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Big ideas coming from normally under-the-radar Mass. races

We’re seeing way more ideas, and ambition, in down-ballot primaries this year.

William Galvin and Tanisha Sullivan are running in the Democratic primary to be the secretary of state of Massachusetts.Jessica Rinaldi

Don’t sleep on the down-ballot races this year.

The primaries to decide nominees for a bunch of statewide offices are a few weeks away, and races that are normally pretty ho-hum are super hot. Some of the candidates are running on plans ambitious enough to transform offices that otherwise barely register with most voters.

State auditor? The office was vital but snoozy until now. But transportation advocate Chris Dempsey has laid out a vision for the job that is downright exciting. In addition to monitoring the billions coming into the state via COVID recovery funds and Democrats’ giant infrastructure and climate bills, Dempsey would use the office to make sure the state is meeting its climate goals, and provide meaningful oversight of the troubled State Police. His opponent in the Democratic primary, state Senator Diana DiZoglio, takes a similar approach to the job, vowing to hold state departments more accountable for how well they’re serving marginalized communities.

Those big ambitions are good news for the state. As is the debate playing out over the secretary of state’s office, where almost-28-year incumbent Bill Galvin faces a challenge in the Sept. 6 primary from Tanisha Sullivan, an attorney and head of the NAACP in Boston.


Sullivan is arguing that the office – which administers elections, regulates corporations, and oversees lobbyists and public records – could be doing much more than it has under Galvin. She believes the office could be structuring fee requirements to better help businesses in marginalized communities, for example, and could use the business certification process to flag corporations that oppose abortion rights. She argues that the office has the leverage to encourage equity, smart development, and other worthy goals but Galvin isn’t using it.

“If [the secretary of state] has the vision and the will, it can be a game-changer for our communities,” Sullivan said. “[Galvin] is on autopilot. For 27 years, we have allowed this office to fly under the radar.”


Galvin says Sullivan can’t use the office in the activist way she’s proposing here. Some of her plans – restructuring fees to help businesses in disadvantaged communities, for example – are neither practical nor within the authority of the secretary of state, he says, and would require action by the Legislature. He says he has tried some of her other proposals, like demanding more information from lobbyists, and has been batted back by the courts. And when it comes to using the office to flag out-of-state companies for failing to support abortion rights, Galvin says that, on the off-chance that the courts did not strike down such practices, the office should not be used in that way.

“If you’re going to legitimize the tactic of using your ministerial or regulatory authority to punish corporations for some point of view, you’re going down a bad path, and you’re legitimizing that conduct by the other side,” he said. He pointed to Florida, where Governor Ron DeSantis has punished Disney, pulling its favorable tax status for being too supportive of gay rights.

Sullivan isn’t proposing anything that draconian. But Galvin has a point that, given the national scourge of Republicans manufacturing doubt about elections, it’s important that states’ chief elections officials, which must deal fairly with all parties, be less baldly partisan, less open to accusations of bias, than other constitutional officers.


For all of the heat in their debate over expanding the vision of the office, it’s in elections, the more traditional part of the job, where the differences between Galvin and Sullivan are most meaningful. The challenger, mirroring the concerns of voting rights groups, says Galvin has blocked or slowed some expansions of voting access over the years, citing logistical hurdles, and that he has come to support measures – like election-day registration, or lowering the voting age to 17 for municipal elections – only after relentless pressure from activists. Too often, they say, Galvin has been slow to adopt innovations that would expand voting and streamline the elections system in Massachusetts.

“He is very comfortable sitting back, waiting for things to happen before he acts,” Sullivan said.

Galvin says practical considerations mean he can’t just do whatever “my activist Democratic friends” demand.

“There are people in the Democratic party in Massachusetts that if Putin ran against me, they’d be with Putin,” he said. “They don’t like me, I get it.”

He maintains that only he has the experience and knowledge to protect voting in Massachusetts at this moment, when democracy is under attack. He compares himself to “a military officer who says he’s going to retire, then a war breaks out.”

Sullivan is making this race about much more than the next election, including the fact that disadvantaged communities still aren’t active enough in the democracy Galvin wants to protect: Participation by Black adults of voting age in Massachusetts, for example, remains abysmal compared to other states. That is not for lack of effort on his part, Galvin says. But clearly, those efforts have fallen short.


Sullivan said Galvin’s office “has not been present in our communities the way it needs to be.” Black communities have a fragile relationship with government, she said, and as the state’s “chief democracy officer” the secretary of state has an obligation to show people the good government can do for them and why elections matter, to use the bully pulpit to inspire them to vote. That message is likely to resonate better coming from a Black woman who has led the NAACP.

Galvin counters that even a Black secretary of state will not move the needle appreciably when it comes to voter participation, that people of color are moved to vote only when they’re lobbied to do so by trusted members of their communities. To that end, he says, his office has given money and support to local activist groups to persuade people to vote.

“The idea that we have done nothing and that we are enjoying this alleged lack of participation simply is not true,” Galvin said. “Motivation to vote is something I can only try to stimulate, I can’t control it.”

Sullivan is sure she, and Massachusetts, can do better.

At its heart, this is a contest between a technocrat and an activist. That choice has never mattered more.


Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at yvonne.abraham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeAbraham.