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New super PAC, 'Priorities for Progress,' takes aim at union-backed Massachusetts Republican

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A fundraising expert and the co-founder of the small group that beat back an effort to bring the 2024 US Olympics to Boston are behind a new super PAC inserting itself into the 2018 Massachusetts election as the campaign season draws to a close.

Roger Craver, who was involved with building up liberal and progressive groups like NARAL Pro-Choice America and the ACLU, is teaming up with Liam Kerr, who co-founded No Boston Olympics and worked as the state director for Democrats for Education Reform.

Kerr is chairing the super PAC, dubbed "Priorities for Progress."

Referring to a nonpartisan advocacy and government watchdog group he helped boost in its early days, Craver describes the latest venture as "Common Cause with teeth."

Craver says the new super PAC, seeking to pressure elected officials on good government and social issues, is "needed because a small group of people can make a huge difference if they persist and they don't go home after the election."

Kerr says the PAC now has more than 50 donors who have contributed more than $5,000. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, super PACs "may raise unlimited sums of money from corporations, unions, associations and individuals, then spend unlimited sums to overtly advocate for or against political candidates."

Kerr, who as state director for Democrats for Education Reform has clashed with unions in the 2013 Boston mayoral race and over efforts to expand charter schools, says he and other progressives were recently blocked from joining the Raise Up Massachusetts coalition, the group that includes religious organizations and labor unions. The coalition successfully pressed for a paid family and medical leave program alongside a raise in the state's minimum wage to $15 an hour.

"The veto power that they have and the takeover of the progressive movement presents a challenge to an effective government," Kerr says of the unions.

The new super PAC's first target is a Republican state senator who is endorsed by the Massachusetts Teachers Association, Boston Teachers Union Local 66 and the American Federation of Teachers.

Patrick O'Connor, first elected in 2016 and one of seven Republican senators under the State House's golden dome, is facing Democratic candidate Katie McBrine, a pediatrician, on the Nov. 6 ballot. The district includes cities and towns south of Boston, including Weymouth, Cohasset, Duxbury, Hingham, Hull, Marshfield, Norwell and Scituate.

"I think super PAC money is an unfortunate circumstance that we have now, the day and age we live in," O'Connor said in a phone interview.

O'Connor said the super PAC is mischaracterizing his stances, particularly his feelings on transgender anti-discrimination protections. O'Connor says he's voting "yes" on Question 3, keeping in place a 2016 law passed by the Democrat-dominated state Legislature and signed by Republican Gov. Charlie Baker.

On its website, Priorities for Progress says O'Connor made "transphobic comments," pointing to a 2015 article on the news site New Boston Post in which then-candidate O'Connor said of the legislation, "We'd be opening this up to abuse, not necessarily from the transgender community, but from people who will definitely use this as an opportunity to do deviant things."

O'Connor said Priorities for Progress is taking his remarks out of context, and his comments were directed at "people who would abuse this bill, not anyone from the transgender community."

"Very simply, this super PAC could've called my campaign and gotten clarification," he said.

The 2018 Massachusetts election has "gotten to be a crazy election cycle towards the end and it's because of these shadow groups that come out and say whatever they want to say with limited time to counter-act," he added.

Unions such as the National Education Association and the AFL-CIO have also used super PACs. Unions and outside groups poured money into the 2013 Boston mayoral race, with unions supporting labor leader Marty Walsh, the eventual winner, and groups like Democrats for Education Reform supporting his opponent, John Connolly.

Democrats for Education Reform, which has a Massachusetts super PAC that donated its email list to Priorities for Progress, has been backed by hedge fund managers.

For Priorities for Progress's part, Craver says their goal is to "find the calm, reasonable people who can have a decent discussion within their community and their legislators."

"This will be driven in part by very activist type of citizens but also informed by data and using technology properly," he says.

The super PAC will keep its focus on state-level politics.

"The nature of the organization is to be in place and present across the commonwealth, from the Berkshires to the Cape," Craver says.

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