Rudnick Runs Against... Creem's Contributors?

So, here's the thing: I can't understand Charles Rudnick's point.

Rudnick is running against state senator Cynthia Creem in the Newton/Brookline/Wellesley area Democratic primary -- which I'm all for, the more the merrier. And Rudnick seems like a legitimate candidate for public office.

And I'm certainly expecting legislative challengers this year, in both parties, to hurl around accusation and innuendo about the incumbents' role in the DiMasi-Wilkerson-whatever culture of Beacon Hill corruption; that's politics, and as I've said about Lida Harkins, any incumbent who isn't prepared for that, or thinks they're exempt from it just because they didn't personally do anything wrong, is in fantasy land.

But Rudnick has been focussing his entire pitch around the argument that Massachusetts's incumbent legislators are hopelessly corrupted by accepting campaign contributions from lobbyists and other self-interested sources. That's a solid goo-goo issue, to be sure. But, um..... well, if that's the only thing that differentiates him from Creem, I'm not sure where he's going with it.

First of all, Rudnick launched his campaign with great lobbyist-bashing fanfare, vowing not to accept contributions from lobbyists or committees -- at a kickoff event where he was introduced and endorsed by two of his former bosses: George Bachrach, a registered lobbyist for the Environmental League of Massachusetts, where he is president; and Warren Tolman, a former lobbyist [Correction: Tolman was not a registered lobbyist] who now works for Holland & Knight. Tolman, who has not been a lobbyist since before his gubernatorial campaign, has contributed the maximum $500 to Rudnick.

That's nothing against either of those two gentlemen, who have been fine public servants and good progressives, both of whom I've interviewed for stories, both of whom I've been teamed with on TV panels, and (don't spread this around) at least one of whom I have voted for at some point in my life. In fact, one could argue that Bachrach and Tolman belie the notion that political officeholders have nothing to gain through contact with "lobbyists" and "special interests."

But, that notion is precisely Rudnick's argument. When I asked him about it a while back, he told me that he sees "no contradiction. I wasn't corrupted by taking any money from Mr. Bachrach.... I think it's completely consistent."

Of course, nobody really thinks that a few hundred dollars from a lobbyist creates a problem; the pressure, if there is any, comes from the bundling of large wads of contributions. So I asked Rudnick whether Bachrach or Tolman are raising money for the campaign; he did not answer directly, but noted that Bachrach is a "good friend," whose family is supportive of his campaign.

I also asked Rudnick if he would provide a list of his contributors, but he declined, saying that he has reported, as required, funds he raised in 2009 (just under $20,000, plus $15,000 of his own), and is not required to file another report to the state until September 7 -- a week before the primary. But that's what the state requires; there's nothing preventing candidates from disclosing on their own more frequently, and I pointed out that, given the central role of the issue in his campaign, one might expect him to show full transparency about his contributions. No dice.

All of this may seem petty -- although as an alt-weekly journalist who bends over backward to give progressive candidates their due, I have no problem demanding that they live up to the standards they themselves set.

But I just don't understand Rudnick's point, while obviously accepting the help (on his own terms) of Bachrach and Tolman, of centering his campaign against Creem on this issue of corruption-by-contribution. Because, unless I'm missing something -- and I follow this stuff pretty closely -- Creem's main problem on the fundraising side is that she doesn't go around collecting from the folks who have business in front of her.

Creem took in roughly $2500 of campaign contributions in 2008 and 2009 combined. In the past, when pressed with a challenger, she goes nuts and raises $50,000 or so in the two-year cycle -- a pathetic pittance among incumbent state senators -- and mostly from folks in the district. Her take from lobbyists is among the lowest in the chamber, and her take from PACs and other committees is also low. Maybe that's changed in 2010 -- like Rudnick, Creem has not reported her contributions this year -- but I'm not aware of it.

So here's Rudnick, telling me that "I want to be able to get up there on Beacon Hill and look at policy issues without being beholden" to those who contribute to his campaign. But when I asked Rudnick for instances when Creem may have seemed to act beholden to those who contribute to her campaign, he had no examples. "I don't want to get into specifics," he said. "It pervades the culture."

Well, I just don't see how that's going to work in her district. I suspect that legislators who try to run beyond their district -- like Harkin did, and like others are attempting -- may have trouble dealing with this kind of vague broad-brush indictment. But unless you've got something to hang Creem with, I don't see how you convince primary voters in her district, who have voted for her before, that she is now part of the corrupt process.

Recently the candidates have been getting into dust-ups about other accusations, which seem to center around how effectively she's actually worked for certain reforms that they both endorse. That seems like fair game, although the details in those instances look a little murky. If he can make those into a broader question of her competence and effectiveness, that might get him some traction -- but if he tries to frame them as arguments that she is deliberately obstructing reforms, because of this inherent contribution conflict, I don't think he's getting anywhere with it.

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