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Healey’s positions on criminal justice give some Democratic activists pause

State Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz and Attorney General Maura Healey attended a Democratic caucus this month.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

The two major Democrat candidates running for governor think Massachusetts has an important role to play in combating the climate crisis, they both say they’re focused on making child care more affordable, and there is no daylight between them on abortion rights.

But some progressive activists see a bright line difference between front-runner Attorney General Maura Healey and underdog state Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz on an essential issue: criminal justice.

Chang-Díaz’s supporters laud her record of taking bold stances on the topic, pointing to her leadership on a wide-ranging police reform law in 2020. And they say that with a Trump-backed Republican likely to be the GOP nominee, 2022 is not the year to move to the middle and dilute bold criminal justice policy ideas — it’s the perfect year to embrace them.

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They point to Healey’s support for expanding the reach of the state’s wiretap law, her opposition to legalizing marijuana, and her resistance to a piece of the police reform bill that would have banned the use of facial recognition software — all stances Chang-Díaz has denounced.

Healey supporters and advisers say her experience is more nuanced than detractors paint it, and are highlighting Healey’s progressive record, calling attention to her career as a civil rights lawyer, not a prosecutor. She has beaten Chang-Díaz in Democratic Party caucuses in progressive strongholds, winning all delegates in Brookline and Arlington, and the majority of delegates in Somerville and Cambridge, and her campaign says they are building broad coalitions of voters across the state.

But Healey is leading Chang-Díaz by just about every metric — poll numbers, name recognition, and fund-raising — some progressive leaders believe she must address concerns being raised by Democrats to her left.

“When you are an attorney general, there tends to be a built-in relationship [with police] and she has definitely been too deferential to state and local police,” said Progressive Massachusetts policy director Jonathan Cohn. “There are many good things she has done as attorney general, but she has not been a leader on criminal justice issues.”

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Cohn’s organization endorsed Chang-Díaz last month, calling her “the reformer we need.”

Chang-Díaz herself has criticized Healey’s record too, in February tweeting a Globe story that reported Healey backs changes to the state’s wiretapping law.

In the tweet, she said that Healey and others “have repeatedly proposed legislation to expand police surveillance, while failing to seriously consult racial justice leaders & advocates. This is not what inclusive or equitable leadership looks like.”

Voters who are supporting Chang-Díaz say their passion for various criminal justice reform issues are the reason they are getting behind the lesser-known, lesser-funded candidate.

Lea Kayali, a first-year law student at Harvard Law School who used to work for the ACLU of Massachusetts, said she noticed that the senator always advocated for “the most progressive version” of the bills moving through the chamber.

Kayali, a self-described prison abolitionist, said Chang-Díaz’s values align more with hers.

“I see some bright lines between the two,” she said. “Criminal justice and antiracism need to be at the forefront of this race. We are entering an era where a lot of people want to pay lip service to progressivism . . . In 2022, there is no excuse for claiming to be progressive and not having a bold agenda for fighting mass incarceration.”

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Senator James Eldridge, a partner of Chang-Díaz’s on progressive legislation and the Senate chairman of the Legislature’s judiciary committee, has been campaigning on behalf of his colleague across the state. He pointed to what he framed as differences between Chang-Díaz’s and Healey’s approach to the issues, characterizing the senator as someone who “goes big” to “wake up” leadership when reforms are needed.

“It was grass roots that applied pressure when some of my colleagues could have done a narrower [police reform] bill. That is what she’s done,” he said in an interview. “If you care about racial justice issues, you really need to care about prison and court and judicial issues. It’s an area where there is a major difference between the two candidates.”

He disagreed with the premise that the senator’s views only cater to a section of the most progressive Democrats, citing a 2017 MassINC poll that showed most voters support reforms to the criminal justice system to refocus the system on prevention and rehabilitation.

And, he said, “voters in general care much more now about racial justice than they did five years ago.

In an interview, Chang-Díaz said: “I think voters are way ahead of where Beacon Hill is on these issues,” arguing that she is the candidate who can address their concerns.

“Delays are so much less than what this moment calls for . . . that is going to be required of our next governor,” she told the Globe. “Not just say words in an abstract way but to be there when the chips are down and when action is required in order to move change.”

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Tufts University senior Jennifer Best, a Somerville delegate for Chang-Díaz, was troubled by some of Healey’s positions on big issues, including her opposition to a 2016 ballot question legalizing marijuana for recreational use.

“She has insistently taken stances that further policing, further putting people in jail and other stances that are so antithetical to what I believe in and what I believe Massachusetts can be,” Best said.

But despite the chatter among her opponent’s supporters, Healey does have a record on promoting progressive policies, her campaign says. In a letter to Progressive Massachusetts asking for their endorsement, Healey wrote that she was an advocate for a police reform bill passed in 2020 that banned chokeholds, limited use of force, and increased accountability for police misconduct. She appointed members of a new commission to certify and decertify police officers statewide, and has pushed Congress to support a bill that would give state attorneys general the authority to investigate unconstitutional policing.

She advocated for the elimination of mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug offenses, she wrote, and supported the repeal of the mandatory suspension of a person’s driver’s license after a drug conviction.

“We have a lot more work to do to address systemic racism in our criminal justice system — and across all realms of our society,” Healey wrote in a statement to the Globe. “As a civil rights lawyer, my work is guided by my commitment to equity. It’s why I’ve supported criminal justice reform and it’s why my office works daily to dismantle racism in housing, health care, environmental policy, and education.”

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Brookline State Representative Tommy Vitolo said while he respects Chang-Díaz as a State House colleague, he believes Healey will be a more effective governor, a sentiment that has resonated with his constituents, whose delegates for the upcoming Democratic Party convention are unanimous in their support for the attorney general.

“Maura Healey has a strong record on focusing on things that matter and making progress on solving those things,” he said. “The first two syllables of progressive are progress. Maura Healey sets out to achieve things and gets things done.”

While the senator may be making inroads with a sliver of the progressive voter base, Chang-Díaz still faces an uphill climb against Healey, who has a broad base of support across ideologies and name recognition outside the Boston media market.

“If it’s just a sliver, it’s not enough,” said David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center.


Samantha J. Gross can be reached at samantha.gross@globe.com. Follow her @samanthajgross.