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A career spent helping people ‘do things right’: State’s campaign finance chief is retiring

Michael J. Sullivan, director of the Office of Campaign and Political Finance, is leaving the job after 25 years.
Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff
Michael J. Sullivan, director of the Office of Campaign and Political Finance, is leaving the job after 25 years.

Opposite a wall of office windows peeking into downtown Boston, Michael J. Sullivan keeps a collection of “conversations starters.”

A framed jersey commemorating the years he coached hisdaughter’s youth soccer team. An aerial photo of Lynn, Sullivan’s hometown. Roughly a half-dozen baseballs, each with a date and score scrawled across it. They all sit atop a bookcase — and all are useful, because few meetings with the director of the state’s Office of Campaign and Political Finance are likely to count as social visits.

“When someone comes in here, oftentimes they’re very nervous because they’re worried they made a mistake or we called them in,” Sullivan says, sweeping his hand toward the bookcase. “So I try to have stuff that can be conversation starters. Something to get them to be at ease, find some common ground that we can talk about — so that we can then have our real conversation.”

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There’s been many of those over 25 years. Sullivan, 60, is set to retire this week from his fourth-floor office inside One Ashburton Place, where he’s led a transformation from a paper-inundated office in the mid-1990s to today’s nearly all-electronic enterprise policing the state’s campaign finance landscape.

Michael J. Sullivan with his son Sean in the House Chamber after he was sworn in as the director of the Office of Campaign & Political Finance in 1994.
Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/Globe Staff
Michael J. Sullivan with his son Sean in the House Chamber after he was sworn in as the director of the Office of Campaign & Political Finance in 1994.
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For Sullivan, it’s been a natural fit. The state’s campaign finance “referee” by day, he’s spent his weekends for 34 years officiating football and umpiring baseball games — a second career whose mementos litter his office, alongside those from his public life.

Many of the items are simply there forfun, he says. Resting atop the bookcase is a stub of a bullet he found while umpiring a game in Lynn about five years ago.

“I was bored, I had third base, and I was kind of doing this,” he says, scraping his toe through imaginary dirt. “You don’t usually find stuff like that.”

Others underpin his longevity on Beacon Hill. Hanging behind his desk are copies of two checks to the state. One, from 2009, is for $136,580.42 — the amount paid from the now-closed campaign account of John Buonomo , the former Middlesex County register of probate who was convictedof stealing money both from his campaign and state copy machines.

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The other, from 2017, is for $426,466.78, cut by Families for Excellent Schools Advocacy, a group Sullivan’s office found had illegally hidden the identities of its donors while pouring $15 million into a pro-charter school ballot question a year earlier.

Some of the decorations — personal and professional — in the office of Michael J. Sullivan.
Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff
Some of the decorations — personal and professional — in the office of Michael J. Sullivan.

But those are there because they’re the exceptions. Next to them is a sign Sullivan pinned up soon after he was appointed in 1994: “Oops doesn’t cut it when man’s reputation is ruined.”

“I hope the next director keeps that in mind: When you’re dealing with these folks, for the most part, they’re not trying to make mistakes,” says Sullivan, who retires on Friday. “And if we’re going to say somebody made a mistake, we’ve got to be right.

“Ninety-five percent of the people in the world want to do things right and can, 2 or 3 percent want to do things right and need a little help, and 2 or 3 percent want to mess around,” he later added. “So my job is to help 97 percent — and catch 3 percent.”

His changing officeenvironment hasmade that easier. Weave down the hall, past the frontdesk, and you’ll find a document room where rows of cabinets once lived, housing color-coded files for hundreds of candidates and committees. Now, just a few stacks remain, filled with yellowing paper wedged into blue, red, and manila folders. Poking at the bottom row of one stack, Sullivan grabs a well-stuffed file at random andopensit.

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“Whoever this is, it’s pretty damn old,” he says. And it is: The file is for the Massachusetts Republican Party, circa 1986.

Sullivan pivots to his right. “This,” he says, “is what took over.” It’s a black computer server, about three feet high, with a computer monitor perched on top. Campaign filings began moving to an electronic system roughly 20 years ago, and under a new state law passed last month — one Sullivan has pushed for years — hundreds of more candidates will now fall into the so-called depository system, meaning third-party banks, not the candidates themselves, will file monthly disclosures on campaign spending.

It’s those types of innovations that Sullivan says has enabled his office to more nimbly spot the “mistakes.”

“The way you would get stuff in the old days is people dropping dimes,” he says. That still happens, “but the bigger cases are things we’re able to dig up on our own.”

Reappointed four times, Sullivan’s time in Ashburton — much like his daily commute from Newburyport — has been a long one. His tenure overlaps with those of seven Senate presidents, six governors, and four House speakers. For many, it’s Sullivan who served as a gatekeeper of sorts into the political world.

“The next person who walks in the door to organize with us, in 10 years they might be speaker of the House or Senate president. You never know. It’s kind of fun to meet those people in the beginning,” Sullivan says, recalling an interaction with former governor Deval Patrick before the Democrat, then a political unknown, launched his first campaign in 2005.

“Deval Patrick called me up and said, ‘Hey, I’m thinking of running for governor.

“I want to meet with you and sit down and go over what I need to do.’ I was like, ‘Who’s Deval Patrick?’ ”

The only governor Sullivan says he didn’t meet during his time in office was Mitt Romney.

“I don’t know why. It never happened,” he says. “When Charlie Baker got elected, and he knew I was an official, I said, ‘Yeah, I did your kids’ games.’ That was kind of weird.”

But throughout his time, Sullivan populated his office not with political flair, but personal memorabilia, often from his second career. The baseballs are from high school and other games he umpired. A photo from Fenway Park is not of the Red Sox, but of the umpiring crew he was a part of that worked the Massachusetts-Connecticut High School All-Star game at the field in 2005. (Sullivan worked behind the plate.)

Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff
Michael J. Sullivan’s favorite baseball.

Among the only memorabilia rooted in Beacon Hill are actually front and center on that bookcase: Two black-and-white photos taken at his swearing-in ceremony on the Massachusetts House floor. In one, he’s giving an unrehearsed speech. In the other, he’s smiling, his arm around his then 6-year-old son, Sean.

“Now he’s 31. I have a grandchild. I have a 23-year-old daughter — she’ll be 24 in March — who didn’t exist when I took this job,” says Sullivan, allowing his mind to momentarily retrace two and a half decades inside his office, downtown Boston to his left, conversation starters on his right.

“I’ve really lived a whole life here.”

Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout