Three Democratic candidates for attorney general addressed a forum at Boston College Law School’s Rappaport Center for Law and Public Policy on Thursday, making their pitch to become the state’s top law enforcement officer.
Kimberly Atkins Stohr of The Boston Globe’s editorial page, who moderated the forum, asked the candidates, each of whom had sought other elected offices in recent years, to explain why they were vying to become attorney general and what each would bring to the job. The state’s attorney general acts as an advocate for consumers, in addition to combating fraud and corruption, prosecuting crime, and protecting the environment, workers, and civil rights.
Shannon Liss-Riordan presented herself as a crusading workers’ rights attorney and the only candidate in the field who has led a law practice and coordinated teams of lawyers across the country to challenge corporations, including Starbucks and FedEx.
“I have been acting as a private attorney general for my entire career, more than 20 years,” said Liss-Riordan, who previously ran for US Senate. “The work that I have done has put hundreds of millions of dollars back in the pockets of regular people.”
Andrea Campbell, a former Boston city councilor who ran unsuccessfully for mayor last year, said she sees the campaign for attorney general as a continuation of her work.
She pointed to her life story and the death of her twin brother, Andre, when he was in the custody of the Department of Correction as a pretrial detainee 10 years ago. He was 29 years old.
“I see the AG’s office as the unique office to have done something about that particular case. My family still doesn’t know under what conditions or what circumstances he passed,” Campbell said.
“Not only do I think I’m uniquely qualified to address those issues. For me, the work is personal,” Campbell added, saying she has a legal and legislative background, experience with education law, and the “lived experience” to relate to the everyday challenges families face.
Quentin Palfrey, who ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor in 2018, pointed to his experience working within governments and teams of lawyers. A former assistant attorney general, he was the chief of the health care division as the state implemented health care reform and filed lawsuits against predatory health care companies.
“We took those cases, tried to help those consumers,” Palfrey said. “I’ve seen firsthand how much impact the AG can have on people’s lives.”
A recent statewide poll showed Campbell leading the race by 19 points. But Palfrey has sought to chip away at her lead, in part by distinguishing himself on campaign finance issues.
Palfrey has proposed that the candidates agree to forgo campaign donations from special interest political action committees. Liss-Riordan has agreed, while Campbell has not.
Such “People’s Pledges” have been floated in Massachusetts elections since the 2012 US Senate race, when Elizabeth Warren and Scott Brown agreed to discourage special interest PACs from running ads supporting or attacking either candidate.
“The biggest threat to our democracy is corporate money in our elections,” said Palfrey, pointing to corporate money that “flooded into our elections” to advocate for the expansion of charter schools in a 2016 ballot question and in the 2021 Boston mayor’s race.
That was a dig at Campbell, whose mayoral campaign received millions of dollars and TV ads from an independent PAC led by prominent champions of charter schools. Campbell had lent her support to the 2016 ballot question that would have allowed more charter schools in Boston and across Massachusetts.
But that proposal was soundly defeated and no similar one has emerged. During the mayor’s race, even though charter supporters backed Campbell, she maintained that she was not advocating for any changes.
Campbell reiterated that stance at the forum, joining Palfrey and Liss-Riordan in supporting the existing cap on charter schools.
“The AG’s role is not to be pushing for the expansion of charter schools,” Campbell said. “It’s to hold these education systems accountable and to push these systems to do better so that Black and brown kids actually have access to a high-quality education, which is currently not the case in this state.”
But after the forum, Liss-Riordan’s campaign noted that Campbell’s position on charter schools had changed. In a candidate questionnaire Campbell completed for Progressive Mass, a progressive voter group considering which candidate to endorse for attorney general, she was asked whether she supports keeping the cap on charter schools. Campbell answered, in caps, “NO.”
Campbell said that she misspoke during the “lightning round” of the forum and insisted her stance on charters has been consistent. “I continue to stand with every family, including our Black and brown families, to ensure their kids have access to high quality education, without demonizing the choice they ultimately may make,” she said.
Republican candidate Jay McMahon did not attend the forum because of a prior commitment.