BOSTON – When the state’s top campaign finance regulator Michael Sullivan was reappointed last November, then-Republican Party Chairwoman Kirsten Hughes put his name in nomination.
Democratic Party Chairman Gus Bickford seconded Hughes’s motion, and the vote, including Secretary of State William Galvin, was unanimous, as is required.
However, Sullivan’s confirmation to another six-year term as director of the Office of Campaign and Political Finance could be the last time the heads of the state’s two major political parties have a say in who enforces state campaign finance law.
The Joint Committee on Election Laws, co-chaired by Rep. John Lawn and Sen. Barry Finegold, recommended a bill last week that would change the way the OCPF director is hired, creating a new five-person commission without a requirement that someone from the minority party has a vote, let alone the veto power they currently enjoy.
“It’s pretty outdated how we actually appoint the director and it’s been a while since we had a new OCPF director, but unfortunately Michael Sullivan will retire at some point,” Finegold told the News Service. “We thought this was a better way. No one political party will have too much say, one way or another.”
The House is expected to vote on the legislation Wednesday, and Finegold said he hopes the Senate will follow suit quickly.
Asserting that the state’s current system is vulnerable, Finegold, an Andover Democrat, pointed to what has happened with the Federal Elections Commission in Washington, which has become politicized and no longer has enough commissioners to reach a quorum to initiate audits, make new rules or vote on enforcement matters. Finegold’s district also includes Dracut, Tewksbury and Lawrence.
The bill (H 4072) would create a new commission that includes the governor, attorney general and secretary of state, as well as an elected municipal and an elected county official picked by a majority of the three statewide officeholders.
No more than three of the five commissioners could be members of the same party, and four votes would be required to hire a new director. Nothing in the bill prevents the municipal or county official from being unenrolled.
“This new system could disenfranchise one of the two major political parties. It doesn’t require that anyone from the minority party, my party, be a part of the appointing authority, and that’s greatly concerning,” said Sen. Ryan Fattman, a Sutton Republican.
Fattman is a member of the Election Laws Committee, and reserved his rights when the committee voted to report the bill out favorably. He said he has expressed his concerns to Finegold, and will be speaking to his colleagues in the coming days as well.
“For the most part, past can be prologue and we have a system that has worked,” Fattman said.
Under the current system, the director of OCPF must be selected unanimously by a panel that includes the chairs of the Democratic and Republican parties, the Secretary of State, and the dean of a law school chosen by the governor.
Fattman said that since the system was put in place in 1973 there have been five directors and never has one of the commissioners “abused their authority” to veto a candidate for the position.
“A cynical person could say it’s a power play to disenfranchise political opponents. I’m not cynical so I haven’t gotten to the point of thinking that, but I hope I don’t get there,” Fattman said.
But supporters said Fattman’s fears are misplaced, and that the bill would take politics out of the process.
Finegold said he and Lawn have discussed ways to modernize the process, hoping to be prepared should Sullivan choose to retire before his term expires, which will be in 2024. Sullivan has been the head of OCPF since 1994.
Finegold said members of the committee have also been “a little spooked” by what’s been happening at the FEC.
Sullivan declined to comment on the bill, and a spokeswoman for Gov. Charlie Baker said the administration “became aware of the legislation recently as the bill advanced to House Ways and Means” and would review it if it reaches his desk.
Bickford said he supported the effort.
“We are supportive of any initiatives that increase election transparency and lessen the appearance of partisanship,” Bickford said in a statement. “As we have seen with the Trump Administration’s craven disabling of the Federal Elections Commission, voting rights should exist free of any real or perceived partisan action. I applaud the legislature for looking into ways we can protect our election process.”
MassGOP Chairman Jim Lyons was reviewing the bill after it was shared with him this week by the News Service, but did not immediately have a comment.
The bill on the House’s agenda for Wednesday is a committee redraft of legislation filed by Sen. Diana DiZoglio, of Methuen, that would require candidates for legislative office to open depository committees, similar to the system followed by candidates for statewide office, many municipal offices and sheriffs.
Instead of reporting contributions and expenditures twice a year in off-election years and before the primary and general elections during election years, candidates and elected officials would report campaign committee activity every two weeks through their bank.
For both challengers and incumbents, the change would make it easier to see how much money a political opponent is raising and spending, as well as the sources of donations, throughout the course of a campaign, rather than once right before an election.
“As someone who has done both depository and the current system, I think depository is better for compliance, conformity and transparency,” Finegold said. “I think it’s better to have everyone in the state on the same system.”
DiZoglio said she was “excited” to see her bill moving forward, and read the changes made by the committee chairs as “an attempt to make the selection process less political in nature – at least as it pertains to the two-party structure.”
“It is extremely important that the head of OCPF be able to do their job without potential conflicts of interest, and, while I haven’t had time to really reflect on the language change just yet, I think this is a step in the right direction,” DiZoglio said in an email.