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Democrats vying for Mass. state auditor run heated campaigns for a low-profile job

 Democratic candidates for Massachusetts state auditor Chris Dempsey at left, and Diana DiZoglio at right.
Dempsey by Liz Linder
Photos courtesy the campaigns
Democratic candidates for Massachusetts state auditor Chris Dempsey at left, and Diana DiZoglio at right.

The state auditor is one of the lower profile elected positions in Massachusetts. But this primary season, the Democratic race is heating up as candidates work to explain the job to voters while making a case for their vote.

Two Democratic candidates are vying for the position of state auditor: Diana DiZoglio, a state Senator from Methuen; and Chris Dempsey, a former state transportation official from Brookline.

The role is essentially a government watchdog from within, tasked with making sure state institutions are not mismanaging funds. And that can create tension between the auditor’s office and state agencies.

The current state auditor, Democrat Suzanne Bump, has not shied away from ruffling feathers.

When Bump pointed out inequitable state funding for western Massachusetts, she referred to “cash strapped towns with shrinking populations, and labor forces, declining property values, and crumbling infrastructure.”

She also found problems in how the state oversees prisoner reentry, how it implements the 911 dispatch system, or how it compensates cities and towns for the taxes they lose on state-owned land.

And in a major showdown with Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration, Bump took the Department of Children and Families to task for failing young people in their care. As she told Radio Boston in 2017, “How can they defend such willful ignorance?”

Then in May 2021, after a decade as auditor, Bump announced she would be leaving the job.

Both candidates DiZoglio and Dempsey describe themselves as coming from humble beginnings and representing working families.

“I was born to a 17-year-old single mom. I grew up housing insecure,” DiZoglio said. “I cleaned houses and waitressed my way through community college.”

She went on to graduate from Wellesley College, she said, “but without the investments of others, I would not have had the opportunities that I did.”

Chris Dempsey often starts his origin story with his parents.

“My parents were public school teachers,” he said. “And I saw throughout their career that they were digging into their own pockets to pay for school supplies for their students, as we know public school teachers do to this day across the commonwealth.”

The campaign has focused on candidates’ priorities for where taxpayer money should be spent and how to make the state more accountable.

DiZoglio talks about being sexually harassed on Beacon Hill while she was a legislative aide, before she became an elected official. She said she was asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement in order to receive a severance package, so when she entered the Legislature she spearheaded a bill to eliminate NDAs.

“And I have called for an audit and an investigation into the abuse of our tax dollars through funding agreements such as this,” she said. “Those audits and investigations have not been conducted.”

That’s one task DiZoglio said she would take on as auditor. She’s also called for an audit of the state’s vaccine distribution process — why it wasn’t more equitable — and into problems with the state’s unemployment insurance trust fund, “to make sure that we're not just seeing how much is available in those that that fund moving forward," she said, “but that we're also analyzing the systems and the breakdowns in those systems.”

DiZoglio said she would also like to audit the Legislature itself. She wants to make sure lawmakers are not violating open meeting or public record laws, and she said she’s been fighting to require a 72-hour waiting period for legislators to read any proposed legislation prior to voting on it.

“I do think that our next chief accountability officer in the state of Massachusetts does need to be able to have the strength to be able to stand up, even if it means standing alone,” she said.

Dempsey’s state government experience has been largely in the executive branch. He was assistant secretary of transportation under Gov. Deval Patrick.

Dempsey is also a Town Meeting member in Brookline, where he chairs the town’s transportation board.

And in 2015, he co-founded a citizens group that fought the Boston Olympics, on the grounds that the state would be on the hook for years of economic disruption. The campaign was ultimately successful.

“We were up against some of the most powerful corporate interests in Massachusetts. We were even up against some of my former colleagues and my friends who had worked with me in the Patrick administration who were supporting that bid. But we saw the facts in the data,” he said.

“I did not want to see us as a Commonwealth spend $15 billion on a three week sporting event when I knew we have so many other needs in public education, in public health and transportation."

Although Dempsey was endorsed by current auditor Suzanne Bump, he said would like to see some changes in the office, such as higher visibility during and after audits. He supports “fierce independence” in the auditor’s office but he said it’s important to come off as a collaborator.

“This is not a role where it will be effective to be a bomb thrower,” he said. “You have to be able to sit down with people in the legislature and with the executive branch and hammer out these deals, these compromises, that are needed.”

While both Dempsey and DiZoglio describe themselves as politically progressive, they cast doubt on each other’s liberal credentials.

Dempsey noted that DiZoglio received a C rating this year from the group Progressive Democrats.

In response, Dizoglio said her votes questioning the cost of certain bills may rankle special interest groups but she considers that just being responsible. Take the police reform bill, she said, which she did ultimately support.

“We might love an idea and we might fully agree with that idea, but that doesn't mean that we shouldn't be looking at the cost of that idea,” she said.

DiZoglio pointed out that Dempsey used to work for Bain and Company, a management consulting firm. But Dempsey said he’s proud of his work in the private sector.

“I don't believe that being someone who is pro-economic growth is at odds with being progressive at all,” he said. “In fact, I think those are complementary."

Both candidates promise to use the auditor's office to fight climate change and pursue social equity. And they both vow to pay close attention to western Massachusetts, which they say often gets short shrift when it comes to state dollars.

The Democratic primary takes place September 6. The winner will go on to face the single Republican candidate in the general election: Anthony Amore, a museum security expert and former federal agent.

Karen Brown is a radio and print journalist who focuses on health care, mental health, children’s issues, and other topics about the human condition. She has been a full-time radio reporter for NEPM since 1998.
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