Massachusetts Police Reformers Warned Donations Will Dry Up

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Massachusetts state politicians who supported historic police reform and accountability measures on Beacon Hill could see future donations from law enforcement disappear, according to two donors who donated — along with their organizations — at least $73,926 combined to state officials.

“You’re either with us or you weren’t, and we’re going to remember who was with us and we’re going to remember who wasn’t,” said Tom Daly, executive vice president of the New England Police Benevolent Association, which has donated thousands to state leaders over the last six years.

“If you voted against us on this, chances are very good that you won’t get an endorsement or another penny.”

Law enforcement officers and organizations gave over $2.1 million to Massachusetts state politicians since 2014, newly analyzed state campaign finance data shows.  Many of those lawmakers voted for the compromise police reform bill that passed the Massachusetts House and Senate on Dec. 1 and still needs Republican Gov. Charlie Baker’s signature to become law.

James Machado, executive director of the Massachusetts Police Association, another regular donor to state politicians, said that while he and his organization agree with some of the bill’s training and accountability measures, they cannot support the proposal because it is “very punitive to police.”

“I am sure that this bill and the votes on it will have a major impact on the votes of our organization as to who to support, financially and politically,” Machado said.  “We are hoping we can defeat it.”

The Massachusetts House and Senate each passed their own versions of police reform legislation in July.  The compromise bill that passed Dec. 1 emerged the day before from a six-member bipartisan conference committee of lawmakers from both chambers who have been meeting for months behind closed doors.

The 129-page bill forms a new independent agency to certify police officers.  It also bans chokeholds, requires officers to step in and report when their colleagues use excessive force, and forms a commission to study qualified immunity, a doctrine that protects police officers from some lawsuits.

Baker returned the bill to lawmakers Dec. 10 with amendments reversing the bill’s ban on using facial recognition technology to investigate crime and its plan to move control of police training programs from law enforcement to civilians outside his administration.

The governor threatened to veto the bill if the legislature does not accept those changes.

Baker is the biggest recipient of law enforcement campaign cash among state leadership, taking in $70,000 in contributions since 2014.  He pushed the legislature for police reform following protests this summer against police abuses in the wake of the deaths of George Floyd and other Black people at the hands of police.

Republican Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito trailed Baker as the second-largest recipient, reaping $44,000 in donations.  Most donors to Baker and Polito were individual officers in departments across Massachusetts.

Baker, through a spokeswoman, declined to comment on the contributions.  Polito did not respond to multiple requests for comment in October.

The House and Senate leadership collectively drew nearly $137,000 in contributions from law enforcement since Jan. 1, 2014.  One recipient, a top Senate Democrat, said that his July vote to limit use of force and qualified immunity for police cost him and some of his Senate colleagues personally.

“I did lose some friends over that vote, to be honest,” said Sal DiDomenico, the Senate assistant majority leader who represents Middlesex and Suffolk and said he has relationships with many police officers.

DiDomenico has accepted nearly $10,000 in campaign donations from law enforcement since 2014.  He said he has repaired some of his relationships in law enforcement that were damaged by his position on the original July bill.

“I have a clear conscience.  I know what we voted on is what we need,” said DiDomenico, who also voted for the compromise legislation Dec. 1.  “But this one here, it was taken very personal by a lot of people.”

The State Police Association of Massachusetts and its political action committee made the most contributions to state leadership since 2014, with over $250,000 in total donations.

Senate President Karen E. Spilka took in more donations than any other legislative leader in either chamber, accepting more than $17,000 from law enforcement.  House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo led House leadership with just under $17,000 in donations.

DeLeo resigned as House Speaker Tuesday after 12 years in the position. His successor, Quincy Democrat Ronald Mariano, was elected Wednesday by the House.

Both Spilka and DeLeo supported the compromise police reform bill.  Neither returned multiple calls and emails in October and November seeking comment on their police donations.

Police contributions to Democratic leadership in the House and Senate totaled just over $108,000.  Aside from Senate Majority Whip Michael Rush, a lieutenant commander in the United States Navy and veteran of the Iraq War, all of them voted Dec. 1 for the new police reform bill.

Republican leadership accepted a total of $28,639 from law enforcement.  No Republican in either chamber voted for police reform.

Except Sen. DiDomenico, all state legislative leaders contacted who had accepted donations from police did not respond to requests for comment on those contributions.

Attorney General Maura Healey reaped just under $9,000 from police since 2014.  The state’s top law enforcement officer expressed support for the bill in a said in a Nov. 13 statement she supports banning chokeholds, increasing police accountability and requiring officers to stop each other from using excessive force.

Multiple campaign finance experts said they were not surprised to see politicians vote against their police donors on this issue, citing a rising tide of public opinion following the killings of George Floyd and other Black people by police.

“Money buys access — it doesn’t buy outcomes,” said Daniel Schnur, a professor of political communications at the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Southern California.  Schnur said the current political climate has cost law enforcement “some long-time allies.”

“The first thing they’re going to do is to try to win some of those members back,” Schnur said.  “The second thing they’re going to do is to try to replace them.”

This story is the result of a student reporting project at Boston University, under the direction of Maggie Mulvihill, Boston University Associate Professor of the Practice in Computational Journalism, who also contributed to this report.  

 Nick McCool is a former intern in the Communications Office of Gov. Baker.  He recused himself from all reporting involving Governor Baker and Lt. Gov. Polito.

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