Are Dan Conley’s Campaign Finance Givers Irrational?

In late May the Boston Globe’s Andrew Ryan wrote a story Lawyers help fill Daniel Conley’s war chest and I’ve been puzzling over it ever since. The gist of the story was that Suffolk DA Conley, now a candidate for mayor of Boston, had accumulated about $868,000 in his campaign finance account by the end of 2012. That sum included about $330,000 from attorneys since 2005, much of it from defense lawyers who have cases with the Suffolk DA. That is a common practice defended by some prominent and honorable Massachusetts political figures. But still . . .

Law Professor Daniel S. Medwed of Northeastern, former DA and AG Scott Harshbarger, former DA Gerald Leone, all gave Conley a clean bill of health on the practice.

Even prominent defense attorney J.W. Carney has given $2,500.00 to Conley’s campaign account since 2009 and he told the Globe that “I have supported Dan Conley because he has been an outstanding district attorney for Boston. . . . I never called the district attorney or met with him about a specific case in my memory.”

That is the refrain from defense attorneys; their practice depends on a well-run DA’s office and Conley provides it. Former Middlesex DA Leone confirmed “I think it’s a very good sign on a number of different fronts. . . The reasons for the defense bar giving are they want someone they trust and have confidence in.”

It seems quite plausible to me.

But social science research shows that we humans are hard-wired to reciprocate with something of value when someone does something nice for us. If we don’t return the favor we get a reputation as Moochers! Welchers! Ingrates! Professor Robert Cialdini says that the feeling of interdependence has been of great evolutionary benefit to us, teaching us to cooperate with and trust others. It is very uncomfortable to not reciprocate, plus all those bad names we get called.

Then there is rational choice theory and the free rider problem. I can understand attorneys wanting an efficiently functioning DA’s office; it is crucial to the provision of justice. But DA Conley was appointed to the post in 2002 and held the post in that year’s election. He ran unopposed in 2006 and 2010. A rational attorney would recognize that he or she would get a well-functioning DA’s office without parting with any cash. Wouldn’t a rational person faced with getting a desired good for free take that deal? That would make the attorney a free rider: he or she would benefit from the contributions of others and get the same benefit.

As I said, I’m puzzled.

About Maurice T. Cunningham

Maurice T. Cunningham is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. He teaches courses in American government including Massachusetts Politics, The American Presidency, Catholics in Political Life, The Political Thought of Abraham Lincoln, American Political Thought, and Public Policy. His book Maximization, Whatever the Cost: Race, Redistricting and the Department of Justice examines the role of the DOJ in requiring states to maximize minority voting districts in the Nineties. He has published articles dealing with the role of the Catholic Church in Massachusetts politics and on party politics in the state. His research interests focus upon the changing political culture of Massachusetts. Professor Cunningham is a regular contributor to the online magazine CommonwealthMagazine.org. He is a former assistant district attorney and assistant attorney general in Massachusetts. Professor Cunningham is a lifelong resident of Massachusetts. He earned his BA at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, his JD at New England School of Law, and PhD at Boston College. He lives in Cambridge with his wife and two children.
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