The Democratic primary for Suffolk district attorney has been rocked by controversy in recent weeks, with both candidates facing allegations of improper conduct. But voters still face a choice between them, and beneath the cloud of drama, questions remain about which candidate has the right kind of experience for the job.
When it comes to the experience, the contest presents a contrast: City Councilor Ricardo Arroyo, whose legal career as a public defender was brief, but who pledges to continue in the progressive vein of Rachael Rollins based on his work in a flawed system versus Kevin Hayden, who offers voters a more traditional resume spanning 25 years as both a prosecutor and criminal defense attorney.
On the campaign trail, Arroyo often refers to the challenges his former legal clients faced in what he calls a discriminatory justice system, one that he wants to reform. He has seen the effects trauma has had on young defendants, he says, and personally brought some clients to drug treatment programs.
But most of Arroyo’s legal work took place under the radar over a 3½-year span, a point his opponent has repeatedly highlighted in the lead-up to the Sept. 6 primary election.
“I’ve got 25 years of experience in this criminal legal system,” Hayden said during a recent debate, pointing to his record as a prosecutor and a criminal defense attorney as well as his management of the state Sex Offender Registry Board. “I’m built for this job.”
In any political race, the question of a candidate’s work experience arises; it’s an approach straight from the Politics 101 playbook, and one Hayden deployed early.
But in the district attorney’s race, the question of experience intersects with a larger debate in Massachusetts and across the country over what type of training is needed to be a top law enforcement official. Just how much legal experience does one need — and more importantly what kind — to be a district attorney?
“What you need is someone with some significant experience in the criminal justice system,” said David Rudovsky, a University of Pennsylvania law professor and civil rights attorney. “The question is, what is the threshold of qualifications to be the district attorney, rather than someone who is in the office.”
Four years ago, Rudovsky watched voters in Philadelphia break tradition in electing a civil rights attorney known for suing police officers over a former prosecutor, by a 3-1 ratio. Rudovsky said voters have embraced the new district attorney’s reforms, including changes to the bail system. Similarly, Greater Boston voters went in a new direction four years ago in electing Rollins, who largely worked in civil affairs, over an established prosecutor in the Suffolk district attorney’s office.
Rollins has since been appointed US attorney for Massachusetts. Hayden, 54, was appointed by Governor Charlie Baker to serve the rest of her term, and is seeking his first election to the post.
The 34-year-old Arroyo said his tenure as a public defender — representing some of the state’s poorest and most desperate criminal defendants — has prepared him for the job. He points as well to his three years on the City Council, where he championed several public safety reforms.
Though his career has been built around advocating for defendants and people disenfranchised by the system, he said he recognized the powerful role a prosecutor plays in shaping the system, one of the reasons he is seeking the job. He has endorsed many of the progressive values that won Rollins her success.
As an entry-level public defender with the state Committee for Public Counsel Services, Arroyo would have been responsible for a broad caseload, with duties ranging from representing clients charged with misdemeanors and more serious drug crimes, as well as juveniles and child welfare cases, according to a state job posting for a similar position. He first worked in Essex County, and later in Suffolk County.
When asked by The Boston Globe, Arroyo refused to identify specific cases he handled, citing attorney-client privileges. The Committee for Public Counsel Services also would not release a list of his cases; a state court website does not track cases by attorney. The Globe could not find any published media accounts, by the newspaper or another outlet, of any of his legal work — likely because entry-level work flies under the radar and often includes negotiating plea agreements or diverting defendants to social service programs.
Arroyo has said he represented hundreds of defendants, though he brought fewer than 10 cases to trial.
A Globe check of Hayden’s legal career in published news accounts shows that he handled an array of cases, as a defense attorney and also as a prosecutor. In 1998, he sought theft charges against a woman who was known as one of the Framingham Eight, a group of women who had been previously released from prison after showing they killed their partners to end years of abuse. The woman, Shannon Booker, was ultimately found not guilty of the new theft charges by reason of insanity.
In his work as a private attorney, one notable case includes his defense of a horse owner who faced animal cruelty charges for not euthanizing a sick horse. Hayden reached a midtrial plea agreement with prosecutors that secured a probation sentence for the man, rather than jail time.
Andrea Cabral, the state’s former secretary of public safety, said trial experience, specifically as a prosecutor, is critical for any district attorney to understand the gravity of the courtroom decisions he or she is making. Cabral worked as a prosecutor with Hayden more than a decade ago and donated to his race, though she said she has not endorsed either candidate. But she said his experience gives him “a unique understanding of the job’s gravity.”
“It’s really difficult to understand the power that the Commonwealth and the person who speaks for the Commonwealth wields in a courtroom unless you’ve actually held that position,” she said.
Hayden has earned the support of well-known members of the legal community, including his old boss, former Suffolk district attorney Ralph Martin, as well as Joseph Feaster, a former head of the NAACP in Boston and a member of the 2021 Boston Police Reform Task Force, which drafted a new set of police policies that the city adopted.
State Senator Lydia Edwards, who served with Arroyo on the City Council and joined with him in passing new public safety measures in Boston, also endorsed Hayden.
In a statement, Edwards called Arroyo “a gifted politician” but said that she wanted to support “Kevin Hayden, public servant, over the politician.”
Arroyo, for his part, has sought to use Hayden’s experience against him, saying his opponent represents the criminal justice system Arroyo wants to reform. In recent weeks, he has questioned Hayden’s experience running the Sex Offender Registry Board, after a 2017 independent state audit found problems with the oversight of hundreds of sex offenders.
He also called on Hayden to resign after a Globe report earlier this month raised questions over Hayden’s handling of an investigation into MBTA Transit Police wrongdoing and allegations of a coverup. Hayden has since said he convened a grand jury to consider the matter.
At a recent debate, Arroyo argued that “not all experience is good experience.”
Arroyo has also faced his own controversy, after a Globe investigation found that he had been investigated for sexual assault twice, in 2005 and 2007, but did not list the investigations on his 2014 bar application. The application is meant to screen a candidate’s credibility and truthfulness, and any inaccuracies could lead to discipline. Arroyo vigorously denied the assault allegations and was never charged, and said he never knew he was under investigation, contradicting police records obtained by the Globe.
Daniel Medwed, a Northeastern University law professor, said a candidate’s legal experience can be measured in different ways, and that a history of being a prosecutor can also be a downside. Medwed has not endorsed either candidate, but his research and legal work center on prosecutorial accountability, and he said voters are increasingly looking to outsiders — not veteran prosecutors — to manage the system.
“Our history of prosecutors wielding that power in this country, but also in Boston, is not always a great narrative,” he said. “Having that experience can also lead you to do things the way they have always been done in the past.”
Carlton E. Williams, a civil rights lawyer and a longtime friend of Arroyo, said he has seen Arroyo’s advocacy for his clients first hand — he watched him prep for some of his trials, and helped “crunch” strategy ideas, he said.
But, he argued, a prosecutor’s work requires more than just trial experience.
“What is the job of the district attorney? It is to be the executor. It is to manage a large office, with a philosophy, political statement, to be the visionary,” he said. “Experience matters. Experience is not just trials.”
Chris Dearborn, a law professor at Suffolk University whose students represent defendants in the Boston Municipal Court system, said, “There is no one litmus test for this job.” He said both candidates will have to defend their credentials as well as their proposed policies, “and how that affects the criminal justice system.”
The candidates, he said, can point to differing experiences. But, citing the recent controversies in the campaign, Dearborn said voters will also want to ensure they “are electing a district attorney who can be counted on to keep their word.”
“Resumes and policy proposals should still be important, but this race is now about integrity as well, and that should matter to Suffolk County given the enormous power of the position,” he said.