Mary Z. Connaughton in highly competitive race for state auditor

She’s likable, informed and, as a Republican on a Democrat saturated Beacon Hill, has a claim to being an outsider, were it not for her tenure working for Joe Malone and Mitt Romney. Mary Zarilli Connaughton wants to be state auditor, and she’s going head-to-head with former legislator and Labor Secretary Suzanne Bump to win over the electorate. Bump has a much tougher race on her hands than she did in the September Democratic primary against Guy Glodis.

Connaughton likes to remind people that she’s the only Certified Public Accountant in the race, as she did on WBUR this morning. That’s not required by law but, she says, is a plus at a time when trust in government is at an all-time low. Her CPA license, she says, holds her to a higher standard. That license depends on her meeting that standard.

Few people will speak ill of the outgoing incumbent, longtime auditor Joe DeNucci, and Connaughton is not one of those few critics. She does, however, say that auditor’s reports on state agencies have to go out in a more timely way and believes that efficiencies are possible, starting right within the auditor’s office. Like Bump, she also speaks of going beyond financial and even performance audits to urge systemic changes. Bump asserts her good relationships with the legislature are necessary to get such changes enacted. Connaughhton speaks of working with agencies in the field to make changes and, if that doesn’t happen, “the public needs to be mobilized.”

Her critics maintain that Connaughton was too prone to leak to the press when she was on the board of the MA Turnpike Authority. She says she never spoke inappropriately about what happened in executive session. Frankly, a willingness to go to the media can be an important tool in informing the public and providing transparency when one is part of a circle-the-wagons board. But a different level of professional discretion is required of a state auditor prior to the issuance of a report.

Connaughton says she doesn’t take special interest money and says she is working to clean up her contributors’ list of lawyers who may also work as lobbyists. Critics say her part-time work as a consultant and financial compliance officer for Mitt Romney’s Free and Strong America PAC represents special interest money. (BlueMass Group call’s the relationship “a sweetheart deal” and wonders where she gets the time, given that she has said she’s “working 18-7” to get elected.) Connaughton dismisses the criticism but, if it is indeed illegal for any individual or group to subsidize a candidate while running because it exceeds allowable campaign limits, this may be an issue that has legs.

Bump herself still has to deal with the revelation (symbolically embarrassing for a would-be auditor) that she and her husband were claiming two primary residences, in Boston and in Great Barrington, to get tax reductions in both communities. She has since repaid around $6000 to Boston, even though she claimed that both deductions were legal.

Bump and Connaughton have also had a go-around about Connaughton’s actions while working for state Treasurer Joe Malone. At the time, Connaughton replaced a single firm contracting with the Abandoned Property Division for a $1 million fee with four firms charging a combined $800 thousand. Bump says the experienced single-firm contractor netted $16 million more for the Commonwealth than its replacement. Connaughton calls the arrangement she dumped a “sweetheart deal” and points out that the money was to go first and foremost to the private holders of that abandoned property and only then to the general coffers. This exchange appears to highlight a fundamental philosophical difference between the two candidates, with one focused on turning money back to individuals and the other eager to use the abandoned funds for needed public purposes.

The bottom line is that neither of these is a perfect candidate, but we live in the real world. They are worthy opponents, and each has an edge, albeit for different reasons. For Independents and independent leaning Democrats who still believe in checks and balances and two-party government, Connaughton may be the easiest choice to show they can still pull the lever for a Republican.

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below

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