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Union influence on display in AG’s race

The vital role that organized labor plays in expectedly low-turnout Democratic primaries burst into fresh and sharp relief this week.

Revelations that attorney general candidate Maura Healey last month banked a $15,000 campaign donation from the Teamsters, a day after her rival, Warren Tolman, had ripped the union, won attention because of ties to a controversial news story. (Healey later returned the donation, which exceeded state contribution limits).

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But throughout the Democratic primary, in races up and down the ballot, labor politics have made themselves felt. Campaigns made calculated decisions around the casino policy questions facing the state, with unions in mind. A former top aide to Suzanne Bump has alleged in a lawsuit that the state auditor weighed a key union’s support in connection with an audit of the state’s program for looking after at-risk kids. (Bump denied the allegations.)

And one labor coalition even made the decision to press a policy priority, paid sick leave, to the fall ballot while seeking a legislative minimum wage hike -- all with an eye on firing up Democratic voters for the gubernatorial campaign.

How has labor come to hold such outsize sway during primary season? Because of the movement’s prominent role within the party’s base. That’s true even in years when voters flock to the polls.

In the case of Healey and Tolman, their primary is regarded as the best on the ballot this year, and the finest race for top cop in quite some time. At an Aug. 26 debate, both candidates were asked whether they would investigate allegations that the Teamsters had threatened and used racist and anti-gay epithets against a crew from the “Top Chef” TV show in Milton earlier this year, allegations the local’s president has denied.

Tolman, perhaps mindful that the Teamsters had backed Healey, said he “absolutely” would. In Healey’s case, she agreed that she would as well, but with a little less verve. The following day, the cash popped up in her account.

“As soon as the campaign was made aware of the over-contribution, we took immediate action to return it,” said Healey spokesman David Guarino, adding that the contribution was sent back on Monday.

There are some internal labor politics in play, too. Tolman’s brother, former state senator Steven Tolman, heads the state AFL-CIO. On the national level, the Teamsters are led by James P. Hoffa, himself the near kin of a famous union leader, and perhaps the national labor figure most responsible for leading the 2005 massive exodus of unions from the national AFL. Wounds from that split have still not healed.

In Massachusetts, Democrats with an eye on success in November had better hope their own family scars heal faster.

Jim O’Sullivan can be reached at jim.osullivan@globe.com
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