Thursday, May 23, 2024


Mike Connolly, 32, of Cambridge, is running for state representative in the 26th Middlesex District as an independent, and accepting no money to do so.

November’s election offers the chance to vote for something rather than against someone, and it’s a pretty exciting something: the idea that we can shrink the importance of money in politics, or at least in elections.

That would mean casting a vote for independent Mike “No Money” Connolly, 32, of Cambridge, running for state representative in the 26th Middlesex District. (There’s a primary Thursday, but Connolly’s race is not part of the primary.)

If enough people do so, it would unseat Democratic incumbent Timothy J. Toomey Jr., a 59-year-old Cantabrigian first elected to the district in 1992 — but, to be clear, this isn’t a vote against Toomey, who has been a steady and passionate force for this Cambridge/Somerville district. In terms of campaign finance reform, Toomey has even worked to undo the toxic Citizens United campaign funding decision by the Supreme Court, which said the First Amendment lets corporations and unions spend as much as they like in politics. The shorthand for that is that corporations are people, a sentiment treated with disgust by many Americans of many political stripes.

And especially by Connolly, who sees money infecting the political process every step of the way and jumped at the chance to help craft a City Council policy resolution this year supporting an anti-Citizens United measure in the Massachusetts Legislature.

“Our federal and state legislators have become completely dependent on large campaign contributions from private corporations and wealthy individuals,” Connolly said in February, describing it as no surprise that “public confidence in government continues to decline.”

This is why his campaign hasn’t taken any financial contributions — whimsically asking people to formally donate zero dollars and no cents — and has spent virtually nothing, he says. It’s why he’s “No Money” Connolly.

“Talking about change is easy. To transcend the status quo, we have to actually be the change,” Connolly says to visitors to his website.

Candidates could have followed

What would have been great is if Toomey and the third candidate in the 26th Middlesex race, Republican Thomas Michael Vasconcelos, 25, of Somerville, had also committed to raising no money and cutting to a minimum what they spent. It would have leveled the playing field and made the race solely about how to govern and how Toomey, Vasconcelos and Connolly feel about the issues, rather than how to get into a position to govern.

It would also have meant more or less a clean slate in the coming term, less cynicism on the part of voters and less suspicious checking of campaign finance reporting sites every time a major vote comes up — often leading to claims of politicians being bought off by developers, bidders or other big interests — to see who donated.

Instead, on the Democratic and Republican side it’s the same old race, while Connolly does indeed represent a challenge to the status quo and the potential breaking of a depressing cycle.

What a strong, stunningly clear statement it would be to elect a state representative who’d taken no money from anyone to win a campaign.

Any established politician will no doubt scoff at this as being, at the very least, a trick that can’t be replicated, and it’s not hard to find confirmation of how depressingly intertwined politics, fundraising and lobbying have become. In fact, less than 20 minutes on your iPod or laptop will tell you everything you need to know: Just download or stream the “Planet Money” podcasts called “A Former Lobbyist Tells All” and “Why Lobbyists Dodge Calls From Congressmen.” The latter podcast, by Andrea Seabrook and Alex Blumberg, explains:

We imagine the lobbyist stalking the halls of Congress trying to use cash to influence important people. But it doesn’t always work that way. Often, the Congressman is stalking the lobbyist, asking for money. Lawmakers of both parties need to raise millions of dollars per election cycle … “You spend most of your time dodging phone calls [from members of Congress],” according to Jimmy Williams, a former lobbyist.

Money is races small and large

This trickles down to local races. Leland Cheung won his second term on the council in November with more votes than any other candidate, surpassing the next closest candidate’s vote total by almost 20 percent, according to Robert Winters’ Cambridge Civic Journal, yet as early as May he’d been in full panic fundraising mode, hoping to raise $5,000 in a night despite having won election in the first place by spending the least of all winners.

“As the newest and youngest city councillor, I have a target on me. I’m the guy that people are going to try to take out,” Cheung explained at his fundraiser.

In the national election, President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign has spent more than $325 million as of an Aug. 21 accounting by USA Today, not counting spending by the Democratic Party, likely in the same sort of second-term panic based on fundraising by Republican Mitt Romney and his operation — $101 million in July, beating Obama and his allies by $25 million, the paper said. The Obama campaign said the Republicans have beaten them in fundraising three months running, which is why e-mails seeking donations are coming at supporters relentlessly, asking for small donations up to four times a day.

But it’s a sick electorate who is happy about this or eager to donate just for the sake of donating; it’s more likely voters resent the endless flood of requests for money and respond out of fear of the massive corporate donations distorting the campaigns they want to vote in and perverting the candidates they want to support.

Of course, if Connolly were a lunatic, his “No Money” pledge would mean nothing. But he’s no lunatic. He’s a personable, smart professional whose positions seem in tune with the Cambridge/Somerville mainstream (in fact, his site boasts three pages of extensive citizen testimonials, and he has plans to attend a fundraising concert for performers displaced by a recent Central Square fire), and his work against Citizens United this year showed not a bomb-throwing radical but a man engaged in the political process and willing to work within it to change things.

In fact, the only radical thing about Connolly is his “No Money” pledge, and that’s a radical step in the right direction — if the electorate wants to take it with him.

Election Day, on Nov. 6, is when we find out.