Think the presidential race is nasty?
You haven’t been paying attention to the full-on mud fight for clerk of the criminal division of Suffolk Superior Court, which proves that, oftentimes in politics, the humbler the office, the tougher the brawl.
The contest pits the incumbent, Maura A. Hennigan, a former Boston city councilor, against the same man who challenged her for the clerk’s job in 2006, Robert J. Dello Russo Sr., who until recently was an assistant clerk in Hennigan’s office.
Dropping all pretenses of civility, the two have lobbed charge after charge at each other, including accusations that she was responsible for releasing a man indicted on murder charges and that he was an unqualified patronage hire who has accepted campaign donations from convicted criminals.
It is a classic battle between two streetwise pols, one the daughter of a Jamaica Plain political family who served for decades on the City Council, the other a onetime protégé of Salvatore F. DiMasi, a since-disgraced former speaker of the House.
Since no Republican is running, the winner of next Thursday’s Democratic primary will get the job, a coveted prize among veteran politicians that pays $121,000 a year.
Both profess outrage at the other’s behavior.
Says Hennigan: “He wants to win by ruining my good name and reputation, and I’m not going to sit by idly and let him say things that are not true.”
Says Dello Russo: “When something is askew for some reason, she has the ability to point the finger. Of course, she points it from the top down. She never points it at herself.”
The job entails overseeing a staff of 26 who handle paperwork for criminal cases, from indictment until resolution.
Hennigan, 60, first ran for clerk in 2006 after her lopsided loss to Mayor Thomas M. Menino in the 2005 mayor’s race. The daughter of a School Committee member, she had been on the City Council since 1982, and said she saw the clerk’s job as a way to continue her three decades in public service.
She ran in a primary against Dello Russo, and the bad blood was immediately apparent.
In that race, a man in a Nixon mask stood outside a candidates’ forum in Jamaica Plain and handed out leaflets detailing Dello Russo’s 1981 indictment on charges of receiving stolen property for buying a Cadillac limousine from a car-theft ring. Dello Russo, who was never convicted, said he didn’t know it was stolen.
Dello Russo, a mortician by trade, was also forced to answer questions about a 1983 Globe article that described him conducting funerals when he was supposed to be at the State House working for DiMasi.
Dello Russo, meanwhile, mailed fliers that depicted Hennigan as a cartoon character pushing a shopping basket, shopping for yet another public paycheck.
Hennigan beat Dello Russo, 54 percent to 46 percent. Since then, their rivalry seems to have only intensified.
Dello Russo, 63, who retired in January to challenge Hennigan again, has seized on a $2,000 fine that Hennigan paid in April after campaign finance officials said her employees were addressing her campaign envelopes while on government time in her courthouse.
Dello Russo’s campaign slogan — “The Clerk that Works” — is a reference to a WBZ-TV report that described Hennigan walking around Jamaica Pond, handing out bumper stickers and collecting signatures while court was in session.
But the most explosive charge Dello Russo has leveled involves the case of Jean Torres Vargas, who has been charged with beating a man to death in East Boston.
Vargas managed to post bail on March 24 because of an error in the warrant entered by the Suffolk clerk’s office, according to the Suffolk district attorney’s office. Vargas was eventually recaptured.
“We can no longer afford to have a clerk who skips work, is fined by the Commonwealth, and allows criminals to walk free due to ‘paperwork accidents,’ ” Dello Russo says in a campaign flier.
Hennigan says it was partly Dello Russo’s fault that Vargas was released, because he signed a document that misspelled Vargas’s name.
She also says that when Dello Russo was hired as an assistant clerk in 1999, he lacked a college degree or four years’ experience in a clerk’s or register of probate office, the two basic requirements of the job. She says Dello Russo’s hiring was a favor to DiMasi.
Dello Russo acknowledges he lacked the requirements, but says he was allowed to substitute his experience as a legislative aide. He insists DiMasi played no role in his hiring.
Hennigan also says that Dello Russo has accepted $1,000 in donations from Charles Lightbody, who pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault and battery in Suffolk Superior Court in 2001, and $100 from Dean Rosati, who was convicted in the same court of cocaine trafficking in 2002.
“You are the caretaker of all the criminal records, so if you are accepting contributions from people whose records you have the care and custody of, it’s inappropriate,” Hennigan said.
Men with those two names have contributed to Dello Russo’s campaign and appear on court records that match those crimes.
Dello Russo says he does not know Lightbody or Rosati, but he knows Rosati’s mother because he grew up with her in the North End and suspects she encouraged her son to donate. He said he sees nothing wrong with the money.
“I don’t go asking convicted felons for donations,” he said.
Though Dello Russo has the backing of some influential politicians, including Suffolk Sheriff Andrea J. Cabral, some longtime political observers say Hennigan still has the edge because of her name recognition. No matter the odds, no one expects the candidates to shake hands when it’s over.
“It’s an old-time political race in Suffolk County,” said Michael J. McCormack, a former city councilor. “It’s not a love-fest.”