THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

The battle for state auditor

Auditor? Yes, it’s an elected position, held for 24 years by a former boxer, Joseph DeNucci. And for the first time in more than two decades, the race is on.

By Stephanie Ebbert
Globe Staff / May 16, 2010

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Consider it a sign of the frenzied political season. A Democratic fixture on Beacon Hill picked this year to retire and six eager contenders lined up to replace him — as auditor, the lowest rung on the ladder of statewide officeholders.

A. Joseph DeNucci, once a professional boxer, was first elected auditor in 1986 and has not faced a tough reelection bout since 1998.

His decision to bow out of contention this year suddenly opened the doors to a colorful new cast of characters. With contests on both the Republican and Democratic ballots, the auditor’s race should be the biggest fight of the primary season.

“It’s an interesting field. It’s obviously a wide-open race,’’ said Secretary of State William F. Galvin. “While it’s an office that may be down the chain in terms of chain of command, its impact on public spending — especially in such an atmosphere where public spending is under scrutiny — explains why it has garnered such attention from so many candidates.’’

On the Democratic side, no fewer than three candidates are fighting for the nomination. Among them is 31-year-old Mike Lake of Boston, who entered the race as an earnest but aggressive newcomer. He completed five undergraduate majors at Northeastern University, and was a White House aide. Now, he’s executive director of Northeastern’s World Class Cities Partnership, exchanging best practices with urban leaders around the world.

“I’m a problem-solver, not a politician. And I think that’s what people are looking for,’’ said Lake. “This is the office that upholds the integrity of state government. It’s challenging, I think, for people to wrap their head around the fact that we might be asking insiders to watch over other insiders.’’

One of the “insiders’’ he specifically targets is opponent Suzanne M. Bump, a Democrat who stepped down from her post as Governor Deval Patrick’s labor secretary to campaign for auditor.

Bump served four terms in the Legislature while living in Braintree; she has also worked as a lobbyist and served as political director of Patrick’s 2006 campaign. She pushed back at Lake’s approach to governance and said her experience helped her navigate state government and understand how to improve it.

“To spin out ideas of best practices and treat the auditor’s office like it’s an academic think tank and expect that agencies are just going to flock to your new ideas is naïve at best,’’ said Bump. “I don’t regard having an understanding of how government actually works and how agency managers actually think and how money is actually spent to be a liability.’’

The third Democrat in the running is boisterous Worcester County Sheriff Guy W. Glodis, who in some circles is known for being disinvited from the St. Patrick’s Day Breakfast for his off-color jabs.

The son of a former legislator, Glodis served eight years on Beacon Hill before he was elected sheriff in 2004. He has stockpiled $800,000 for his campaign — far more than any of his opponents. In perhaps another political sign of the times, Glodis, too, is trying to cast himself as a political outsider who is fiscally conservative and beholden to no one.

“My opponent’s been on Beacon Hill for 20 years. She ran the governor’s campaign, she was a state rep, an insurance lobbyist,’’ he charged. “She’s definitely tied into the inside establishment.’’

The auditor has the potentially humdrum job of conducting financial and performance audits of state agencies and contractors to ensure that funds are being spent appropriately.

As a result, the auditor’s race is being watched by voters who want to wring more savings out of state government — including affiliates of the Tea Party movement that helped fuel Scott Brown’s surge to the US Senate.

“It’s one of those offices that appeals to people in the Tea Party because it’s all about where the money’s going,’’ said Christen Varley, president of the Greater Boston Tea Party.

One Republican candidate for auditor, Kamal Jain, has been involved with the Tea Party all along and is courting Tea Party chapters as he campaigns. In 2002, Jain ran for auditor against DeNucci as a libertarian. He got just 6 percent of the vote.

This time around, he announced as an independent candidate then switched to Republican, fearing that he couldn’t win statewide as an independent.

Last month, at the GOP state convention, he nearly failed to win enough delegate support to qualify for the ballot but made it in a recount. Now, he says, some find his loss of the endorsement appealing.

“There are a good number of people in the state who are independent who actually like the fact that I’m not the endorsed candidate from the party,’’ Jain said.

His rival, Mary Z. Connaughton, reminded GOP delegates of her stubborn independence by citing a Globe story that called her “the thorniest thorn in the side’’ of the governor, as a member of the former Massachusetts Turnpike Authority board fighting a toll increase. Connaughton has also worked as chief financial officer of the Massachusetts State Lottery and served on the Massachusetts Commission on Judicial Conduct.

In her run for auditor, she emphasizes that she has experience as an auditor and that she is a certified public accountant.

“People’s jaws drop when they find out it’s not a requirement for the state auditor to be a CPA,’’ she said. “I think what makes me a very strong candidate is a proven track record of standing up for the public. As a CPA, I’m trained to be independent and objective. I can’t be political. I have to do things right.’’

An especially interesting political profile in the auditor’s race belongs to Green-Rainbow Party candidate Nathanael Fortune. He’s a Smith College associate professor of physics who focuses on renewable energy. Fortune, also chairman of the Whately School Committee, jumped in after analyzing state and local contributions to education funding.

“I don’t see a way to continue having schools worth paying for if we don’t start being more efficient and fair in how we raise our funds,’’ Fortune said. “I’m really trying to make it possible to have better government services more affordably.’’

Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at ebbert@globe.com

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