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What was Joe Petty thinking?
This is an insult to old school political games
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Typically the middle of July is a time of the year when you don’t expect there to be a whole lot going on in the realm of Worcester politics. The City Council is basically on sleep mode, everyone’s on vacation and no one’s really paying all that much attention. So I thought I would have been able to safely take a week or so to pursue a longform history reporting project without much fear of having to put it aside to address some more immediate malarkey. Well, this ain't no normal July, as I’m sure you’re aware, and I’m forced for tonight to put aside a much more worthwhile project to dig in on some of the aforementioned malarkey brought to us by Joe Petty’s campaign for state senate.
For reasons which remain rather unclear, Petty decided to start playing dirty and in doing so proved he is uhhhh not very good at playing dirty. I expected more from the local party machine, honestly. If you are going to engage in skullduggery, at least try to do it well.
So Petty’s campaign announced earlier this week that it is requesting a campaign finance investigation into his opponent, Robyn Kennedy, and a fundraising committee supporting her campaign. In a statement sent to local press (not to me, btw!) Petty said he’s requesting the state Office of Campaign & Political Finance to look at Kennedy’s campaign war chest, a recent campaign mailer and a political action committee called Massachusetts Women for Progress. It’s important off the bat to note that people who don’t pay much attention to politics or otherwise consume political media on a surface level might instinctively associate “political action committee” with the “super PAC” and “dark money” narratives which surround presidential campaigns. A political action committee is a standard campaign tool used by good guys and bad guys alike toward both good and bad ends. The existence of a political action committee is not in and of itself a cause for concern. I make the point because it seems a good chunk of Petty’s argument seems to rest on the belief that people will hear “PAC” and think “bad.”
In Petty’s statement a spokesman even references the “Citizens United” Supreme Court decision. While yes it was a fucked up decision that all but doomed the law of the land to a corporate subjugation, it is a hysterically dramatic thing to invoke in the context of a state senate contest in which whole tens of thousands of dollars are at play. It’s never going to cost less than $2 billion to be president ever again but yeah this is the problem.
You’d be right to invoke Citizens United in the context of the National Rifle Association’s stranglehold on Congress or the Koch brothers’ decades-long war against the social safety net or the fact that in 2043 the Environmental Protection Agency will be formally outsourced to ExxonMobil. But Kate Norton of the Petty camp really went and said the following quote, knowing that real humans with human brains are going to read it.
"Citizens United was one of the Supreme Court’s earliest decisions to undermine our democracy and this is an example of the harm it causes: A handful of millionaires contributed the $1,000 maximum to a candidate and decided that wasn’t good enough in their effort to substitute their voices ahead of the voters of the district.”
Even if Kennedy did something wrong—and as I’ll get to, she really didn’t—evoking the Supreme Court and the national dark money issue in this context is just so stunningly breathless and overblown. It’s the product of someone who has either themselves lost the plot or is cynical enough to believe that their audience has.
What Norton’s talking about here—this “example of the harm (Citizens United) causes”—is a simple mailer sent out this week by the Massachusetts Women For Progress PAC in support of Kennedy. In its news release, Petty’s campaign said the PAC is “led by out-of-district millionaires.” And the grave infraction they want to see investigated? This mailer included a quote from Kennedy and Kennedy shared the mailer on social media.
This is surely the evil the Supreme Court sought to unleash on the land with Citizens United. Money from “out of district millionaires” and unsourced quotes on campaign mailers in state senate races. That’s what’s going to kill American democracy right there if you ask me.
Kennedy on Twitter said the Petty campaign is just falling back on old school political games, which is true in that it’s transparently underhanded but it’s also sort of insulting to old school political games. Could you imagine a Buddy Cianci or a Tom Menino doing something like this? Sniveling to the press about an opponent’s mailer and the fine points of OCPF compliance? Dramatically evoking the visage of ~dark money~ when whole thousands of dollars are at play?
Anyway, Kennedy got to the heart of the matter when she said it’s no surprise that this little play comes shortly after the Massachusetts Teachers Association endorsed her campaign over Petty’s. In quite a cute little dig she reminded everyone that Petty is the chairman of the Worcester School Committee and still the MTA thought she was the better fit for the seat.
Albeit quietly, Kennedy’s campaign has been doing really well. The MTA is a massive endorsement which considerably raises the profile of her campaign. Before that, she’s received endorsements from the Massachusetts Womens Political Caucus, Progressive Mass, and weirdly enough former Governor Deval Patrick among others.
The race at this point is looking much more competitive than it did earlier in the year. Kennedy has moved from ‘progressive challenger for the sake of there being a challenge’ to simply the progressive choice in a legitimate two-way contest. From Petty’s perspective, the election has shifted from a pre-coronation formality to an actual fight. This sad little bit of gamesmanship is evidence he’s reacting poorly to this new reality. To my mind, it reads like frustration that he actually has to campaign on the issues and he’s looking for a way out.
This is Massachusetts after all and just about the whole of the political landscape, save for the anomaly of the governor’s office, is firmly in the grip of the Democratic Party. You need only look at the current race for governor to see just how rare it is that a contest of ideas between the right and left flank of the party makes it to the ballot box. Sonia Chang-Diaz, the strongest progressive challenger to Maura Healey, dropped her campaign last month, publicly conceding that there was no path to victory and that her efforts were better focused on supporting down-ballot candidates. Chang Diaz was last in the line of several to make the same decision, and now Healey is set to waltz through the formality of a contest against a thoroughly broken state GOP to an easy coronation.
Albeit on a much smaller scale, the Healey vs. Chang-Diaz dynamic is closely mirrored in the contest between Petty and Kennedy. Petty entered the race with a much higher public profile, many more friends in the party machine and with a far larger war chest. Kennedy chose despite this to mount a challenge from the left, and it was a bold decision—one that is far too rare in Massachusetts state politics. Should she win or lose, we’re better for it. Every time the state Democratic Party internally resolves the question of who should run for office, the public is shut out of the process. It’s something to keep in mind whenever you hear a party apparatchik bemoan the fact that no one votes or pays attention. My brother in Christ, you deny them the incentive.
Perhaps Kennedy was coming from a similar place when she wrote the last line of her response to Petty’s foolishness.
“I encourage the Petty campaign to join us in talking about issues that matter rather than try to undermine our credibility,” she wrote. “Our campaign won’t resort to that.”
Kennedy wants an open and fair contest of ideas. Petty doesn’t, and the realization that he’s going to have to participate in said contest has prompted him to throw a hissy fit.
The Massachusetts Women for Progress PAC leveled a much harsher criticism than Kennedy. Cara Berg Powers, PAC chairwoman, let it rip in a statement released shortly after Petty’s.
“The accusations alleged in a press release from Mayor Petty earlier today are incredibly serious and without merit,” she wrote. “At a time where women are facing the biggest attacks in a generation, Mayor Petty decides to spread misinformation. They are weaponizing OCPF and timing the press release to undermine endorsements from future State House colleagues Mary Keefe and Natalie Higgins and one of the largest labor unions in the state, the Mass Teachers Association. This political trickery and conflating things you don’t like with breaking the law is beneath the decorum expected of an elected official and state employee.”
The statement rightly pointed out something I hadn’t initially considered. It was obvious to me that invoking a Supreme Court decision to attack a state senate candidate on campaign finance technicalities is overblown and dramatic. But as Berg Powers suggests here, it’s entirely more fucked up to attack a woman running for office by associating her with the entity that just recently declared all-out war on women’s rights.
The fact I’m a man likely plays a large part in my missing this particularly shameful aspect, but I’m sure Berg Powers was not the only woman who quickly saw this for what it was and took extreme offense to it. The challenges faced by women in politics is not an arena in which my observations hold any valuel obviously, but the more I really wrap my head around the why here—as in why would Petty do this—the more central Kennedy’s gender becomes. There’s nothing worse than a “male feminist” type guy who assumes a worldview informed by feminism affords him the right to participate in feminist critique. Ick. But if any of the lovely ladies or non-binary baddies reading this feel inspired to take a crack at it, I’ll happily lend my platform (and pay). Just shoot me a line.
Anyway, we haven’t talked much about the substance of Petty’s accusation. You may at this point be thinking ‘But Bill, what if your politics are clouding your judgment of the central legal question? What if Kennedy is actually doing big campaign finance crimes?’
Well I looked into it and found I don’t particularly know or care about the finer points of campaign finance law, and certainly not in any way that would disprove my gut reaction that Petty was throwing the book at Kennedy in a weirdly aggressive way. But I couldn’t prove it because I am a dumb person.
Like any good dumb person I sought guidance from the smart people and it turns out the smart people are just as befuddled by this accusation as I was. One of the smartest people around when it comes to stuff like this is Lance Harris (his twitter account @CMassPolitics is a must-follow). Harris did the work I would do if I were capable and, after going down this particularly weird and dry rabbit hole, was left with the conclusion these accusations were ”flimsy at best.”
This one is stunning.
If you’ll remember, Petty’s claim of coordination rested heavily on the charge that the mailer, which was from the PAC, used a quote from Kennedy which was “unsourced,” thus ~proving~ that Kennedy and the PAC worked together. ‘Aha! You emailed a quote over to the PAC! Collusion!’
I maintain that even if Kennedy did do that, how could you possibly expect someone to give a shit. I mean it’s so trivial.
But Harris was able to blow up this entire premise with a Google search. He found not one but three sources for the quote: Kennedy’s website, Facebook page and Twitter page. How could the Petty campaign have neglected to check these very public and easy to find places before making this bizarrely niche campaign finance complaint? It throws the whole thing into the realm of the absurd.
With ‘quote collusion’ out the window, the case then rests on an Instagram story from Kennedy’s account in which she says “our mailers are out!” which, again… this is obvious nitpicking. If she had said “the mailers are out” it would have been fine. This grave mistake, which is exactly what we were worried about after Citizens United, was the result of a rookie staffer, Kennedy said, and quickly remedied. It is after all very easy to delete an Instagram story, which, keep in mind, is what we’re talking about here. An Instagram story. And the Petty campaign is going off about the Supreme Court.
I disagree with Harris’s criticism here on the grounds that it is absurd anyone was put in the position to own or not own this mistake and it’s annoying that we’ve been made to think about it at all when we should be talking about how to build more fucking housing.
But Harris’s criticism (and a totally fair one by the way. No hate, Lance!) is worth considering as an example of what a dirty campaign tactic like this accomplishes.
Now we’re out of campaign finance law and back in my domain: the local news media and the court of townie opinion.
The mayor announcing a call for a campaign finance investigation into his state senate opponent is a guaranteed news story in any city with a local reporter still employed to cover it. And Petty’s team decided to go exclusively through the local press on this one. I just checked and there’s still nothing about this at all on the campaign’s social media or website. They opted not, as has become custom, to throw the statement up on social media platforms, blast it out to the general mailing list, and wait for the local outlets to seize on it. Instead, they gave the local outlets the opportunity to be “first.” From a business perspective being “first” is very important as it gives you a better shot of gaming social media algorithms to have the post among several identical posts that “takes off” and gets in front of a lot of eyeballs.
But more than the demands of a digital business model, the culture of local journalism is imbued with an imperative to get information out faster than the other guy, especially in a place like Worcester where there remains a decent number of competing outlets. You gotta “scoop” the competition, especially those TV News assholes. Be more on top of it. Be faster. Have better access to sources closer to the information. Make sure they like you the best. I’m speaking from experience here. Worcester Magazine under Walter Bird’s editorial control was all about this game, and I can’t lie, the times I won it felt good. It has a certain appeal. I’m sure almost all of journalism is like this, all the way up to the ones who are probably CIA agents but I can only speak to my experience and I’ve only ever been a local guy.
Fun as it is, this game does not place a lot of value on critical distance. If the other guy is writing about it, you have to write about it. It’s not your job to assess whether the information is worth the public’s time and attention, or even if it’s solid. This tweet on the present matter from Ben White over at Talk of The Commonwealth really captures the impulse. Sorry to bring it back up as it was the source of some Worcester Internet Drama but it really does serve to illustrate an important point.
The “Woah!” I know that feeling. You see something in your inbox, you intuitively understand the news value and you throw it online as fast as you can. ‘Hell, this was emailed to me directly! I might be the first to get it out.’ Five reporters at five different competing outlets all have the same idea and in a matter of hours the mayor’s allegation regardless of its validity is splashed across the Internet and everybody’s talkin’.
The headlines reach many more people than the text of the article—little pieces of internet ephemera, passively consume. Just another wave in a rolling sea of information and the only takeaway without investigating further is the association of “Robyn Kennedy” with “investigation” and “campaign finance.” Sounds bad!
The relatively small number of people who bother to read the text of these articles will find the well-trod format of an “objective” news story. Allegation at the top, a little bit of context, the response of the accused, a little more context and background, and then maybe a little more from whichever side you personally agree with if you’re feeling spicy. Objective in appearance. Equal weight to each position. A defensible position from which to claim impartiality.
What you could never articulate to the reader in this form is the process by which you arrived at the conclusion the story is “news.” What is “news” is simply “news.” It’s a matter of intuition, not to be interrogated. To interrogate it would not be objective.
I know by the way that I’m going way far afield with this but hey, it’s my newsletter, I do what I want. And I swear I’m getting somewhere. A place I’ve been trying to go for a good long while, to be honest. And while this next part has nothing to do with this state senate race, it sort of has everything to do with it.
Presenting a piece of writing as objective in its appearance is not a very hard thing to do. A centuries-long body of scientific evidence proves in a quantifiable way that the Earth is round. Despite this, some people on the Internet think it’s flat.
There. Objective. Equal narrative time to both sides. Fair assessments of each belief offered without obvious judgment. In “despite this,” a clause bridging the two sentences to demonstrate the flat Earth team is the underdog in this battle of ideas. It’s an objective clause through and through and it’s also a little bitchy which is fun.
So yeah, there’s an absurd situation presented in complete compliance with the Rules of Objective Journalism.
But why did I think to use that example? What informed that decision? Why do I think this is “news”? “News value” is where the Rules of Objective Journalism get a little murky. Let’s make it real simple. There’s a writer who comes up with and writes a story, then an editor who assesses whether it’s worth publishing. It’s in this conversation that “news value” is assessed. If both agree on the news value, it is news. Both editor and writer are beholden to a set of boundaries for what constitutes an acceptable story. This boundary is set by a diffuse set of processes which boil down to money. The threat of job termination lies at one end of acceptability, and the prospect of better employment rests at the other. In this framework, there’s little incentive to interrogate what determines “news value” and a whole hell of a lot of incentive to attenuate yourself to acceptability as defined by money. But even if you never once stop to think critically about news value, you are still a thinking and feeling human being with a worldview, morality and opinions. Why did I choose to write about flat earthers earlier? Because I think they’re the most irony-poisoned morons on the planet and they’re suffering from an as-yet undefined mental illness caused by internet exposure.
That’s not objective, folks! I did not come to that decision objectively! Whole lot of bias at play! But I was able to present it objectively as defined by the Rules of Objective Journalism and as such I was within the bounds of acceptability. If an editor, who probably holds the same opinion I do, agrees that it has news value, it becomes news.
Let’s take it back to Worcester now and this patently ridiculous bit of political theater.
The dynamic of presenting objective-looking stories while refusing to interrogate the process by which news value is determined leads naturally to a subservience to power. When the mayor says something, it’s automatically assigned a greater news value than someone of lesser power. The word of a police officer is automatically assigned greater weight than the word of a regular person. A regular person only ever makes news if they do something criminal or outlandish.
People with power, like a mayor or a police officer, would have to be rather dim to not understand the power this affords them.
When a mayor, perhaps one looking at a more challenging election than he once thought, makes a bold allegation, he knows it's guaranteed news. And he knows, further, that the very act of making the allegation is in most cases bigger news with further reach than the substance of the allegation, or lack thereof. If the person on the receiving end of the allegation holds less power, he can safely assume their response will be of lesser news value.
In this case, we’re looking at an allegation that falls apart under casual scrutiny. But by the time any consensus forms around whether the mayor was right or wrong to make such a claim, the damage has already been done, with the great help of a naturally subservient local press. Because this claim has already been assigned a news value, the Kennedy campaign is forced to respond, and then the manner in which they respond becomes itself a subject of debate. Harkening back to Harris’ assessment, we’re now put in a position to form opinions on whether or not Kennedy threw her staffer under the bus. Whether she should have been made to respond in the first place is no longer a question you can consider. The news value has already been assigned. This is now a story.
That’s what makes this such a dirty rotten no good trick. It refocuses the race away from a contest of ideas and toward a tiresome drama—one which Petty, by nature of his news value, gets to control.
It’s not something you do if you believe you’ve got the better ideas.
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In other news an apartment building collapsed on Mill Street did you guys see that? The Worcester Renaissance baby we’re back on the map.
And big ups to Neal McNamara over at the Patch for following the bizarre set of circumstances surrounding a small park next to Polar Park.
It appears our City Council essentially allowed the WooSox and the Worcester Redevelopment Authority to just flat out absorb a piece of public land in perpetuity after the city went through the trouble of acquiring a $3.5 million state grant to make it nice. We love a public private partnership here in Worcester that’s for sure.