BY TOM DALTON
---- — SALEM — Paul Tucker could be breaking new ground.
The Salem police chief is running for state representative while still serving as chief, which appears to have never happened before in this city. Tucker announced his candidacy a few days ago and said he plans to remain as chief through the election next fall and then step down if elected.
Has this happened before in Massachusetts? Has any sitting chief in any city or town ever run for the Legislature while still on the job?
“I don’t know of one,” said Wellesley police Chief Terry Cunningham, who was legislative chairman for the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association.
Jack Collins, the association’s longtime general counsel, couldn’t think of anyone either, although he said several sitting police chiefs have run for town selectman.
Last fall, Middlesex County Sheriff Peter Koutoujian ran for Congress while still in office. But sheriff, it could be argued, does not have as close or direct a relationship with citizens as a police chief does.
So, if the Salem chief is going where no one has gone before, does it raise any issues or concerns?
“I think there are issues any time that a public official runs for office,” said Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts, a government watchdog group.
“For those with real responsibility and public standing, a police chief being one of the most responsible positions, there are real problems that can arise, and that’s why the law is very clear about setting up this arm’s-length relationship with fundraising, never wearing anything that designates you as the police chief when you’re campaigning and not mixing those two roles — and that’s a difficult thing to do. It can be done, but it’s a difficult undertaking.”
A political campaign by a police chief can challenge a mayor, as well, Wilmot said.
“As the appointing authority, the mayor needs also to keep a close eye on the situation to assure the public has full confidence these roles really are separate.”
The potential for conflicts, or the appearance of conflicts, is enough of an issue that Mayor Kim Driscoll has already talked with Tucker about it.
“I think he has a very high integrity standard for himself, so I would expect nothing less than him complying with the law and avoiding any possible appearance of a conflict,” she said. “We will do due diligence to understand this issue going forward and, for sure, he will, as well.”
When Tucker was chief and his son, Dan, was hired as an officer, Tucker secured a written opinion from the State Ethics Commission before his son, a highly rated candidate, was appointed.
In a recent interview, Tucker, who has been chief for five years and a Salem officer for 32 years, said that if any issues arise about his candidacy, he will contact the Ethics Commission or the Massachusetts Office of Campaign and Political Finance for guidance.
So, what are the issues for Tucker?
There appear to be several: building and maintaining a firewall between his job and his candidacy; avoiding campaign promises, statements or actions that may conflict with police or city policies and practices; and raising money.
That last one — fundraising — is the third rail of campaigning for public employees.
The state’s campaign finance office has laid down strict guidelines. A public employee can run for office but can’t solicit contributions, host a fundraising event or even “help identify people to be targeted for political fundraising.”
To raise funds, the candidate must set up a campaign committee.
Tucker has not yet said what his plans are, or even if he plans to raise funds.
In an advisory, the State Ethics Commission addresses some of the issues a police chief faces, while citing a different example.
“An appointed assistant district attorney may run for state representative, as long as he does so on his own time and without using his paid public work time, his official title, or public resources such as his office email address or copy machine,” the advisory states.
While not exactly the same circumstances, this ground has been trod before. Police officers have been elected to the Legislature, many after they retired or left their departments. One, like Tucker, was even the boss.
Former State Police Col. Reed Hillman, a Republican from Sturbridge, was a high-profile police officer who served in the Legislature and was a Republican candidate for lieutenant governor in 2006. He stepped down as head of the State Police in 1999 to run for state representative. Hillman said he retired not to avoid potential conflicts but because he was in a special election and had only a few weeks to campaign.
Hillman agreed that fundraising poses the most potential problems.
“As long as he has a Chinese wall between his position as chief and fundraising, he’s golden,” Hillman said.
Jack McDevitt, a criminologist and associate dean at Northeastern’s School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, said there have been a few chiefs around the country who have campaigned while remaining in office.
Right now, for example, in a high-profile race on the West Coast, the police chief in Long Beach, Calif., is running for Los Angeles County sheriff. A spokeswoman for the Long Beach Police Department said the chief intends to stay on the job. She declined to comment further, saying questions about his candidacy should be directed to his campaign staff.
So, how does a chief avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest?
“You deal with that by being transparent,” McDevitt said.
“For example, if ... you go to a fundraiser sponsored by people supporting your candidacy, do other people in town think (the fundraisers) somehow are going to get preferential treatment by the police department? That’s something you just have to be aware of, that there’s an appearance (of a conflict) and deal with it straightaway ...”
Potential conflicts aside, Cunningham, the Wellesley chief and an officer in the International Association of Chiefs of Police, believes that being a police chief is good training for the Legislature.
“When you start talking about homeless issues, and housing issues, and folks with mental illness, and juvenile issues, somebody like a police chief has dealt with that,” he said. “And what’s the number one thing you have to do as a (representative)? You have to respond to your constituents. That’s what a chief does every day.”
McDevitt does not think sitting police chiefs should have to step down before running — just be careful.
“You don’t want to deny a community an opportunity to have a strong leader,” he said, “and deny an individual who has done well by a community an opportunity to progress.”
But a police chief, he said, should “be upfront and transparent and anticipate the concerns of people — that’s all you can do.”
Tom Dalton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.