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In Democratic primary for attorney general, three well-credentialed candidates compete for the spotlight

Shannon Liss-Riordan, Andrea Campbell, and Quentin Palfrey are competing for the Democratic nomination for Massachusetts attorney general.Jim Davis /Jonathan Wiggs /John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Democrats, take your pick.

Will it be Andrea Campbell, a former Boston city councilor pledging to disrupt the cycle of poverty and incarceration that shook her family’s life?

Shannon Liss-Riordan, a legal crusader billing herself as a “private attorney general” for her decades representing workers against corporations?

Or Quentin Palfrey, a voting rights lawyer and former official in the Obama and Biden administrations, pitching himself as the race’s true progressive?

With less than three months before the primary election, the three Democratic candidates for Massachusetts attorney general are jockeying for position and attention in a down-ballot race still far from vacationing voters’ minds. Each is running as a progressive, though their liberal bona fides vary. Each is promising to use the office to not just protect state residents but to also shape national politics, mounting the difficult task of pulling the country closer to Massachusetts on issues such as gun control and abortion. And all three have strong credentials, making voters’ choice a subtler one that may turn on the contenders’ personal stories — and the money they raise to share them.

“It speaks to the strengths of the Democratic Party here in Massachusetts that they can bring three such strong candidates to the race,” said Marian Ryan, the Middlesex district attorney who has not yet backed any candidate.

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The race took on heightened importance after the Democratic primary for governor effectively ended last month with the exit of state Senator Sonia Chang-Dίaz. Given the likelihood of a Democratic victor in the November general election, September’s primary will almost certainly crown Massachusetts’ next attorney general, and it will serve as a measure of what kind of Democrat voters prefer this cycle. But it remains to be seen how much attention voters will pay to a down-ballot race in a year without a competitive primary for governor or president.

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Seen elsewhere as a perfunctory, nuts-and-bolts position, the job of attorney general in Massachusetts has expanded into a bully pulpit for politically savvy attorneys with higher electoral ambitions. Democratic gubernatorial front-runner and current Attorney General Maura Healey used the platform to vault to the national stage, repeatedly suing Donald Trump’s administration and going after corporations such as Purdue Pharma and ExxonMobil

“The attorney general’s office in Massachusetts has punched above its weight for a long time,” Palfrey said.

Ahead in fund-raising and the polls, 40-year-old Campbell is widely seen as the race’s front-runner. Campbell grew up in Roxbury, living with relatives and in foster care after losing her mother to a car accident and her father to prison. Academic acumen propelled her to the Boston Latin School, Princeton, and UCLA Law School, and out of the school-to-prison pipeline that claimed her two brothers. Campbell became an attorney on Beacon Hill and the first Black woman elected Boston City Council president; her twin brother Andre died at 29 in custody of the Department of Correction while facing charges for a home invasion.

Her story makes this campaign personal, Campbell said.

“How can we do better to improve those systems so no other family goes through that?” Campbell said. Issues at the Department of Correction “have never really been prioritized,” she added, “but they would under my leadership.”

Campbell fell short in her bid last year for mayor of Boston but earned name recognition even in far corners of the state, a crucial early advantage. she has notched endorsements from prominent Massachusetts Democrats, including Senator Edward J. Markey, Representative Ayanna Pressley, Assistant House Speaker Katherine Clark, and three former Massachusetts attorneys general.

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Liss-Riordan is running on her reputation as one of the nation’s most prominent labor attorneys, having represented restaurant employees, janitors, and sex workers and taken on corporations as large as Uber, Lyft, and Amazon. Working with a coalition of labor groups, she opposed a ballot measure asking Massachusetts voters to classify ride-share drivers as independent contractors, and won a major victory this month when the state’s highest court struck the question from the ballot.

Liss-Riordan’s greatest strength may be her support from organized labor, which has come out for her in force. She said she has not sought the endorsement of police unions.

Another advantage: Liss-Riordan, 53, is expected to contribute significant amounts of her own money to her campaign, as she did during her failed 2018 bid for US Senate, when she loaned herself $3 million. When required to set a spending cap for herself in this race, she chose $12 million — a threshold she said she does not expect to meet but underscores the significant resources at her disposal.

Financing her own campaign, Liss-Riordan said, means she’s “not beholden to anyone.”

“I’m going to do what I need to do to get the message out there,” she said. ”I’m not beholden to corporations. I fight corporations and I beat them.”

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For his part, Palfrey brings experience in government and as a voting rights lawyer. Palfrey, 48, is the only candidate who worked in the attorney general’s office, where he led the health care division from 2007 to 2009. He served under presidents Barack Obama and Joe Biden, and politics is in his blood: He is a great-great-grandson of Theodore Roosevelt.

In a major victory for his campaign, Palfrey edged out Campbell to win Democrats’ endorsement at the party convention early last month. He is familiar to party strategists and voters from 2018, when he earned Democrats’ nomination for lieutenant governor, though he ultimately lost to the Republican gubernatorial slate by 34 percentage points.

Palfrey is also the pick of several prominent progressive groups. But activist support does not always translate to success with the broader primary electorate — or with the donor class. Palfrey is the only AG candidate who’s opted into the state’s public financing program, and his anemic fund-raising numbers lead some strategists to question whether he still has a path to victory.

Still, he projected confidence in a recent interview, saying “where we are in this race is where voters are.”

The challenge facing all three candidates is ensuring that voters across the state know their names — which means pricey television advertisements.

“What it really comes down to now is who’s got the money to get their message out there and move undecided voters,” said Tony Cignoli, a Democratic strategist based in Western Massachusetts who is unaffiliated with the candidates. The three candidates share many priorities, he said, so “what’s going to make their story stand out?”

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For the most part, it’s Palfrey and Liss-Riordan seeking to distinguish themselves from Campbell, whom they have consistently pursued with near-identical attacks. Opponents say Campbell is not progressive enough and castigate her for not pledging to keep super PAC money out of the election. The super PAC that supported Campbell in the mayoral race has indicated it will not spend in this election, but an outside environmental group is supporting her. Independent expenditure committees aren’t subject to the same contribution limits and can accept money from corporations otherwise prohibited from contributing to PACs. Campbell said she is accountable to voters, not corporations.

It remains to be seen how much fights over fund-raising will move voters.

In 2020, for example, Markey declined his opponents’ exhortation to sign a “people’s pledge” keeping outside spending out of the Senate race, and he enjoyed significant support from outside environmental groups. He was nevertheless elected as a progressive darling.

Right now, the three candidates are “jockeying on kind of inside baseball stuff, because that’s who’s paying attention,” said Scott Ferson, a Democratic consultant who is not working for any of the candidates. Soon, though, candidate biographies will be most influential, he said.

“When the ads are up,” Ferson said, voters will be “making a choice between [people] they really are just meeting for the first time.”


Emma Platoff can be reached at emma.platoff@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @emmaplatoff.