There’s been much discussion here and elsewhere – and appropriately so – about the roughly $100,000 that Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) has dumped into Leland Cheung’s effort to unseat Pat Jehlen in the state Senate. DFER’s money comes from an out-of-state pro-charter outfit that doesn’t have to disclose its donors. It is the definition of dark money, and its presence in this race is an unalloyed bad thing.
But, in fairness, it’s also true that the Mass. Teachers Association (MTA) is spending a similar amount on behalf of Jehlen’s reelection effort. We do know where that money comes from, but the fact remains that the MTA is still a special interest group that is able to spend more money on the race than the candidates themselves have raised.
All of this strikes me as, on balance, bad. People talk a lot about how terrible Citizens United is, and how we should be trying to keep big money out of politics. And this is exactly why: right now, outside groups are able to spend tons of basically unaccountable money – often (as in this case) more than the candidates themselves are able to spend – in order to advance a very specific policy goal that may not even be apparent from the advertising that the groups buy. As I’ve already noted, the DFER materials that I’ve seen on behalf of Cheung don’t say a thing about charter schools, yet we all know that’s why they’re involved.
Fortunately, there is a proven solution: an agreement between the candidates that they will both swear off outside money and a pay a financial penalty if an outside group spends money on their behalf or to attack the other. In short, the People’s Pledge. Elizabeth Warren and Scott Brown proved that it works brilliantly – as you’ll recall, that was one of the hottest Senate races in the country, in a year when outside groups were flooding Senate races with millions of dollars, yet almost none of that money came here. And several Massachusetts races have used People’s Pledges since then, though recently they seem to have fallen away.
It’s too late for the Jehlen-Cheung race, unfortunately, a race that would have been a perfect Pledge candidate. But whatever the result on Thursday, this unpleasantness should be a reminder that outside money remains a serious problem – particularly in down-ballot races, where it can drown out the candidates themselves. It would be nice to have a legislative solution, but that’s likely a long way off. Until we do, candidates can, and should, take matters into their own hands.