For the first time in more than a generation, Brian Dempsey wasn’t running for office in 2018.
Even so, he spent $91,347.89 from his old campaign’s war chest.
That was more than political newcomer Christina Minicucci’s $83,222.69 in expenses to win a House seat representing North Andover, Methuen and Lawrence, according to records filed with the state Office of Campaign and Political Finance.
It was more than the $86,120,08 spent by Rep. Jim Kelcourse in the same year to hang onto his seat representing Newburyport, Amesbury and Salisbury.
And it was more than the $57,137.84 put up by Rep. Ann-Margaret Ferrante to defend her seat from Gloucester, Rockport and Essex.
In fact, it was some two-and-a-half times the average outlay of an incumbent in the state House of Representatives running for re-election two years earlier.
Dempsey is no longer a lawmaker, he is a lobbyist of lawmakers. And while there’s nothing illegal about spreading around old campaign cash -- so long as it goes to other political campaigns, political committees or charities -- it raises questions about whether lawmakers turning back into the Statehouse’s revolving door as influencers should be restricted in their spending.
In a story last week, Statehouse reporter Christian M. Wade described the largess of the once influential lawmaker and head of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. After more than two-dozen years on Beacon Hill, Dempsey left office in July 2017 to work for the lobbying group ML Strategies. He later started his own firm, Dempsey, Lucey and Associates. At the time he left, Dempsey had $528,168.60 in his campaign account.
State ethics rules require former lawmakers and government employees to take a year-long hiatus before they start lobbying their old colleagues. Dempsey appears to have done that, but distributing money from his old campaign coffers was a different story.
Nearly a third of Dempsey’s largess in 2018 went to the party — $30,000 for the Massachusetts Democratic State Committee to spread among its candidates. He pushed another $7,500 to Democratic political action committees.
And he gave directly to the campaigns of some 14 lawmakers, officials and candidates — including Reps. Lori Ehrlich from Marblehead, Ronald Mariano of Quincy, House Speaker Robert DeLeo, and Maura Healey, who was running to keep her job as attorney general.
All of whom Dempsey potentially could have been lobbying.
To be sure, there’s nothing illegal, or technically unethical, about Dempsey’s contributions. All of it was allowed by law.
“There’s been a handful of donations that have gone to the party and old friends that I’ve supported over the years,” he told Wade. Dempsey also gives generously from his campaign fund to local charities and causes.
And he’s hardly alone among the ranks of politicians who’ve left the scene but stay connected through their money. Marty Meehan, for instance, nursed a campaign account for a decade after leaving Capitol Hill, where he represented the Merrimack Valley in Congress, before eventually rolling the $419,821 left over in his coffers into an educational foundation he created.
But the perception created by lawmakers-turned-lobbyists walking around with a campaign kitty, helping to feather the political nests of friends and allies, is a poor one. It has the feel of being unethical, even if it isn’t.
Daniel Weiner, of the Brennan Center for Justice’s Democracy Program, told Wade it defeats the spirit, if not letter, of the law. “When you have lobbyists who have these campaign slush funds, it raises concerns about corruption in terms of having undue influence over office holders,” he said.
No one is suggesting corruption, at least not in the case of Dempsey. But, as his circumstances illustrate, it’s time to consider some limits on how lawmakers-turned-lobbyists apply the leftovers from their old campaign accounts.