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Yvonne Abraham

Two very different primaries

What a contrast there is between the two big law enforcement races this election year.

The Middlesex District Attorney race has you wishing both Democratic candidates could lose the primary. In the contest for Attorney General, you can’t help wishing both Democrats could win.

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First, the sorry field for District Attorney. Bless Michael Sullivan, they don’t make ’em like him any more. At least, not since politicians started caring how they look. His job as clerk of Middlesex courts pays pretty well, at $110,220. But that salary is peanuts compared with the money Sullivan has made from his various side ventures: A whopping $1.6 million-plus between 2009 and 2013, according to Thursday’s eye-popping Globe story.

Many elected officials have side businesses “to support their family,” Sullivan said. “Mine just happen to be more lucrative than others.” No kidding, Mr. Tone-deaf. The bulk of that money was a $1.2 million fee Sullivan got for sending a personal injury case to a buddy. Not bad for making a simple introduction.

More troubling: As clerk of courts, Sullivan was paid $75,000 to $130,000 as a consultant for a real estate developer on a huge project in Kendall Square, which is in his jurisdiction. Sullivan said he helped the company craft a community benefits package, but did not lobby his former city-council colleagues.

The Supreme Judicial Court tells clerk magistrates not to enter into business relationships that could create a conflict or “detract from the dignity of the office.” But Sullivan didn’t run the deal by his bosses. Why? Because he had already decided for himself that everything was above board.

That’s ludicrous, of course. An elected official should always err on the side of caution — especially if he’s part of the justice system. And especially if he hopes to be the county’s top law enforcement officer. Sullivan has some progressive ideas, but his hackish history obscures them. A DA should be way above reproach.

She should also be a great manager. Which is why Marian Ryan is no thrilling alternative. The current DA has made some troubling mistakes. In the wake of Jared Remy’s murder of Jennfier Martel, Ryan introduced new rules requiring that all prosecutors consult supervisors on bail decisions for domestic abusers. The move smacked of panic, and great leaders don’t panic. Some in her office balked, accusing Ryan of acting to head off bad news coverage, rather than in the interests of sound policy. Scores resigned. Then on Friday came news that Ryan had held back 19 pages of a report on the Remy case, records of interviews with prosecutors and advocates involved. Ryan said she did it because she didn’t want to violate the trust of employees she promised could speak without fear of repercussions. She was naïve, at best, to think the omission would not be exposed; at worst, it looks like she was trying to hide something.

How did we get here? It used to be the Middlesex DA, presiding over a huge, active county, was often impressive enough to move up to the Attorney General’s job. It’s hard to imagine either DA hopeful filling those shoes.

Luckily, the two Democrats vying for AG are so terrific — committed, personable and thoughtful — it’s almost painful to see them run against each other. Maura Healey, a former deputy to AG and gubernatorial candidate Martha Coakley, successfully argued the state’s case against the Defense of Marriage Act, and helped forestall foreclosures for struggling homeowners. Warren Tolman was a super-effective lawmaker, a leader on tobacco legislation and campaign reform.

It’s possible Healey’s approach to the job will be too incremental. And Tolman’s dealings with a gambling company during his time out of politics give one pause. But neither point changes the fact that these are two very impressive candidates.

Can we fix it so that whoever loses their contest becomes Middlesex DA?

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at abraham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeAbraham.
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