For many Massachusetts voters, any race for state auditor (one of just six officials elected statewide) can be a snoozer. But not in 2022. This down-ballot post is fundamentally about making sure that our tax dollars are spent well, that government is serving the public interest. Retiring Auditor Suzanne Bump has been there 11 years. Joe De Nucci held the office for 24 years. Fresh blood is on the way.
The requirements sound obvious, but the Auditor isn’t just another bean counter. To be effective, the job requires ramrod integrity, flawless attention to detail, organizational skills, understanding complex systems, and must have the ability to communicate, innovate and collaborate. Chris Dempsey seems to have it all.
Just look at his work as a volunteer leading the 2014 grassroots campaign No Boston Olympics, the ill-advised stampede by some of the region’s most powerful business people to bring the 2024 International Olympics here, likely leaving Massachusetts taxpayers holding the bag for billions. We shouldn’t underestimate what Dempsey achieved. No Boston Olympics was outspent 1500-to-1 by the powerful 2024 Organizing Committee. His average contribution was $100; theirs was $100,000. Dempsey says humbly “we had the facts on our side. The information was solid and fair and put us on the right side of history.” But his “good information,” especially detailing lost-opportunity costs, was amplified by his tireless efforts, ability to organize and the confidence to persuade. The following year, Boston Globe Magazine named him “Bostonian of the Year” for his efforts.
Dempsey had previously served as Assistant Secretary of Transportation for Innovation under Governor Deval Patrick. There he developed the Open Data Portal that facilitated apps providing real-time updates for commuters about when, for example, their bus would arrive and how long a particular trip would take. Massachusetts became first on the East Coast and third in the country to provide this service.
Along the way, he worked with Bain Consulting, and he was policy director for Congressman Joe Kennedy’s successful 2012 campaign for Congress. Dempsey also worked for a tech startup, serving as project manager for a mobile app enabling New York commuters to pay by phone. Most recently, he directed the Transportation for Massachusetts advocacy coalition, a group of 100 non-profits, municipalities, economic development and environmental entities committed to efficient, sustainable, reliable and innovative transportation. Oh, and, by the way, Dempsey is just 38 years old!
As the state’s chief accountability officer, Dempsey would oversee a staff of 200, conducting financial, performance and technical audits of state programs, departments, and agencies. But being Auditor includes more than just going after dead people receiving welfare benefits or drivers’ licenses, or the state’s failure to track sex offenders. Dempsey proposes including carbon accounting in reporting requirements. He could scrutinize Mass DOT’s projections on the costs/benefits of the proposed East/West rail project. Dempsey wants to get fair and solid data on the state’s troubled foster care system. As Auditor, he would be able to track how well the state is spending some $5.3 billion in federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds. Whether it’s for transportation, housing or environmental mitigation, Dempsey sees it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make government work well for everyone.
Although the Auditor lacks enforcement power, an effective Auditor can transform his position into a bully pulpit and, through effective collaborations and skillfully using the media, can get people’s attention. At 6 feet 5 inches tall, Dempsey would stand out anywhere, but his track record suggests that not only is he up to the job; he’s a perfect fit. A resident of Brookline, town meeting member and Chair of the Brookline Transportation Board, Dempsey would be the first statewide official since Mike Dukakis to commute to office by public transit. When we pressed him for other similarities with the legendary three-term governor and 1988 Democratic nominee for President, he smiled and said, well, he’d occasionally pick up litter but demurred on painting over graffiti on mailboxes.
Dempsey has worked in government, private and non-profit sectors, but this is his first run for public office. “Ultimately,” he says, “in a democracy it’s the elected officials who make the decisions.” And, he adds, “my experiences inside and outside state government have specially prepared me for this role, and that’s why I’m all in.”
I have followed state Auditors since covering longtime Auditor Ted Buczko in the 1970’s. This can be an office with wide-ranging impact. As we obsess about next year’s all-important Congressional races and national gubernatorial battles, we shouldn’t treat the Massachusetts Auditor’s race as an afterthought. Chris Dempsey is the real deal and what people, regardless of party affiliation, should want in government. Right now, he is doing what he does best – analyzing the facts, organizing a grassroots coalition, presenting his case, and showing us a promising vision of what the emerging generation of young leaders has the potential to achieve.
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