The office of attorney general in Massachusetts sometimes attracts candidates who are interested as much in what it can be as what it is. The AG’s fundamental duties lie in representing the state’s interests in court, rendering judgment in a host of legal matters, and acting as the chief enforcer of state laws. That portfolio is powerful on its own terms. Yet whoever holds the office can also seek to stretch its boundaries and exercise informal influence over a much broader range of issues. The question of whether and how to do so lies at the heart of this year’s race for attorney general.
With incumbent Martha Coakley running for governor, Democratic primary voters get to choose between two top-notch candidates to succeed her: former assistant attorney general Maura Healey and former state legislator Warren Tolman. Each has much to offer, but Healey’s clearer focus on the core responsibilities of the office, coupled with her evident tenacity and discerning legal mind, make her the superior choice.
During his time in the Legislature in the 1990s, Tolman, now 54, emerged as a leader on campaign finance and ethics legislation. He gained a reputation as an anti-tobacco crusader, and showed a welcome willingness to defy legislative leaders. His accomplishments were significant enough, and his profile high enough, to support runs for lieutenant governor in 1998 and governor in 2002.
While both campaigns fell short, his current policy agenda reflects some of the same breadth of ambition. Tolman proposes to use the office as a high-profile convener; he vows to bring leaders of Massachusetts colleges and universities together for a summit to discuss responses to sexual assault. He also promises to mandate, via new regulations, that all new guns include technology to prevent them from being fired by anyone but their rightful owners.
Healey, 43, shares many of the same policy goals, but her approach would be significantly different. She argues that tuning up the way the justice system handles sexual assault — through forensic investigators and improved relationships among schools and law enforcement — would help more than the summit Tolman envisions. She, too, favors the adoption of so-called smart gun technology but believes, quite plausibly, that legislation is needed to mandate it. The AG, she says, lacks the authority to do so unilaterally. Indeed, Healey shows a refreshing willingness to acknowledge some limits to the power of the position she’s seeking.
From her work as an assistant attorney general under Coakley, Healey has a firm grip on how to deploy the powers the office indisputably has — and to tend to the basic duties of that office. She was chief of the civil rights division and led Massachusetts’ successful effort to challenge the federal Defense of Marriage Act. She later led two key arms of the Attorney General’s Office: the Public Protection and Advocacy Bureau and the Business and Labor Bureau. Combined with her previous work in corporate litigation, Healey’s work in public service gives her broad legal experience. Meanwhile, her unusual biography — she played professional basketball in Europe before attending law school — and her audacious performance in debates hint at a level of imagination and creativity that would serve her well.
Healey’s approach and Tolman’s, to be sure, aren’t mutually exclusive. Tolman would be a capable chief lawyer for the state. Healey evidently recognizes the broader political dimensions of the post — and conspicuously declined to promise, in a recent debate sponsored by Globe Opinion, that she won’t run for higher office.
Nevertheless, it seems safe to conclude that Tolman, if elected, would be more conspicuous in using the attorney general’s bully pulpit. Healey would likely be more aggressive in using the office’s established powers in pushing for outcomes that she and Tolman both favor — and that would benefit the people of Massachusetts.