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Democratic candidates for AG spar in GBH debate

From left to right: Shannon Liss-Riordan, Andrea Campbell, and Quentin Palfrey.Jim Davis /Jonathan Wiggs /John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

The three Democratic candidates for attorney general sparred in a feisty televised debate Monday night, challenging one another’s credentials and fund-raising strategies five weeks before the primary election.

Shannon Liss-Riordan, a workers’ rights attorney who made a name for herself challenging corporations like Uber, tried to distinguish herself from her competitors in the Sept. 6 primary by saying she’s “widely known as one of the most effective lawyers in the country.”

“I am the only one on this stage who has, for decades used the law, piece by piece, to make people’s lives better,” Liss-Riordan said.

But she soon faced attacks from both her competitors — former Boston city councilor Andrea Campbell, and former assistant attorney general Quentin Palfrey — for allegedly running a campaign on the profits she made from those workers’ settlements.


Campbell charged that Liss-Riordan collected exorbitant legal fees, including a class-action settlement that she said a judge denied “because she was going to get $25 million and the drivers were going to get $100.”

“That’s absurd and it’s a mischaracterization of what happened,” Liss-Riordan shot back.

But Palfrey also pounced, saying, “The money that you’re spending to fund this race, much of it has come from those class-action lawsuits, and in some cases, a judge has ordered you to reduce your fees.”

Palfrey said his campaign is distinguished by his refusal to take special interest money. He opted into the state’s public financing program, in which candidates limit campaign spending and receive taxpayer support in return. Liss-Riordan did as well — before declaring in June that she may spend up to $12 million on the race. Liss-Riordan previously poured millions into a campaign for US Senate.

“I don’t have millions to put in my own campaign,” Campbell said.

Palfrey, who won the Massachusetts Democratic Party’s endorsement in the race, also pushed back at Liss-Riordan’s assertion about practicing law, saying he has been doing so for 20 years, including at the Department of Commerce and as an assistant in the attorney general’s office they both now seek to lead.


“When you say we’re not practicing lawyers, you undermine the work we do,” he said.

The debate, moderated by Jim Braude, aired on 89.7 FM and on GBH Monday night. It can be viewed on GBH’s YouTube channel.

Campbell continues to lead in fund-raising in the race, according to data for July released by the Office of Campaign and Political Finance. Campbell has raised $1.14 million this year, compared to $721,290 for Liss-Riordan and $513,210 for Palfrey.

Campbell also scored a win earlier Monday when Maura Healey, the current attorney general running for governor, endorsed her on GBH’s “Boston Public Radio.”

“I’m voting for Andrea Campbell. I’ve worked with her,” Healey said. “I have a pretty good sense of what’s required to lead that office, and Andrea’s someone who brings, I think, the combination of judgment, skill, compassion, empathy, and really will center the work, as I’ve tried to do, on the people of this state.”

Healey said her choice was not a negative reflection on the other candidates.

“They’re all terrific people and have great ideas and backgrounds, but knowing what I know about the office and what it takes to lead it,” Healey said, “I think Andrea Campbell fits the bill.”

Campbell pointed to Healey’s endorsement to counter Liss-Riordan’s suggestion that she lacked legal experience. She has also been endorsed by past attorneys general Frank Bellotti, Jim Shannon, Martha Coakley, and Scott Harshbarger.


Palfrey also targeted Campbell for failing to sign a “People’s Pledge” to discourage outside spending in the race — and insinuated that she could benefit from an independent expenditures committee that supported her campaign for mayor of Boston last year. The Better Boston super PAC has not gotten involved in the race for attorney general. However, another outside group, the Environmental League of Massachusetts Action Fund, has independently spent $11,833 supporting Campbell’s campaign from January through the end of July, campaign finance records show.

Palfrey also accused Campbell’s campaign of trying to illegally coordinate with the independent expenditures fund by posting photos and videos that could be used for outside advertising — a tactic known as redboxing.

The winner of the Sept. 6 Democratic primary for attorney general will face Republican James R. McMahon III, who also unsuccessfully ran for the seat in 2018.

Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at Follow her @StephanieEbbert.