Sunday, October 08
BOSTON — Gubernatorial candidate Kerry Healey didn't know what hit her when a group called the Patriot Majority Fund released a negative ad about her last month.

Neither did voters, thanks to a loophole in the local campaign finance law that allows independent issue advocacy groups to operate with little oversight.

The group, funded by labor and Democrat organizations, was able to attack Healey as long as it never asked viewers to vote for or defeat a specific candidate.

"They can put millions of dollars into advertisements or mass communications which promote or oppose candidacy, and so long as they don't use those magic words 'vote' or 'election,' they're not tied to local campaign finance laws," said Pam Wilmot, executive director for Common Cause, a nonpartisan organization meant to ensure open government.

Republicans hit back with their own issues-based advertisement two weeks ago, touting Healey's hard work for the state and encouraging viewers to keep a Republican in the corner office. More issue-based ads are expected to come fast and furious as the gubernatorial race nears the homestretch, according to Republican political consultant Dominick Ianno.

"I suspect we'll see a lot of activity on both sides before this election is over," Ianno said.

The groups who put out the advertisements, named 527s after the section they file with the IRS, receive tax-exempt status as political committees and don't have to file with federal or state political finance committees.


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They have innocuous-sounding names like "Citizens for a Democratic America" or "People for American Values," but are often party-driven organizations meant to forward their political agendas.

State Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, believes that voters deserve clear and open identification from whomever is giving the message.

"I'm all for freedom of speech, but you should say who you are. Don't do it anonymously or under cloak of something else," Pignatelli said. "Politics is getting nasty enough as it is."

The groups don't face restrictions on contributions or spending and can collect millions of dollars from a single contributor, which they then use for advertisements, Wilmot said.

"It's not a direct contribution to a candidate, but it's just as good," said Wilmot, who put forward a law currently stalled in the state Legislature to tighten the contribution disclosures for 527s.

After the Patriot Majority Fund ad was released, Healey called for Democratic opponent Deval L. Patrick to demand that the group release all of its contributors.

"He's clearly benefiting from this, so this information should be transparent," said Healey spokeswoman Amy Lambiaso.

Although Patrick has asked the group to stay out of the race and not release any more ads, it is not his responsibility to ask for their donations because he is not collaborating with them, said Patrick spokeswoman Libby DeVecchi.

Bay State's 'Swift Boat'

The 527 ads made a splash in the national elections during the 2004 presidential election when the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth questioned U.S. Sen. John F. Kerry's war record, and Moveon.org came out with its own ad criticizing President Bush.

But this is the first time that the ads have ventured into a Massachusetts gubernatorial race, according to Denis Kennedy, spokesman for the Office of Campaign and Political Finance. It's part of a trend mirrored in several state races across the country, as national Democratic and Republican groups seek to further their party's interests.

The 527s, which are identifiably state-focused, raised 41 percent more in 2006 than they reported raising to the IRS over the same period in the 2004 election cycle, from $75 million to $105 million, according to the center. They spent $85 million by the end of June 2006, a 36 percent increase over the $63 million they spent by the end of June 2004.

Opponents such as Wilmot believe that the groups are sneaky, in that it is difficult for voters to figure out who bankrolls them, but the groups claim that they are simply pushing forward important issues.

"The Patriot Majority Fund has only one agenda and that is to promote a healthy discussion of issues in Massachusetts," said Dan Cence, spokesman for the group. "The people of Massachusetts have a right to know how their elected officials are acting."