Michael O’Keefe and Jonathan Blodgett, two of Massachusetts’ longest-serving elected prosecutors, each said Wednesday they will not seek another term as district attorney, opening their seats on Cape Cod and north of Boston for the first time in two decades.
O’Keefe, a Republican, and Blodgett, a Democrat, released separate statements on their decisions within an hour of each other Wednesday. Both were first elected in 2002 — O’Keefe to lead the Cape and Islands office and Blodgett in Essex County — and will leave at a time when criminal justice reforms are reshaping how advocates and attorneys view the role of a country prosecutor.
“Both of them, I would say, are traditional prosecutors. But both of them understood human frailty,” said Daniel Conley, the former Suffolk County district attorney who first won election the same year as O’Keefe and Blodgett.
With Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins primed to be sworn in as Massachusetts’ new US Attorney next week, at least three of the state’s 11 DA seats will now feature newly elected officials by next year.
O’Keefe and Blodgett are both in their fifth term. Only Timothy Cruz, who has served as Plymouth County’s district attorney since November 2001, has served longer among the state’s current elected prosecutors. Cruz said Wednesday he intends to run for reelection.
O’Keefe, 71, has worked in the Cape and Islands office since 1982, first as an assistant district attorney before winning election to lead the office 20 years ago. He’s cut a profile as one of the state’s most conservative district attorneys, and regularly was at odds with Rollins, who won office in 2018 with a platform promising significant reform including not prosecuting some categories of low-level crimes.
In her resignation letter Wednesday, Rollins noted that Suffolk County saw a decline in violent crimes and homicides since she took office, a drop she attributed to her collaborative work with the county’s “dedicated law enforcement partners.”
O’Keefe said Wednesday that the shifting conversation over what types of offenses prosecutors should pursue did not play into his decision, instead calling it time for a “more youthful voice here.” But he pointedly criticized the approach in Suffolk County and other major cities, arguing it ignores legislative intent of what should, and should not, be considered a crime.
“Ultimately the voters are going to make a decision about that. But I think it’s going to start to swing back into a more traditional role if you will, to what a prosecutor should be doing,” said O’Keefe, who represents a predominantly suburban area of about a quarter-million people stretched across Cape Cod, Nantucket, and Martha’s Vineyard.
“Somebody has to speak for the victims. And that’s the role of the prosecutors,” he said. “That doesn’t mean we don’t show compassion.”
O’Keefe defended his own record, saying he’s long run a youthful diversion with the intent of steering young and first-time defendants from the court process before “this recent ballyhooing about progressive prosecutors.”
Since first winning the seat in 2002, O’Keefe has repeatedly run unopposed, facing a challenger just one time in 2014.
“Every case isn’t the Brink’s robbery. There are people who come into the criminal justice system, and they’re here because of human frailty. Then there are people who are genuinely evil,” O’Keefe said. “I want the prosecutors in this office to understand the difference between those two, and act accordingly.”
Blodgett, 67, said in a statement that he had mulled his decision with his family. A former president of the National District Attorneys Association, he won recognition for starting an adult drug diversion program in Essex County, an 800,000-person district that includes the cities of Lawrence, Salem, and Lynn and, like many corners of the state, has struggled under the weight of the opioid epidemic in recent years.
A spokeswoman for Blodgett said he was not available for an interview Wednesday. The Peabody Democrat had run unopposed every time he sought reelection.
“I am proud of the team I assembled, who work hard every day to seek justice for victims of crime,” Blodgett said in a statement. “Their diligence, determination, ethics, and compassion have served the people of this county well and have made my job deeply rewarding.”
How much Blodgett and O’Keefe’s decisions portend a wave of change among county prosecutor seats is unclear.
Cruz — the only other Republican district attorney beyond O’Keefe — said Wednesday he will seek a sixth full term in Plymouth Country. Rahsaan Hall, who has led ACLU Massachusetts’ racial justice program, filed paperwork last month indicating he could challenge Cruz, who three times has topped Democrats in a general election.
“There’s a variety of opinions out there about how you best handle [this job],” said Cruz, saying he’s sought to emphasize reaching kids who’ve witnessed overdoses or violence. “If you don’t deal with these kids now, if you don’t get them help now, the chances are these are the kids using drugs 5, 10, 15 years from now and they’re going to be in the same cycle. I feel I still have work left to do on that.”
Michael Morrissey, a former lawmaker who was first elected as Norfolk County district attorney in 2010, said he, too, will run again this year.
“Eleven different district attorneys all have 11 different priorities,” said Morrisey, a Democrat. “It didn’t take me long to learn that what was killing people in Norfolk County are drugs and motor vehicle accidents. Why would I want to have the same model that Mike O’Keefe or [Berkshire District Attorney] Andrea Harrington have?”
Travis Andersen of the Globe staff contributed to this report.