They came like warning shots, two tough questions on police practices interrupting an otherwise friendly string of callers who rang up to praise Attorney General Maura Healey during an appearance last month on GBH’s “Boston Public Radio.”
Why, 16-year-old activist Calla Walsh wanted to know, did Healey support the use of no-knock warrants and facial recognition technology, decried by many on the left as racist and dangerous techniques?
Minutes after Healey had finished explaining her position — she favors accountability for police, but supports limited use of both strategies — another caller came on the line to press further.
“Your answer doesn’t square for me,” said Patrick Horan, a 27-year-old union organizer and Democratic Socialist who lives in Brighton.
The inquiries were notable not just for their subject matter, but for who lobbed them: a group of young progressive activists, some not yet old enough to vote, who are deploying social media savvy and unbending liberal principles to pressure Massachusetts Democrats.
The questions showed that Healey, widely seen as a top contender for governor next year, could face vulnerabilities on her left flank. In two terms as attorney general, she has cultivated a national reputation as a progressive and secured strong name recognition with voters, but she hasn’t gone as far as some activists would like on issues of police accountability.
While her position as the state’s chief law enforcement officer would carry enormous advantages in a race for higher office, it also poses risks. Many Massachusetts Democrats know Healey best for suing Donald Trump and going after corporate villains like Purdue Pharma. But some young progressive activists see Healey as a willing participant in a criminal justice system that some believe should be pared back or eliminated entirely.
The activists mostly find fault with Healey’s record on police accountability and criminal justice — issues directly tied to her post as attorney general, said Jonathan Cohn, a leader with Progressive Massachusetts, a grass-roots advocacy group. Law enforcement officials typically “view having a good relationship with the cops as key to getting their job done,” which can be off-putting to liberal voters, Cohn said.
“Occupying that job . . . leads to a certain way that you will approach different policies,” he said. “If you approach something like facial surveillance, issues of drug policy, from the perspective of a prosecutor, by its nature you tend to have blind spots when it comes to racial justice issues.”
For her part, Healey has repeatedly said her office approaches every issue through a racial equity lens. She supported a 2020 police accountability law that banned the use of choke holds, among other provisions, and has called for the elimination of mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses.
“As attorney general, Maura is one of the strongest and most effective voices for racial justice and reforms to our criminal justice system — in Massachusetts and across the country,” said Corey Welford, a political spokesman for Healey. “Maura also believes that the work is not nearly done, and will continue to engage with anyone who is passionate about this issue in order to make our criminal justice system more equitable and keep people safe in our communities.”
Allies in the Legislature praised Healey for her work on the issue.
“We are extremely fortunate to have a progressive partner and advocate like Attorney General Maura Healey,” said state Representative Carlos González, a Springfield Democrat who is a former chair of the Massachusetts Black and Latino Legislative Caucus. “To have the chief law enforcement officer as a champion for criminal justice and police reform is one of the major reasons Massachusetts has been able to lead on this landmark legislation.”
But some activists said supporting the police reform bill in its final form was not enough.
Government data and academic studies show facial recognition technology is less accurate in identifying people of color. And no-knock warrants have been criticized for causing unnecessary danger and confusion, sometimes with fatal consequences.
In written testimony, Healey’s office said neither practice should be banned entirely. Healey said that no-knock warrants can be critical in hostage or child sexual exploitation cases, and that they should be allowed only when the warrants are issued by a judge. Similarly, Healey supports use of facial recognition as one tool for investigations, though she has acknowledged it presents “real concerns around racial bias.”
Maia Raynor, a 26-year-old political organizer who worked for Sonia Chang-Díaz in the state Senate until recently, said she doesn’t know who she’ll back in next year’s governor’s race, but she knows it won’t be “a fake progressive like Maura Healey.”
Raynor worked for Chang-Díaz as the senator negotiated the police bill, and said she saw firsthand how Healey’s office weakened it.
“In Massachusetts we really make it way too easy for people to call themselves progressives,” Raynor said. “It’s frustrating to see progressivism being used to gain votes instead of really being a value that’s held.”
Raynor’s employer, Rivera Consulting, is consulting for another Democratic candidate, former state lawmaker Ben Downing, but Raynor said she plays no role on Downing’s campaign.
Other progressive critics pointed to Healey’s opposition in 2016 to legalizing marijuana, and her office’s work this year on a bill that would strengthen penalties for people who commit hate crimes. Healey has promoted it as one way of discouraging racist attacks and protecting communities of color. But to some, any increase in prosecutions or sentencing is a step in the wrong direction.
“It’s the mentality behind these things: ‘Something is bad in society, and I want to fix it.’ And it goes straight to punishment,” said Mohammed Missouri, a former Beacon Hill staffer and progressive political consultant. “It’s a deeply flawed approach, and I don’t think that can be explained away by saying, ‘I’m the attorney general.’ ”
Young progressives are hardly monolithic. But a group of them has asserted itself in the landscape of Massachusetts Democratic politics, part of the so-called Markeyverse that helped elevate Senator Ed Markey as a progressive warrior in his hard-fought Democratic primary last year. More recently, the same supporters lobbied him hard to issue a strong rebuke of Israel for its actions in the latest clash with Palestinians. Markey later issued a statement calling on Israel to seek an immediate cease-fire.
Still, whether and how young activists will influence next year’s governor’s race is far from certain, particularly as the field continues to shift.
Healey would enter with a national reputation and strong name recognition, but it’s not clear who she’d be up against.
Danielle Allen, a Harvard University professor and author, is running. Downing launched his campaign in February. Chang-Díaz is still considering her options, a person close to the senator told the Globe.
A group of young progressives this week launched an online campaign to draft Chang-Díaz. Several who signed on, including Walsh, the 16-year-old activist, insisted it was merely an effort to boost the liberal senator, not to detract from any other candidates. Still, to them, it’s clear that Chang-Díaz deserves the progressive mantle.
“Her commitment to racial justice is deep, carried out in her words and in her deeds,” said Prerna Jagadeesh, an activist who helped organize the petition.
Emma Platoff can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @emmaplatoff.