Olympics a cause—and a platform—for third-party candidate

Evan Falchuk has taken a leadership role in the push for an Olympics-related referendum.

When Evan Falchuk looks back at last year’s Massachusetts governor’s race, in which he ran as a third-party candidate, he thinks one issue should have gotten more debate: whether or not Boston should host the 2024 Olympics.

Oh, it was discussed here and there. Martha Coakley, the Democratic candidate, supported the idea, saying Boston should “go for the gold.’’ Republican Charlie Baker said he liked the idea of using an Olympic bid as a planning and marketing exercise, but he stopped short of an endorsement. Falchuk, who created and leads the United Independent Party, said he thought the state should focus on other priorities.

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But he didn’t get much chance to discuss it with his opponents.

“As a candidate, the issue of the Olympics came up, I remember, once,’’ Falchuk said. “Maybe I was asked twice about it.’’

Two months after the election wrapped up, though, the United States Olympic Committee selected Boston to compete against global cities to host the 2024 Summer Games. For Falchuk, the issue became more immediate.

“We just had a pretty important election, and this wasn’t discussed,’’ he said. “It bothered me.’’

With Baker in office, Falchuk has become a central voice in the debate. And he thinks the issue may help him establish a viable third party in Massachusetts.

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Falchuk, a 45-year-old Auburndale resident, became a Republican in 1987, when he first registered to vote. He remained one until shortly before he started his party in 2013. But he’s never been one for strictly partisan politics—he’s voted for Deval Patrick, George Bush, and Barack Obama.

“I think I’m like a lot of voters,’’ he said.

By the 2012 presidential election, he said, he had hit a breaking point with politics as we know them.

Obama’s signature healthcare policy, the Affordable Care Act, was a point of contention in his 2012 race for re-election against former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, whose Massachusetts policy helped served as the blueprint for Obama’s.

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After more than a decade on the executive team at the healthcare benefit company Best Doctors, Inc., which helps patients get second opinions on diagnoses, Falchuk said he expected a substantive discussion on Obamacare. He said he was dismayed to see the candidates stake out what he considered shallow positions.

Falchuk said he thinks the two-party system forces people into positions, and he likened it to binary code.

“Because the system is set up to sort of set people into ones or zeroes, it’s a totally fake thing,’’ he said.

His irritation fed the creation of the Massachusetts United Independent Party. He earned enough support to get himself on the ballot as a 2014 candidate for governor.

Falchuk said the point of the United Independent Party—a linguistic contradiction, he acknowledges—is not to arrive at definitive positions on each issue, but to provide a forum for voters and candidates who are tired of two-party politics. His pitch is pretty simple: Most Massachusetts voters are unenrolled in either of the two big political parties. Shouldn’t someone represent them?

Boston’s Olympic bid: The players

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An attorney, Falchuk left a law practice in 1999 to join Best Doctors, which was co-founded by his father. When he joined, the company had nine employees. By the time he left, it had more than 600. That kind of growth meant he made plenty of money.

He got in front of voters by putting $1.6 million toward his campaign. (He also raised money from former colleagues, tech executives, attorneys, and family members—including his brother Brad, a television producer who co-created the shows Glee and American Horror Story.)

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Falchuk only received 3.3 percent of the vote. But he considers that a big victory, because his mission in 2014 wasn’t so much to become governor as it was to launch, grow, and sustain a third party—and in Massachusetts, a candidate must achieve 3 percent of the votes in a statewide election to earn official party status. That status allows increased fundraising powers and the authority to hold primaries, among other benefits.

With his 3 percent in hand, he turned to the Olympics.

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Falchuk is not uniformly against hosting the Olympics. A diehard Red Sox fan, he described the games as a “cool sporting event.’’ While he talks occasionally with Olympic opponents, he said he isn’t working or strategizing with them. He said he hasn’t donated money to the nonprofit group No Boston Olympics and doesn’t plan to.

Still, Falchuk has criticized the Olympic bidding organization Boston 2024 on a number of matters, such as withholding non-redacted bidding documents from the public and the secretive bidding process through the United States Olympic Committee last year. He pointed to Boston 2024’s roster of political consultants from both parties as evidence of how the two-party system controls debate in the state.

What he really opposes, though, is any scenario in which hosting the Olympics requires public money.

The morning after Boston was named the U.S. nominee to host the 2024 Olympics, Mayor Marty Walsh was asked whether there would be a referendum on the bid.

“No referendum,’’ Walsh said.

But the that’s not up to the mayor (who later backtracked anyway). If a citizen proposes a statewide ballot question that is considered constitutional and gets enough signatures in support, then Massachusetts law says the question goes to voters.

Within a couple of weeks of Walsh’s comments, Falchuk had registered a ballot question committee with the goal of putting the Olympics in front of voters.

By March, he had a pretty good idea of what he wanted to ask: Should the state be barred from putting public money toward the Olympics, with the exception of some transportation infrastructure costs?

If enacted, the ballot question would apply only to state funds and not the city of Boston. It would also prevent the state from guaranteeing to cover any of Olympic budgetary shortfalls.

The language is aligned with the conditions Boston 2024 has promised as it has pitched its Olympic bid.

“They say they’re running a privately funded Olympics, and they don’t want any money from taxpayers,’’ Falchuk said. “So we could end this whole conversation real quick by just passing a law that says, all right, you can’t get any money from taxpayers.’’

In late June, Falchuk announced he would partner with the organizers of a 2014 ballot question committee that successfully campaigned on a shoestring budget to repeal a law that automatically increased the state gas tax based on inflation. The group will help him collect signatures for his ballot question.

Falchuk said working with those activists is an example of the kind of issue-specific coalitions he thinks his third party can build.

“We disagree on a lot of issues, but this is what we’re united on,’’ he said.

Boston 2024 announced in March that it would sponsor its own statewide ballot question in November 2016. It has not yet decided what it will ask, but the group has suggested its question will be more of a yes-or-no on whether to bid on the Olympics at all.

Falchuk said he is open to coordinating with Boston 2024 on the ballot question process, and reached out to Boston 2024 Chairman Steve Pagliuca in May. Pagliuca, according to Falchuk, expressed interest in meeting, but they haven’t been in touch since.

If Boston 2024’s question doesn’t provide a way for voters to weigh in on whether to bar state funding, Falchuk said his referendum will.

Falchuk believes that, since it announced plans to sponsor a ballot question, Boston 2024 is required to disclose any spending or fundraising in support of it. He has complained to the state’s Office of Campaign and Political Finance that Boston 2024 has not done so yet. He argued that anything the group does is inherently political, since it will fold if voters say no to hosting the Olympics.

Pam Wilmot, the executive director of government transparency nonprofit Common Cause Massachusetts, said Falchuk’s argument is a stretch. Boston 2024 can’t advocate for a ballot question, she said, until the language of a question actually exists.

“We totally support complete transparency, but the law isn’t really clear that this is against the law,’’ she said.

Boston 2024 COO Erin Murphy said the group “has not undertaken any activity that would require a committee to already have been formed. We expect to form a committee but have not made any final decisions on timing.’’

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Falchuk has little to lose by being aggressive. Getting 3 percent of the vote last year has presented his party with a new challenge: keeping official status.

One way to do that is to again capture 3 percent of the votes in a statewide race. The problem is, there’s only one statewide race on the ballot in 2016, and it’s for U.S. President. Falchuk’s not running for president next year, so that option is off the table.

A second option is to enroll 1 percent of the state’s voters—about 43,000 people—in the party by the time the election rolls around. That’s Falchuk’s goal. Right now, he said, he’s got about 5,500 enrolled. For comparison, as of 2012, the more established Green-Rainbow party had 6,500 enrolled Massachusetts voters.

Falchuk on the campaign trail in 2014. —The Boston Globe

Some political observers think taking on an issue as hotly debated as the Olympic bid is a wise move for Falchuk—especially since pursuing a ballot question means he’ll need to collect tens of thousands of signatures, which puts him in front of voters.

“You need to have something … in order to get people to rally to your cause,’’ said Dan Payne, a political communications consultant who has worked with independent candidates in the past.

“It keeps him on the political radar…when it’s an off year,’’ said Peter Ubertaccio, a Stonehill College political science professor who wrote about Falchuk during the 2014 election. “He has to work with people in the grassroots. It really keeps him in the fray.’’

Recent polls have shown low support for the Olympic bid. But even in January, when it had majority support, 75 percent of voters still said they thought the bid should face a referendum, according to a WBUR/MassINC poll. That means that, even if his question fails, Falchuk could make political gains just by forcing the issue, Ubertaccio said.

“I’m not sure even a loss would hurt him,’’ Ubertaccio said.

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Falchuk acknowledges that his position on the Olympics helps to serve his political goals.

“Is it beneficial to us? Of course it is,’’ he said. “It gives us a great topic to talk about. More and more people are coming to our meetings.’’

Still, Falchuk said he has heard people say that he’s being opportunistic with the Olympics. (That’s part of the reason he recently launched a website specifically about the Olympic ballot question that’s separate from the United Independent Party’s website, he said.)

Falchuk has also faced some criticism that growing the profile of the United Independent Party is a self-centered initiative.

Some of that criticism has even come from Angus Jennings, Falchuk’s running mate in 2014.

Jennings, a development and planning consultant who campaigned for lieutenant governor on housing issues, said he and Falchuk generally agreed on policy positions during the election.

But he said when it came to campaign messaging and strategy, he “was not given a seat at the table.’’ On the party’s website, Jennings said, “There’s a picture of a single person.’’

Jennings also said a lawsuit brought by Falchuk to appear in a debate that was not open to independent and third-party candidates last year. Falchuk lost. Jennings considered it an attention-grabbing move that was antithetical to the party’s goals.

Falchuk shrugged off Jennings’s assessment. He said he thinks Jennings is frustrated that “it was really hard to get people’s attention on the issues’’ Jennings wanted to focus on. Falchuk said skepticism of his motives is just part of politics.

“What exactly am I doing?’’ he said. “There’s no money to be made doing this.’’

At this point, Falchuk has invested about $2 million into his political goals. The married father of three said he is spending most of his time to growing his third party, aside from some part-time teaching work at Emerson College.

That includes cultivating other candidates. One party member is running for city council in the western Massachusetts city of Pittsfield this fall, and others may enter municipal races this year, Falchuk said. Next year will bring candidates for state legislature, he said.

The party isn’t just devoted to one issue. Marijuana legalization and the state of public transportation have also come up at party organizing meetings, Falchuk said.

But the Olympic bid—in contrast to last year’s election—comes up the most.

Falchuk spoke at a meeting in January. —Boston Globe

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