Metro

Candidates for AG clash over campus sex assault policy

Assaults on campus, AG office’s role dominate lively debate between Democrats in a closely watched contest

Attorney general candidates Warren Tolman and Maura Healey clashed over the best way to address sexual assaults on college campuses in an often testy Boston Globe debate on Tuesday, just two weeks before they face each other in the Democratic primary.

Tolman pledged to convene a summit with Massachusetts colleges, pressing them to address the headline-grabbing crisis more aggressively. “We will lead here in Massachusetts when I am attorney general and, you know what, other states will follow,” he said.

But Healey said convening meetings won’t solve the crisis.

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“You solve campus sexual assault by giving schools the resources they need — rape crisis counseling centers, forensic investigators, relationships with police and district attorneys that are working so that people can come forward,” she said.

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The exchange underscored the dueling visions the two candidates have laid out for the office.

Healey, a former top deputy to Attorney General Martha Coakley, has pitched herself as a tough litigator who will protect the vulnerable in court. “You are the people’s lawyer; that is the role of the attorney general,” she said at the debate, hosted by the Globe’s Opinion section at the newspaper’s Dorchester headquarters.

Tolman, a former state senator who pushed significant tobacco and ethics bills through the Legislature, has pushed a more expansive view of the job — saying he will use the office’s bully pulpit to tackle issues like opiate abuse and gun control. “It’s a visionary kind of role that I see, where you look at issues, you tackle them — it could be in the courtroom, it could be outside the courtroom, it doesn’t matter,” he said at the debate.

Amid a staid gubernatorial race, the attorney general’s contest has attracted more attention than usual among Democratic activists.

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Public opinion surveys show a tight race; Healey led Tolman 28 to 26 percent in the latest Globe poll, with broad swaths of the electorate undecided. And the race has pitted some of the most powerful constituencies in Democratic politics against each other.

Tolman has combined his reformer’s appeal with strong support from organized labor, including his brother Steven, the president of the state AFL-CIO.

Healey, who is a lesbian, has the support of women’s and gay rights groups.

Gender and sexual politics have surfaced several times in the campaign; Tolman’s first television advertisement focused on his support, as a state legislator, for a “buffer zone” outside abortion clinics.

During the debate Tuesday, he said Healey did not do enough to address the college sexual assault crisis when she was in the attorney general’s office.

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“You’ve never prosecuted a crime, I have,” Healey replied, in one of the sharpest exchanges of the debate. “You’ve never handled a civil rights investigation, I have.”

‘You are the people’s lawyer; that is the role of the attorney general.’

After the debate, she accused Tolman of failing to understand the attorney general’s office and her role in it. As chief of the civil rights division, Healey said, she brought housing and fair lending cases; prosecuting sexual assault, she said, is a criminal matter.

Tolman’s campaign manager Chris Joyce said in a statement that Healey’s approach is emblematic of her narrow vision of the office: “The attorney general’s office has a number of tools — not just criminal prosecutions — to hold schools and students accountable.”

The two candidates also clashed over Tolman’s plan to issue a regulation requiring any new gun sold in Massachusetts to use so-called smart gun technology — firing only when the legal owner, identified by fingerprints, pulls the trigger.

Tolman claimed he has the legal authority to issue the regulation, citing a 1999 decision by the Supreme Judicial Court. Healey argued the decision does not authorize the attorney general to act alone and said she would seek support for a smart gun bill in the Legislature.

She also criticized Tolman for what she said was a singular focus on the proposal. Healey pressed for a broader effort to stem gun trafficking and tackle the root causes of violence. “You’re all smart guns all the time; we need smart policy all the time,” she said at one point.

“I get that this isn’t the total solution,” Tolman said, adding later, “this is something . . . that the attorney general of Massachusetts can unilaterally do which will save lives, it will prevent accidents, it will cut down on gun trafficking tomorrow.”

There were other differences. Asked if he would ever decline to defend the state, on principle, Tolman said he would not have defended the troubled Department of Children and Families against a lawsuit by a child welfare advocate.

Healey, put in the awkward position of commenting on a case taken up by her former boss, defended the attorney general’s decision to defend the department. But she emphasized the importance of taking action to prevent failures at agencies like DCF.

She did split with Coakley on the attorney general’s controversial antitrust settlement with the state’s largest health care system, Partners HealthCare. “What I’ve seen, what I’ve read, gives me pause,” Healey said, arguing that the agreement may not do enough to hold down medical costs.

Several of the issues that have defined the campaign came up again in the debate. Healey, for instance, reiterated her opposition to casino gambling and asked if Tolman, who worked for a gaming company at one point, could be trusted to oversee the industry.

In a lightning round — combining light questions and more serious queries — Tolman said he would not seek higher office four years into his term as attorney general. Healey declined to take the pledge.

Both agreed, though, that sending struggling Red Sox center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. to the minor leagues was the right decision.

The winner of the Sept. 9 primary will face Republican John B. Miller, the only GOP candidate, in the general election Nov. 4.

David Scharfenberg can be reached at david.scharfenberg
@globe.com
. Follow him on Twitter @dscharfGlobe