Madame President Fundraiser

The Martha Coakley for Senate campaign announced the other day that state senate president Therese Murray will serve as Honorary Finance Chair. That means that she's the lead fundraiser -- in name, if not in day-to-day activity -- for an operation trying to raise several million dollars in a couple of months. Much of that funding will be solicited from people, companies, and organizations with direct interests that come before the state legislature, where Murray is arguably the single most powerful elected official. Is there anything wrong with this?

I've spoken with a lot of people about this over the past few days, and the answer seems to be: maybe. Depends how you look at it.

In one sense, this is nothing unusual. Elected officials help raise money for one another all the time. There will be elected officials helping raise money for other candidates in the Senate race. Senate minority leader Richard Tisei is co-chair [correction] chairman of the Charlie Baker gubernatorial campaign. Murray's role does not appear to violate state campaign or ethics laws, so long as she operates within fairly obvious guidelines.

In another sense, this is a first. Veteran state political observers could not recall any precedent when a holder of such a powerful elected office in Massachusetts accepted an official fundraising title on another major candidate's campaign.

And this is not just "another candidate." This is one of the highest-profile political campaigns this state has seen in a generation -- one with the opportunity of electing the state's first woman Senator, a cause known to be dear to Murray's heart. It is also a federal campaign, meaning that individuals can contribute $2400, rather than the $500 limit for state offices. (And thus, a corporation's board and executives will be expected to bundle tens of thousands.) Also, Coakley starts the fundraising sprint far behind her main opponent; and, as several people pointed out to me, has little "juice" with the special interests and operators who intersect under the golden dome -- people with whom Terri Murray has a tremendous amount of juice indeed.

In sum, it's fair to assume that this is not just another dime-a-dozen election to Murray -- that gathering contributions for Coakley is very, very important to her.

So, one veteran state Democratic insider, not currently backing anyone in the Senate race, calls the arrangement "very disturbing," saying that Murray's name in that official title is like a "neon sign" saying that lobbyists and interest groups need to pony up to Coakley if they want their interests taken care of on Beacon Hill. Another says that, given the "tremendous institutional power of the senate president," companies and organizations will feel that "if they don't listen to her" -- and raise money for Coakley -- "she won't listen to them" when they have interests before the legislature. Others agree, adding that the appearance of impropriety is especially troubling given the recent money-and-influence scandals on Beacon Hill, and the supposed "season of reform" now taking place there. "It stinks," says one insider.

But others are not troubled -- including some who would be expected to pounce on any whiff of corruption. Pam Wilmot of Common Cause says that lawmakers like Murray can ethically make solicitations, as long as they are careful not to suggest any quid pro quo or linkage to future legislative action. In fact, by taking an official title, "at least this says it's out in the open," Wilmot says. A Republican legislator says he has no problem with the official role on the Coakley finance team, "depending on how Terri Murray wants to play it." Former state treasurer Shannon O'Brien, who is neutral in the Senate race, says that the arrangement is fine "as long as all of the fundraising activities are done legally and properly, with no undue pressure."

Coakley campaign spokesperson Alex Zaroulis says that "there is nothing wrong with Senator Murray acting as honorary finance chair for the Coakley campaign." (Murray's office did not return calls for comment today.) Murray will also act as a surrogate speaker, and "a motivating force" for Coakley supporters, in addition to her fundraising role, Zaroulis says. "This is a red herring," she says of any suggestion of impropriety. "We are extremely proud to have her support."

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