Marian T. Ryan, the veteran prosecutor who’s built a progressive profile in Massachusetts’ most populous county, said Thursday she will seek reelection to a third full term as Middlesex County’s district attorney.
Ryan, 67, was among several weighing a bid to be Massachusetts’ top law enforcement official after Attorney General Maura Healey said she would run for governor. Ryan said she gave the statewide run “serious consideration” — three of her four immediate predecessors ran for, and won, the attorney general’s seat — but felt she is best suited for the office where she first started working 43 years ago.
“I am different from many of my predecessors: This has been the work I’ve done my whole career,” said Ryan, who was first appointed as district attorney by then-Governor Deval Patrick in 2013 and has been elected twice since. The Belmont Democrat is already the longest-tenured district attorney the county has had since John J. Droney, a Democrat who served for 23 years until 1983 and first hired Ryan to work there in 1979.
“There’s a difference between being in a place and moving a place forward,” Ryan said in a phone interview. “I might be the longest-serving [since Droney], but we are a constantly evolving office.”
Middlesex County had forged something of a prosecutorial pipeline to Beacon Hill. Scott Harshbarger, Tom Reilly, and Martha Coakley — each two-term district attorneys — later served as attorney general and mounted unsuccessful gubernatorial bids. When Healey first won office in 2014, she was the first attorney general in 32 years to not have previously served as Middlesex County district attorney, though she was special prosecutor in the Middlesex office for a stretch a decade prior.
The Democratic field to succeed Healey is expected to grow quickly. Shannon Liss-Riordan, a prominent labor attorney, formally launched her campaign this week, and Quentin Palfrey, Democrats’ nominee for lieutenant governor in 2018, has indicated he could soon announce a run. Andrea Campbell, a former Boston mayoral candidate, is also considering a campaign.
Ryan, an able fundraiser and well-known in legal circles, would have likely been considered a formidable contender in the nascent field. She overcome intraparty challengers in both 2014 and 2018 to stay in office, the latter of which — Donna Patalano — was a self-described progressive Democrat who was hired to work in Suffolk County by then-district attorney Rachael Rollins, considered at the vanguard locally of the so-called progressive prosecutors movement.
Ryan hasn’t embraced some of the policies that Rollins and other liberal prosecutors have, including the decision not to prosecute certain nonviolent crimes. “I think what has been highlighted by that movement is how important it is that we look at cases holistically. We exercise our discretion on minor cases in so many, many ways,” Ryan said.
But she has built a reputation for embracing criminal justice reforms. In 2018, she asked prosecutors in her office to stop requesting cash bail for minor nonviolent crimes, and in recent years, said she’s encouraged police to issue summonses rather than making arrests on some nonviolent or minor offenses in a bid to reduce the number of people held in custody.
Ryan and Rollins also sued the federal government under President Donald Trump to block immigration agents from making civil arrests at state courthouses. The district attorneys ultimately dropped the lawsuit last year, saying a Biden administration policy change had made it unnecessary.
“That is an excellent example of progressive prosecutorial practices,” said Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director of Lawyers for Civil Rights. “She was sensitive to the immigration nuances that many people in our communities face.”
Ryan has also faced fierce criticism at times. In 2015, a judge found that prosecutors in her office withheld exculpatory evidence in the case of an Irish nanny accused of killing an infant in her care. Critics have also faulted her for what they described as a heavy-handed management style that has sparked high turnover rates during her tenure, including among experienced prosecutors.
No potential challengers have emerged publicly for her district attorney’s seat so far this year.
Ryan had already served for 34 years in the Middlesex office when Patrick appointed her nearly a decade ago to replace Gerard T. Leone Jr., who resigned to join a private law firm. She had served as the office’s general counsel and chief of its elder and disabled unit and had prosecuted hundreds of cases in district and superior courts while serving under five different district attorneys.
“It is my hope,” she said then, “to be in the seat for a long time.”
District attorney races are expected to be a draw this year. At least three new county prosecutors will win office in Massachusetts, including a successor to Rollins in Suffolk County and replacements for two 20-year incumbents.
On the Cape and Islands, where Republican Michael O’Keefe won’t seek reelection to a seat he’s held since 2003, Democratic and Republican candidates have filed paperwork for campaigns. The state’s longest-serving district attorney, Republican Timothy Cruz, could face a Democratic challenger for the second time in as many elections in Plymouth County, this time from Rahsaan Hall, the former director of the racial justice program for the ACLU of Massachusetts.
In Berkshire County, District Attorney Andrea Harrington, who won office in 2018 on a liberal platform, has not formally announced a reelection campaign, but Robert Sullivan, a defense attorney, has already said he is seeking the seat as an independent candidate.