SEEKONK, Mass. (WPRI) — Incumbent Ed Markey is refusing to back a limit on outside spending in next year’s Democratic U.S. Senate primary pushed by his rival Congressman Joe Kennedy III, arguing that positive advertising by progressive groups is acceptable.
Kennedy and the third candidate in the primary, labor lawyer Shannon Liss-Riordan, signed a so-called “People’s Pledge” on Monday modeled on those previously used in races such as the 2012 contest between Elizabeth Warren and Scott Brown — as well as the 2013 primary between Markey himself and Congressman Stephen Lynch.
The pledge says that if an outside group spends money on television, radio, digital or direct mail advertising to bolster one of the candidates, that candidate will have to donate half the cost of the ad to a charity chosen by the other candidates. Supporters say the agreements have proven effective at limiting interventions by third-party groups in Massachusetts elections.
“Since 2012, the People’s Pledge has been an important and effective tool to keep outside money out of our elections, and it remains an important tool today,” Liss-Riordan said in a statement explaining her decision. “I am running to give a voice to the working people of Massachusetts, a voice that is too often silenced by powerful special interests who spend millions to swing elections their way.”
But the pledge will only take effect if all three candidates agree to it — and so far Markey isn’t interested.
On Monday, his campaign put forward an alternative pledge that would restrict the rule to negative advertising. There would be no limit on positive third-party ads such as, for example, a hypothetical TV spot by an environmental group touting Markey’s sponsorship of the Green New Deal.
“We’re not putting forward a pledge to silence our progressive allies, and that’s why I think our pledge is better,” John Walsh, a senior adviser to the Markey campaign, told WPRI 12.
Walsh insisted Markey shared the same goals as Kennedy and Liss-Riordan, namely to “diminish dark money and negative outside advertising.” He argued “the world’s a whole different ball of wax” compared to when Markey agreed to the People’s Pledge with Lynch six years ago.
Kennedy’s campaign said it had not received any formal proposal from Markey’s team, which announced its alternative negative-ads-only pledge in a news release hours before Kennedy and Liss-Riordan signed theirs. But Kennedy dismissed the idea of including a loophole for positive ads.
“Democrats in Massachusetts should set the gold standard for campaign finance reform,” Kennedy said in a statement. “We can’t support carve-outs for groups we like. If we believe there is too much outside spending in elections and that interest group money is overpowering individual voices, then we have to be willing to walk the walk, not just talk the talk.”
Kennedy’s campaign also said Markey’s had not responded to his September call for a People’s Pledge until “late on Nov. 6,” the day before he and Liss-Riordan had initially planned to sign it, and claimed “a last-minute cancellation” by Markey’s campaign of a potential signing ceremony.
Walsh acknowledged Markey is also concerned about the ability of Kennedy, as well as Liss-Riordan, to bolster their campaigns with infusions of cash from their personal wealth, which could disadvantage him without the help of outside groups. (Politico Massachusetts reports the group Environment Massachusetts is planning a $5 million pro-Markey effort.)
The race involves “two multimillionaires running against a career public servant who’s not a multimillionaire or anything near it,” Walsh said. “The calculations are a little bit different.”
In a less-than-subtle shot at Kennedy, Walsh added, “I’m not interested in throwing shade at anyone who has earned or inherited money.”
The scrap over the People’s Pledge is the second time since Kennedy entered the Senate race that he and the incumbent have found themselves enlisting Liss-Riordan in an effort to wrongfoot the other man on a process question.
An hour before Kennedy formally launched his campaign, Markey challenged him to a November debate on climate change, the senator’s signature issue. Liss-Riordan quickly accepted, but Kennedy balked and was a no-show last month when the event — rebranded a “forum” — was held at Stonehill College.
Ted Nesi (firstname.lastname@example.org) is WPRI 12’s politics and business editor and a Target 12 investigative reporter. He is a weekly panelist on Newsmakers and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook