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Attorney general candidates offer competing views on MBTA, climate change at latest debate

Massachusetts attorney general candidates Andrea Campbell, Shannon Liss-Riordan, and Quentin Palfrey debated at WBUR.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

With less than a month to go before the primary, three Democratic candidates for Massachusetts attorney general squared off in a live debate on Wednesday, sharpening their profiles as they detailed their approaches to issues from public transit and abortion to climate change.

In a back-and-forth over the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, Quentin Palfrey directly blamed Governor Charlie Baker for the transit system’s failures and the upcoming closure of the Orange Line, which will inconvenience hundreds of thousands of riders.

“This is a failure of the Baker administration,” Palfrey said during the debate at WBUR CitySpace, cohosted by WBUR, The Boston Globe, and WCVB. Many on Beacon Hill, he said, are loath to criticize the well-liked moderate Republican who served as a budget chief long before he was elected. “He is responsible for the funding mess the T is in and this is on him when there are trains literally on fire.”

The former assistant attorney general also implicated the “Beacon Hill culture,” saying, “We need an attorney general who is going to be independent both of corporate interests and of that establishment interest.”


Candidates Andrea Campbell and Shannon Liss-Riordan declined to point fingers while lamenting the ongoing safety issues that prompted an immediate standdown order from the Federal Transit Administration and an unprecedented 30-day closure of the Orange Line.

“I don’t like to actually blame folks,” Campbell said. “At the end of the day, the problems are what they are right now.”

Campbell said that if elected, she will work closely on the MBTA with the next governor “who will definitely be Maura Healey,” the only Democrat running. Campbell noted repeatedly that she has the endorsement of Healey, who is finishing her second term as attorney general and will face a Republican in the gubernatorial contest in November.


Liss-Riordan denounced the poor maintenance of the public transportation system as a “travesty” and said that as attorney general she would ensure laws are being followed.

“I’m particularly concerned about the outsourcing of much of the work that the T has done,” Liss-Riordan said.

Palfrey, who was endorsed by the state Democratic party, said he would “absolutely” investigate problems at the MBTA with an eye toward prosecution.

“We’ve got to look into how we got to this place,” he said.

The forum gave the candidates an opportunity to solidify their profiles as the political season ramps up. Palfrey, who is accepting public funding and has sworn off the support of independent expenditure committees, emphasized his independence and suggested Campbell would be beholden to the status quo. Liss-Riordan, a plaintiff’s lawyer who has represented working people in groundbreaking class action cases against corporations, cast herself as the only candidate with relevant experience litigating consumer and civil rights cases.

“The office of the attorney general would be a continuation of the work I have been doing as a private attorney general for years,” she said. “This is the job I was made for.”

Campbell, meanwhile, focused on her biography, how she used education to rise above a difficult childhood to become a lawyer for former Governor Deval Patrick’s administration and the first Black president of the Boston City Council.

“I have always sought to make sure every resident in this state has access to the same opportunity I was afforded,” said Campbell.


All three candidates said they support the Fair Share Amendment, an upcoming ballot question that would impose a 4 percent surtax on household income above $1 million to raise money for transportation and education.

The candidates also said they would follow Healey’s lead in cracking down on antiabortion crisis pregnancy centers, which Healey has criticized for misleading patients who think they are making appointments at abortion clinics.

And they traded ideas for enforcing state laws on climate. Palfrey said the attorney general’s office should be using various approaches, including litigation, civil rights cases, and stricter oversight of utilities; the state’s Department of Public Utilities is “too cozy” with them, he said.

Campbell said that in addition to prosecuting “bad actors,” she would be “taking the conversation on the road,” across the state “to hear from communities of color and rural communities so they’re part of the conversation.”

Liss-Riordan amplified a theme that was the focus of her third television ad Tuesday, highlighting her willingness to take on big corporations as a workers’ rights attorney.

“This is the type of high-stakes impact litigation that I have been doing and winning for the last 20 years,” Liss-Riordan said.

The debate was moderated by Radio Boston host Tiziana Dearing and WCVB-TV reporter Sharman Sacchetti.

Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at Stephanie.Ebbert@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @StephanieEbbert.