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JOAN VENNOCHI

Unbecoming issue in the AG race

Attorney General candidate Maura Healey was ruthlessly pushing Democratic rival Warren Tolman to explain what she describes as his record as a lobbyist, when Tolman, who contends he never lobbied anyone, replied: “Maura, it’s just unbecoming. I’m surprised you continue to push these issues rather than talk about the issues people care about.”

Tolman said he’s sorry now. But before he apologized, the word “unbecoming” triggered an urgent fundraising letter from Marty Walz, a Healey backer and president of the Planned Parenthood Advocacy Fund of Massachusetts. “It means unattractive, indecorous. It’s not a word you hear men on Beacon Hill use about each other,” wrote Walz.

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True enough. And, with Tolman in the lead in a tight, increasingly nasty race, it’s no surprise the Healey campaign would jump on her opponent’s use of it. After all, the word “unbecoming” holds a special place in Massachusetts politics. But overplaying it is a mistake. It didn’t help the last female candidate who tried.

It happened during a 2002 debate between then Republican gubernatorial candidate Mitt Romney and Shannon O’Brien, his Democratic rival. When O’Brien pressed Romney to explain his shifting positions on abortion, Romney replied: “Your effort to continue to try to create fear and deception here is unbecoming.”

At a post-debate fundraiser for O’Brien, Teresa Heinz Kerry hailed the crowd of “unbecoming” female supporters and then US Senator Hillary Clinton dubbed Romney “unbecoming.” But the effort to make it a major campaign issue fizzled. On election day, Romney easily beat O’Brien. She won 53 percent of the women’s vote — but it was not enough to override his advantage with men.

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Democratic primary voters in 2014 represent a different, more liberal constituency than the general election voters of 2002. But Massachusetts is also a different place for women seeking political office than it was back then.

The Massachusetts congressional delegation now includes Senator Elizabeth Warren and US Representatives Katherine Clark and Niki Tsongas. At least six female candidates are on the statewide ballot. Attorney General Martha Coakley is running for governor. Healey, who is supported by women’s and gay rights groups, would be the first gay woman to hold the AG’s job in Massachusetts.

If Warren Tolman is afraid to hit back at Maura Healey, the time for reticence is over.

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Still, sexism is not dead in the Bay State, nor anywhere in American politics, as evidenced by the ongoing analysis of Clinton’s age and appearance as she contemplates another run for president. Using a word like “unbecoming” to describe a woman’s tough questioning still hits a nerve with many of us.

But there’s sexism on both sides of the gender line.

Healey has every right to interrogate Tolman with as much uncharming zeal as she desires. But shouldn’t Tolman have the same right to aggressive inquisition? Yet, if he crosses a line, the political memory bank will automatically cut to Rick Lazio’s ill-fated campaign against Hillary Clinton for US Senate in 2000, when he was labeled a bully for leaving his podium during a debate and asking Clinton to sign a pledge against taking “soft money.” In 2008, then presidential candidate Barack Obama was also called out for surliness when he labeled Clinton only “likable enough” during a New Hampshire debate.

Healey, a former top deputy to Coakley, is running as “the people’s lawyer.” After Tuesday’s Globe debate, she kept up her line of attack, issuing a statement yesterday that said she is “disappointed” with Tolman’s response to her questions.

“While I’m certainly offended Warren Tolman tried to diminish my questions about his lobbying work as ‘unbecoming,’ I’m even more disturbed that someone would diminish the importance of the office by misleading voters,” she said.

Tolman says Healey is wrong to characterize him as a lobbyist, even though he was listed as one for SEIU Local 1199, and Holland & Knight, the law firm for which he worked, also listed him as a federal lobbyist. Whatever the paperwork said, Tolman never lobbied at the state or federal level, a campaign spokesman said.

If Tolman is afraid to hit back, the time for reticence is over. He needs to explain his record with as much intensity as his opponent is questioning it, no matter how unbecoming he appears.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.
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