Campaign war chests allow local lawmakers to be big spenders

No one ran against Methuen state Sen. Steven Baddour in November's election, but that didn't stop him from spending $191,000 from his campaign war chest over the past two years.


Haverhill state Rep. Brian Dempsey, another unopposed candidate, went through $80,000 of his campaign money.


North Andover state Rep. David Torrisi used $52,000.


The money can be used for office supplies, phone bills, fliers, advertisements and fundraisers.


But an examination of campaign finance reports also reveals $900 restaurant tabs, a limousine ride, thousands of dollars spent on flowers and gifts, trips to Washington, D.C., and donations to just about every charity one could imagine.


"Not being independently wealthy, you got to spend the money to raise it," said Baddour, whose war chest is rated among the top 10 largest in the Senate. "Donations, flowers for people, meals ... that's part of re-election, keeping up a good, solid base of supporters."


The campaign money politicians use comes from donations and fundraisers, and is not taxpayer funded.


Flowers, dinners with supporters, and donations are all ways politicians like to ingratiate themselves with their community — a political tool to ensure voters remember on election day and open their purses to contribute more to the war chests.


These kinds of expenses are not uncommon for politicians, said Pam Wilmot, director of Common Cause, a group that advocates for open government.


"This kind of expenditure is perfectly legal under the current law," she said. "You do see a lot of expenditures that are not related to political campaigning."


There are few things that are prohibited by campaign spending laws. Lawmakers can spend money on any expense that furthers the enhancement of the political future of the candidate.


Some political observers have criticized a system that puts limits on how much citizens can contribute to a campaign — $500 — but not on how much politicians can spend on their constituents.


Baddour, whose district includes Methuen, Haverhill, and North Andover, spent $191,170 from Jan. 1, 2007, to Oct. 17, 2008, according to reports filed with the state Office of Campaign and Political Finance.


The Methuen Democrat, co-chairman of the joint committee on transportation, spent a good chunk of that on food - $31,769 on meals and catering. About $15,260 went to catered affairs, including two events at DiBurro's in Haverhill.


Much of the rest went toward the 84 meals he footed the bill for at restaurants throughout Boston and the Merrimack Valley, places like Shadi's in Methuen, and Ruth's Chris Steak House and Joe Tecci's in Boston.


He treated his staff to lunch and dinner 46 times.


"If we have a late-night session, I bring them out to eat ... they don't get paid a lot of money," Baddour said. "I like to treat my staff well."


Baddour raised $209,977 during the same period. Even after all the spending, he has about $300,000 in his war chest.


Baddour also spent $600 on a limo rental, $1,175 on dues at the private University of Massachusetts club, $1,000 in gifts at the Boston Coffee Cake Co. and $2,200 on flowers.


But nobody does flowers like Dempsey, who shelled out $6,123 in flowers for constituents in the last two years out of the total $80,030 he spent. The Haverhill Democrat sent flowers more than 40 times, for birthdays, weddings and deaths.


Torrisi, chairman of the joint committee on labor and workforce development, also was a big spender when it came to restaurants.


The North Andover Democrat spent about $17,000 on wining and dining, with one meal at Ruth's Chris Steak House that totaled $991 and another at Prezza Restaurant in Boston that ran $865.03.


"If I remember there were 20 people at that dinner," Torrisi said of the Ruth's Chris bill. "I think I got away cheap on that one."


He brought staff to the Zen Japanese Grill in Boston 17 times. Overall, Torrisi spent $52,065 on expenses.


State Sen. Susan Tucker, D-Andover, spent $54,800 from Jan. 1, 2007, to Oct. 17, 2008, but the money was spent mostly on office expenses and donations.


She did have a higher cell phone bill than her local colleagues, spending $3,649 on phone bills during that time.


Andover state Rep. Barry Finegold spent $62,015. Of that, he paid $7,597 to the Evalesco Group, a fundraising, campaign and political consulting firm. He spent $2,750 on fundraising and reporting software.


For all the money the candidates spent on dinners and flowers, they also showered local and national charities with donations, as well as campaigns.


"My money is mostly spent on charitable donations," Torrisi said. "That and taking care of my staff."


Each candidate spent more than $10,000 in donations and sponsorships. Torrisi spent more than $21,000 on donations.


Baddour dished out more than $37,500. He gave more than $1,000 each to the Arab American Institute, Hillary Clinton for President, Lawrence's Sons of Italy and Presentation of Mary Academy.


"A lot of money is spent on raising money," he said. "I've often said serving in the Senate, raising money is the worst part of the job."


Date: 1/2/2009 12:00:00 AM