Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Nobody's Laughing

Last week, gubernatorial candidate Chris Gabrieli set the cap on campaign spending for the Democratic primary at $15.36 million, the same number as the percentage he got at the Democratic Convention in Worcester that got him on the primary ballot. Gabrieli got to set the spending limit because he declined to participate in the state's public financing -- which would have set the cap at $1.5 million -- so the cap becomes the highest amount that any non-participating candidate declares they will spend. Recently, both of his Democratic competitors, Attorney General Tom Reilly and Deval Patrick, had already agreed to accept the public financing and released statements reacting to Gabreili's choice of cap. Patrick went so far as to record a video on the role of money in politics. He sent the following to his email list a few days ago:

[B]y choosing not to participate in the public financing, Chris gets to determine the spending cap for all of the campaigns. He set that cap at $15.36 million.

$15.36 million.

This is an unheard of amount for a gubernatorial primary in Massachusetts, and I feel it is an amount that sends a cynical message about our government and our political process. It reinforces the idea that politics is all about money and that elections can be bought.
In addition, today, I received the following email from the Reilly Campaign:
At the same time, my opponent has now declared that he is going to spend up to $15.36 million dollars in the three months between now and the September primary. That is in addition to the $3 million that he has already spent. That is an obscene amount of money by any standard. Worse still, he joked about the figure, as if spending limits and the amount of money in politics is some sort of punch line.

I believe it sends exactly the wrong message -- that the only people who can run for office are people of vast personal wealth.
Reilly goes on in his email to remind his supporters that he's the only candidate in the governor's race who's not a millionaire.

Conventional wisdom was that Gabrieli would set a high cap, one that neither of the other Democratic candidates would likely be able to reach. Still, my first thought was that it was bad form to treat the campaign finance as a joke, at the same time tweaking the delegates who put him on the ballot even though they were supporting other candidates (my second thought was to wonder if he's hiring a campaign blogger -- all that money's got to go somewhere, after all). The odd thing about it, is that by picking $15.36 million, Gabrieli made a news story out of it. If he had picked $8 or even $10 million, no one would have commented and he still would have plenty of leeway to outspend Reilly and Patrick. Clearly, he does not plan to spend the full amount -- the record for primary campaigns in Massachusetts is a modest-in-comparison $4.7 million. Instead, Gabrieli was forced to explain and defend the cap, and ended up pleading "C'mon, somebody, laugh!". I saw him on the news at one point saying "I hope you thought it was at least slightly humorous that I picked 15.36," (also quoted here). He kind of sounded like a bad stand-up comic whose joke just bombed imploring the audience for pity applause. I'm sure that's not the image that his campaign wanted to project.