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CAMPAIGN 2010 | GOVERNOR’S RACE

The corporate money is on ...

Records show lion’s share of contributions come from the business community

By Todd Wallack and Casey Ross
Globe Staff / October 28, 2010

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Governor Deval Patrick raised more than $26,000 from Liberty Mutual executives over the past year. In March, Liberty Mutual won $22.5 million in state tax credits for its new office tower in Boston.

Meanwhile, GOP rival Charles Baker has collected $19,000 from NStar executives since the Patrick administration adopted rules last year that would force the utility to buy renewable energy from producers based in Massachusetts. Baker, like NStar, wants Massachusetts to have access to cheaper hydro power from Canada.

And Treasurer Timothy Cahill, running as an independent, has received more than $12,500 in the past year from lawyers at a New York law firm that does work for the state pension fund he helps oversee.

Of the $17 million the three major candidates running for governor have raised so far, millions have come from people in the business community who have an obvious stake in the outcome, campaign finance records show.

Because the state caps contributions from individuals at $500 per year, it is particularly important for campaigns to lean on corporate executives and other influential business people to tap their own networks for additional donations, said Jeffrey Berry, a political science professor at Tufts University.

“This is a process that no one likes,’’ Berry said. “The problem is that taxpayers don’t want to pay for campaigns themselves, so they leave it to individuals to contribute. And the people who have the most incentive to contribute are people who have business before the state.’’

Still, many business leaders say they gave because they believe in the candidates or support their platform. And all three leading candidates say they have such vast pools of contributors that it limits the influence from any one person or company. Baker, for instance, noted that he has attracted tens of thousands of contributors.

“It means nobody’s support really means that much to us,’’ Baker said.

The legal sector provided the three major candidates with the single largest source of money.

Patrick, a former corporate attorney, led the pack with 750 donations totaling more than $257,000, according to an analysis of donations through Sept. 30 by the National Institute on Money in State Politics, a nonpartisan group that tracks campaign funding.

Baker collected nearly 700 donations from people at law firms totaling more than $218,000. But Baker, a former chief executive of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, also raised more than $192,000 from employees of health care companies. And he collected $526,000 from workers at finance, insurance, and real estate companies, more than what Patrick received from those sectors, the institute said.

The legal community was generous to Cahill, as well, with lawyers donating more than $123,000 so far.

The only candidate who has not collected many donations from corporate executives is Jill Stein of the Green Party, who lags far behind in current polls. Her single largest source of donations was $1,550 from academics at Smith College in Northampton.

“While the other candidates are raking in money from corporations, we’re just receiving money from people we meet on the street and support the campaign’’ said Stein’s campaign manager, Daryl Sprague.

Some of the most prominent names in corporate America have contributed to the Massachusetts governor’s race.

For instance, Coca-Cola Enterprises chief executive John Brock and Delta Air Lines Inc. chief executive Richard Anderson have given money to Baker. And John Chambers, chief executive of tech giant Cisco Systems Inc., and his wife each gave $500 to Patrick.

Ron Shaich, chairman of the Panera Bread restaurant chain, and his wife each gave $500 to Patrick because Shaich believes the governor has improved the business climate in Massachusetts and shielded the state from the worst of the recession.

“I look at results,’’ Shaich said, “and I don’t remember a time when our state was this competitive in terms of its business environment.’’

Meanwhile, executives at the Boston advertising agency Hill Holliday held fund-raisers for both Baker and Cahill. Its chief executive, Michael Sheehan, said the firm has done work for the Massachusetts Lottery, which Cahill oversees, and for Harvard Pilgrim.

“Over a long period of time, you develop friendships,’’ Sheehan said. “Charlie’s been a friend for a long time, and Tim’s been a friend.’’

Though watchdogs often warn that contributions from business people taint the political process, some researchers say figuring out how much influence donations buy is tricky.

“It’s a quantitative morass,’’ said Berry, the Tufts professor.

Richard Briffault, a Columbia Law School professor who has studied campaign finance, said donations are more likely to make a difference on obscure issues rather than popular positions.

“It gives you trails to follow when legislation or regulatory actions happen,’’ Briffault said. “Follow the money. It may explain things in some situations.’’

In Liberty Mutual’s case, more than three dozen employees, including chief executive Edmund F. Kelly, gave Patrick’s campaign more than $11,650 in late 2009 when the insurance company was lobbying for tax incentives to subsidize a new building in the Back Bay. About four months later the Patrick administration approved $22.5 million in incentives for Liberty Mutual’s new building.

Gregory Bialecki, Patrick’s secretary of housing and economic development, said he was not even aware of the contributions from Liberty Mutual executives when his office reviewed the tax credit application.

And Doug Rubin, a Patrick campaign adviser, noted that Liberty Mutual gave $100,000 this year to the Republican Governors Association, which in turn sponsored ads to help Baker’s campaign.

“They’re equal-opportunity donors,’’ Rubin said.

Liberty Mutual declined to comment.

By contrast, NStar executives, who have battled the Patrick administration’s requirements to buy energy from alternative energy sources, are mainly lining up behind Baker. NStar chief executive Thomas May and 27 other NStar employees gave Baker $19,000, much of it raised at fund-raisers cohosted by the utility’s executives.

Most of the donations came in bunches, including $8,350 on Sept. 30 and $5,200 on Feb. 26, after the Patrick administration made several decisions that required utilities to buy electricity from local alternative energy companies, such as the Cape Wind project off Cape Cod, to help support creation of a Massachusetts-based renewable energy industry.

NStar has said that both Cape Wind and the alternative energy requirements are too expensive, and that utilities should be allowed to import cheaper hydroelectric power, an idea Baker endorses. The utility is a partner in a $1.1 billion transmission line that would import more power from Canadian hydroelectric plants. Baker has said Cape Wind is too costly.

The Patrick administration has since lifted the requirement that companies use only local sources of renewable energy, after the owner of a wind farm in Maine sued the state. But it remains opposed to allowing utilities to use energy from large hydroelectric plants to meet the renewable energy requirement, arguing that hydro is a mature technology and does not need state assistance to compete.

NStar spokeswoman Caroline Allen, one of the utility employees who donated to Baker, said employees are encouraged to support whomever they wish.

“We really see that as a personal preference,’’ she said.

But NStar appears to be hedging its bets. May and four other NStar executives gave Patrick $500 each on Dec. 22.

Cahill, meanwhile, has raised tens of thousands of dollars from law firms that do bond work for the Treasury or work with the state pension fund, such as Edwards Angell Palmer & Dodge, and Mintz Levin.

And 14 lawyers from the New York firm Labaton Sucharow, none of whom live in Massachusetts, gave Cahill’s campaign $12,500 between June 2009 and January 2010. The state selected the in 2005 as one of several to represent the state pension fund in shareholder actions, Cahill’s office said.

“We are proud to publicly support those officials and office-seekers who are interested in a positive investor agenda,’’ said Labaton spokeswoman Jennifer Bankston.

Todd Wallack can be reached at twallack@globe.com. Casey Ross can be reached at cross@globe.com.