents that covered different topics than previous forums. I also welcomed the questions relating to the candidates' respective fundraising efforts because this is a critically important aspect of campaigning and it was the first opportunity I had to emphasize my commitment to maintaining independence from special interest groups as well as my firm belief that public campaign financing is essential to true democratic representation.”


Slavit Baylis said, in part, “There is too much special interest and undisclosed money in this race, and voters should know where this money is coming from” and added that she is “calling on Tristan Smith to return all of the nearly $9,000 he's received from 47 different registered lobbyists, and on Doug Thompson to disclose all contributions that he's failed to disclose since the end of June, including any of his own money he’s put in on top of the more than $20,000 he had already provided to his campaign.” Finally, she said, “I’m calling on all of my opponents to disclose the occupation and employer of all donors, large and small, as I have done throughout this campaign in the interests of full transparency."


Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story noted the value of a merger involving the company co-founded by Doug Thompson. The reference to "tens of millions of dollars" was removed because it could mislead readers. That sum pertains to the value of the transaction and not the financial remuneration received by Thompson. 

Editor’s Note: The author of this story, Lena Robinson, and her family have been close to one of the candidates–Jenny Armini–and her family for more than 25 years. Robinson’s husband, Dwight Robson, has donated to Armini's campaign. Marblehead Beacon co-founder Jenn Schaeffner is on the steering committee of the group PowerUP!, on which candidate Terri Tauro serves. Prior to launching Marblehead Beacon, Schaeffner contributed to Tauro's campaign.