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First Middesex DA debate has tense moments

Democrats spar ahead of primary contest

 Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan and Middlesex Clerk of Courts Michael Sullivan debated on Tuesday night.

Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan and Middlesex Clerk of Courts Michael Sullivan debated on Tuesday night.

LOWELL — During a sometimes-tense debate, Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan ignored charges that she mishandled the Jared Remy case and sought to portray herself as an experienced prosecutor whose three decades on the job give her the edge over her Democratic primary challenger, Michael Sullivan, Middlesex clerk of courts.

For almost an hour in the assembly room of the stately F. Bradford Morse Federal Building, Sullivan, 54, was critical of Ryan’s tenure, accusing Ryan of blaming Remy’s victim after the victim’s brutal murder last summer. Sullivan called Ryan a friend who disappointed him.

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“It’s simple,” Sullivan said. “I had the best hopes for Marian, and I didn’t see the best. I think it’s a travesty in terms of what’s going on.”

Ryan, 59, who was appointed DA in April 2013, remained expressionless during his remarks and did not address Sullivan’s criticisms head on, including his suggestion that Ryan’s management style has driven experienced prosecutors to leave her office. Ryan never mentioned Remy’s name during the debate, nor did she address the case.

Instead, she described her deep ties with police officials in cities such as Lowell, her passion for prosecuting cases, and programs she has championed — such as educating high school students on domestic violence.

“Quality has in no way been anything less than the gold standard,” Ryan said. “At the end of the day, the core mission of the District Attorney’s office is to be out prosecuting cases, investigating cases. . . . As the only female district attorney in Massachusetts, I take very seriously the mandate to train young girls, to train young boys [about relationship violence].”

It was the first time the two candidates have debated during a campaign that will end with the Democratic primary Sept. 9. Though the race has been eclipsed by higher-profile contests like the governor’s race, political observers expect a tight competition for the job of supervising prosecutors in the most populous county in Massachusetts.

Sullivan, a seasoned campaigner who worked as a prosecutor in Middlesex and the state Attorney General’s office, comes from a well-liked political family in Cambridge. And though Ryan has the incumbent’s advantage, she has had a difficult first year, facing withering criticism for the office’s handling of the Remy case.

Last summer, Remy was arrested for assaulting his girlfriend, Jennifer Martel, but a Middlesex prosecutor agreed to Remy’s release the next day. The following evening, Remy killed Martel their Waltham apartment.

Ryan’s office was criticized for agreeing to Remy’s release after the assault and was pilloried again when, in the days after the killing, Ryan’s office pointed out that Martel had not sought a restraining order against Remy.

He pleaded guilty to first-degree murder in May.

On Tuesday, about 80 people, many of them wearing stickers with the names of their preferred candidate, quietly listened to the debate, which was sponsored by the Lowell Sun and Middlesex Community College.

During the forum, Ryan said that as a prosecutor who has spent her entire career in Middlesex County, she has deep knowledge of each of the 54 cities and towns and is the most qualified to address their most pressing crime issues.

One of those problems is the rise in heroin overdoses in the county.

Sullivan said that mandatory drug-sentencing laws in the state have been ineffective.

“We lost the war on drugs. It hasn’t worked,” he said. “It costs $48,000 to incarcerate someone and $10,000 to treat them.”

Ryan agreed drug prevention is crucial. When one of the debate moderators asked why crime in Lowell is on the rise, Ryan said that the spread of heroin is a large factor.

“We can’t neglect the fact that a bag of heroin is $5,” Ryan said. “It has never been cheaper. It has never been more available. One of the things that has transformed gang activities is gangs have become businessmen. There is a lot of money to be made so we have to be using all the tools of law enforcement.”

It was not until the end of the debate that Ryan went on the offensive.

When the candidates were asked to direct a question to each other, she turned to Sullivan.

“Never having prosecuted a homicide, never having been in the police station at 3 in the morning,” she said, “Never having to make the decision not only to arrest but to take a case to a conviction . . . how do you plan to make those decisions and gain the respect of [police and prosecutors], those who now would be in a position to have their opinions reviewed by someone with far, far less experience.”

Sullivan responded with an anecdote from his days as a Middlesex prosecutor, when he was called to the Melrose Police Department after a man nearly beat his wife to death on Christmas Eve.

“So Marian, I’ve responded to those calls,” he said. ‘I’ve worked through the night. Maybe that’s something you didn’t know.”

Maria Cramer can be reached at mcramer@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @globemcramer.
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