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September 22, 2014

If you’re wondering whether a 501 (c) 4 can jump the shark, take a look at the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance’s recent voter education effort.

The Alliance’s website says the group is a “non-partisan, non-profit 501c(4) organization committed to improving the quality of life in Massachusetts by advocating for fiscal responsibility through right of center economic, fiscal and good government solutions. As a non-profit 501c(4) organization, our primary focus is to promote social welfare. As residents of Massachusetts, we are concerned for our Fiscal future.”

Credit the group for being open about its mission and its leadership. It advocates “right of center” policies and it makes no bones about pointing to a leadership that is also right of center. It is worth noting that right of center does not always mean Republican. Many folks who wish to pursue a right of center economic and fiscal policy have lodged plenty of criticisms at the Republican party. A group with their mission can, in fact, be nonpartisan.

Still, if you claim to be so but you have a leadership team that is most certainly not, you are testing the meaning of the word. And then there is the reality that the group is only targeting Democrats for defeat in this cycle.

The group sent out mailers to the constituents of 20 Democratic state representatives. The mailers declared, among other things, that some of the legislators in question are “ for denying veterans priority housing benefits over illegal immigrants.”

The source of this charge is cited as House vote 241 with the helpful link to the roll call vote.

It is quite an inflammatory charge. The idea that legislators would deny priority to veterans in favor of “illegal immigrants” could well leave voters fuming.

House Vote 241 must certainly be a smoking gun.

If you look closely at the linked roll call vote, you see it reads “Shall the decision of the Chair stand.”

What was the decision? The vote in the Legislature was on whether or not an amendment was germane to a bill under consideration. The clerk ruled that the amendment was not germane. House vote 241 had nothing to do with whether veterans should have priority over anyone in housing. It was on “Shall the decision of the chair stand.”

The House was considering a motion to discharge a bill relative to veterans’ allowances, labor, outreach and recognition and the following happened, according to the Journal of the House:

Mr. Diehl of Whitman and other members of the House then moved to amend the bill by adding the following section:

“SECTION 35: notwithstanding any general or special law to the contrary, the executive office of housing and economic development shall require all recipients or any person seeking housing or assistance in any form, including vouchers, to provide a valid social security number and the housing agency is required to verify the number.”.

Ms. Reinstein of Revere thereupon raised a point of order that the amendment offered by the gentleman from Whitman, was improperly before the House for the reason that it went beyond the scope of the pending bill.

In answer to the point of order, the Chair (Mr. Donato of Medford) ruled that an examination of the amendment showed that it was in fact beyond the scope of the pending bill; and the amendment was laid aside accordingly.

Mr. Diehl thereupon appealed from the decision of the Chair; and the appeal was seconded by Mr. Lombardo of Billerica.

The question was then put “Shall the decision of the Chair stand as the judgment of the House?”.

On the appeal from the decision of the Chair, the sense of the House was taken by yeas and nays, at the request of Mr. Diehl of Whitman; and on the roll call 126 members voted in the affirmative and 29 in the negative.

The amendment, as described here, doesn’t seem to have much to do with the underlying bill. But surely what is and what is not germane is something to debate. The Alliance, for example, supported a nay vote, claiming that it believed Diehl’s amendment should have had an up or down vote.

But the charge on the mailer is obviously false as House Vote 241 was a procedural vote. It would be far more accurate to note that State Representative {fill in the blank} voted on behalf of the Leadership’s view that a housing amendment to a veteran’s bill was non germane.

I guess that’s not really an effective mailer.

The whole episode reminds me of a great, if off-color, story about one of Lyndon Johnson’s first campaigns where he instructed a staffer to put the word out that his opponent had a thing for sexual relations with animals. The horrified staffer responded that he couldn’t possibly say such a thing, “It’s not true.” Johnson is said to have replied, “I know. I just want to hear him deny it.”

Every time a targeted Democrat responds that they “don’t favor illegal immigrants over veterans”, MassFiscal scores a point and a smirk from LBJ. In response to criticism the Alliance’s executive director says “Some of these lawmakers are crying wolf, saying this is political in nature, which couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s just their voting record.”

Mailers such as these can stimulate interest in a race and impact the impression voters have of candidates, according to interesting research by political scientists David Doherty and E. Scott Adler. That reality explains, in part, why the targeted legislators have loudly cried foul.

Voting records should be the subject of relentless conversations between citizens and their legislators. And the resources of Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance can and should be harnessed to hold public officials accountable in any way that group sees fit. It is not their fault that we live in a strange world of campaign finance where words such as “nonpartisan” or phrases such as “social welfare” are devoid of meaning. They are simply playing by the new rules.

This is part of our brave new world, termed a “campaign finance farce-ocracy” by my colleague Professor Cunningham.

Negative can work. It can also backfire. Some veterans have come to the defense of a few of the targeted legislators. Given Massachusetts’ enviable record on veteran’s benefits, many vets have little reason to be angered by their state legislators.

In our recent history, mailers relentlessly attacking Scott Brown in the last weeks of the 2010 special election did not help Martha Coakley. The last-minute negative ad against Seth Moulton a few weeks ago did not help John Tierney. Veterans groups may not take kindly to the Alliance suggesting that some legislators who have been pro-veteran, are not.

Misleading voters by using inflammatory and false language pitting legislators against veterans and veterans against immigrants in a clear attempt to defeat members of one political party is not how we typically understand nonpartisan voter education.

Fiscal, Alliance, Massachusetts

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