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‘The race that eclipsed everything.’ In low-key Mass. primary season, Democratic AG contest ending with fireworks

Andrea Campbell and Shannon Liss-Riordan campaigned in Framingham earlier this month.Nathan Klima for The Boston Globe

In the last week alone, the high-octane Democratic primary for Massachusetts attorney general has seen a rash of big-name endorsements, bouts of last-minute mudslinging, and the movement of millions of dollars in and out of political accounts.

The latest twist came Tuesday, when one of three candidates in the primary, voting rights attorney Quentin Palfrey, ended his campaign and endorsed Andrea Campbell, reshaping a race in which 255,0000 Democrats have already cast ballots and reshuffling support from progressives with less than a week until the Sept. 6 primary.

Palfrey’s exit made official what polls were indicating: The primary is a two-person contest between Campbell, a former Boston city councilor, and Shannon Liss-Riordan, a prominent labor lawyer. Campbell and Liss-Riordan now have just days to battle for advantage in a race polls show is extremely close.

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In an election season that has otherwise been relatively sleepy in most of Massachusetts, without competitive congressional races or a gubernatorial contest on the Democratic side to drive voters to the polls, the primary for attorney general has become the marquee contest on the ballot.

“This is the race that has eclipsed everything else,” said Mary Anne Marsh, a longtime Democratic operative in Boston. “The real question, with seven whole days left, is who’s got the organization to make the difference in this race, which by all accounts is a dead heat?”

Palfrey joins a list of heavy-hitting Democratic endorsers in a rare race that has divided some of the state’s most prominent progressives. Last week, after a barrage of TV ads, Liss-Riordan won the support of Boston Mayor Michelle Wu, former acting mayor Kim Janey, and Senator Elizabeth Warren. Campbell has the backing of Senator Ed Markey, Representative Ayanna Pressley, and Attorney General Maura Healey, who is the expected Democratic nominee for governor.

Palfrey, a voting rights attorney, had the endorsement of the state Democratic Party and a number of progressive groups, but struggled to gain traction in the race, consistently lagging behind his opponents in fund-raising and polls. Seeing no path to victory, Palfrey withdrew and threw his support behind Campbell, whom he had roundly criticized for policy positions and her decision not to publicly reject financial support from outside PACs.

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Palfrey, who will remain on the ballot, acknowledged in an interview on Tuesday that he and Campbell differ on a number of issues, but said he chose to back her now because she “has the right kind of experience and approach to step into that role.”

“It’s a very difficult decision to come to to suspend a campaign, but I also feel some sense of responsibility to try to express what I think is best for the office going forward,” Palfrey said. “And I’m confident that that’s Andrea Campbell.”

Palfrey will campaign with Campbell in the final stretch, her campaign said.

But not all of Palfrey’s supporters are following him to Campbell’s candidacy. Some said Tuesday they would back Campbell, while others defected to Liss-Riordan. Prominent groups such as Progressive Massachusetts, which had backed Palfrey, were debating how to proceed on Tuesday, while members lined up behind both candidates.

“I don’t think there’s any clear one-to-one . . . that he inherently brings along any supporters” to Campbell, said Jonathan Cohn, policy director with Progressive Massachusetts. “There’s something that doesn’t sit right about the strategy of incessantly attacking a candidate for months and then flipping and endorsing them in the final week.”

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Some Liss-Riordan supporters argue she is the true progressive in the race and should thus inherit Palfrey’s support. Her campaign manager, Jordan Meehan, slammed Palfrey’s decision to back Campbell as “petty politics.”

The position of attorney general in Massachusetts is a high-profile and powerful political perch. Healey used the role to build a national reputation, lobbing lawsuit after lawsuit against the Donald Trump administration and big corporations such as Purdue Pharma and ExxonMobil.

The race has seen a number of twists and turns since February, when Campbell — who ran for mayor of Boston in 2021 — announced her candidacy and became the presumptive front-runner. In the early months, both Palfrey and Liss-Riordan attacked Campbell relentlessly, in blows that at times appeared coordinated, arguing Campbell was not progressive enough for Massachusetts and criticizing her support for charter schools and some of her campaign’s financial backers.

Liss-Riordan, who is known for her success as a class action attorney and began the race as an underdog, has narrowed the gap in polling with Campbell over the past few months with an eye-popping blitz of television advertising. Her support among likely Democratic primary voters grew from just 6 percent support in June to 26 percent in August, according to one poll. She will ultimately spend at least $5 million on ads, nearly all funded with her own money. By contrast, in 2014, the last open-seat race for attorney general, the three candidates spent $4.3 million total.

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Opponents have accused Liss-Riordan of trying to buy the election. She argues she is merely doing what it takes to ensure voters hear her message.

Campbell has received support from a super PAC affiliated with the Environmental League of Massachusetts, an outside group not subject to the same contribution limits as campaigns themselves. But political observers say her most important backer is Healey. Marsh said Healey’s get-out-the-vote operation might give Campbell the edge in a tight race.

Campbell said Tuesday she and Palfrey share mutual respect and are “aligned on our values.” His backing, she added, will provide an advantage to her despite coming so close to Election Day.

“This endorsement is timely, and it speaks to Quentin’s character. I’m honored to have his support,” Campbell said. “There are many voters who still have not cast their ballots yet.”

Palfrey served as acting general counsel at the US Department of Commerce in the Biden administration and was the only candidate who had worked in the Massachusetts attorney general’s office, heading its health care division from 2007 to 2009.

Campbell and Liss-Riordan present very different sets of credentials.

Raised in Roxbury, Campbell has built her political career on personal tragedy. On the campaign trail, she contrasts her story — Boston Latin School, Princeton, UCLA Law School, and the Boston City Council — with that of her twin brother, Andre, who was caught in the school to prison pipeline and died at 29 while in the custody of the Department of Correction. Campbell has worked at a major law firm and as an attorney on Beacon Hill, and was the first Black woman elected president of the Boston City Council.

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Liss-Riordan, for her part, has spent decades representing workers against corporations as large as Uber, Lyft, and Amazon, prominent work she describes as that of a “private attorney general.” She has won major victories for waitstaff, truck drivers, and firefighters denied labor rights, and filed groundbreaking lawsuits challenging workers’ treatment in the gig economy. But she has also been criticized for seeking substantial shares of lucrative settlements she won for those workers, with some judges even rejecting her legal fees as too high. She has significant support from organized labor.

In an interview Tuesday, Liss-Riordan said she was confident in her standing despite Palfrey’s support of her rival.

“We know from the polls that this race is tight, but we’ve got the momentum on our side,” Liss-Riordan said. “Next week is like the closing arguments in a jury trial, which I have done many times. I’m just out there making my closing statement — my final pitch.”


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