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The Boston Globe

Politics

Adrian Walker

Race for AG in Mass. one to watch

To most people who are not involved in a campaign in some way, this doesn’t seem to rank as the most exciting election season Massachusetts has seen.

Over lunch not long ago, I asked a group of veteran political strategists to name the last open gubernatorial campaign this unexciting. They stroked their gray beards before settling on 1970, though there were also votes for 1998.

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Anyway, it’s been a long time.

However, there is a great down-ballot race that you shouldn’t yawn through, and that is the race for attorney general. It pits Maura Healey against Warren Tolman. It features an upstart against a seasoned veteran, gender diversity, and a bona fide outsider against a certified insider.

It is impossible not to like Healey, the earnest former assistant attorney general seeking to replace her former boss Martha Coakley. She was considered a longshot at the beginning of the race, but has closed the gap against her better-known opponent through hard work and energetic grass-roots support.

Healey, 43, spent just under seven years in the AG’s office before resigning in October to launch her campaign. Prior to going into government, she worked in a big downtown firm — WilmerHale — which she says she left because she wanted to do something with public impact.

“I don’t come to this as part of the Beacon Hill establishment,” Healey said. “My interests are going to be for the people of the state and I’m not beholden to special interests. I come out of a different arena.”

Tolman, 54, a former state senator from Watertown and candidate for governor, was a darling of progressives during his days at the State House. He has run for both lieutenant governor, in 1998, and governor, in 2002. He was urged to run for the job by a group of political heavyweights, including onetime running mate Scott Harshbarger and former attorney general Frank Bellotti.

Tolman, who has spent his decade-plus out of office in private practice, says he thought he would never run again, but he began to feel the itch after the Marathon bombings ended in a house-by-house search in his Watertown neighborhood.

“That day turned my life upside down,” Tolman told me. “If there’s a way I can make a difference and take on powerful interests without worrying about political ramifications, I want to.”

Healey’s pitch that she would be the more independent attorney general is predictable — except that Tolman is, without question, the choice of the insiders. Their power bases are completely different.

In a race where the candidates do not differ hugely on key issues, Tolman has sought to gain momentum by speaking out about guns. He is an outspoken advocate of “smart gun” technology that would make it harder for illicit handguns to be passed along from criminal to criminal.

Healey insists that she is every bit as serious about getting guns off the street. Her plan calls for working closely with neighboring states to try to stem the flow of guns. She also vows to bolster after-school programs that can help steer young people away from crime. “What [Tolman] talks about is a piece of the puzzle,” Healey said. “I have a broader view of what it takes to address and reduce gun violence.”

Tolman figures to maintain a substantial financial edge and also enjoys huge major support from organized labor. (His brother, Steven, is president of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO.) Still, recent cycles have not been especially kind to veterans like Tolman. The “outsider” label — once code for a politician with hardly any supporters — has arguably become an asset.

Healey is counting on the dynamic of powerful vs. powerless to help carry her campaign. “I’m running because I believe I have the experience and the passion to deliver for the people of this state,” Healey said. “There are a lot of big guys out there with great lawyers. The rest of us need an attorney general who’s going to fight for them.”

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at walker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.
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