Andrea Campbell cruised to victory in Tuesday’s Democratic primary election for Massachusetts attorney general, putting her on the path to make history as the first Black woman to hold the state’s top law enforcement post.
Campbell, the first Black woman elected president of the Boston City Council, successfully fended off a late $9 million spending blitz by her wealthy opponent, workers-rights litigator Shannon Liss-Riordan, who had been riding a recent wave of support that helped her surge in the polls and put the race at a dead heat leading into Tuesday. But as the votes poured in Tuesday night, Campbell appeared to have had a commanding victory: She won roughly 70 percent of the vote in Boston, according to unofficial election results.
Supporters broke out in cheers at Campbell’s watch party at the ReelHouse Marina Bay in Quincy, as TV screens showed that the Associated Press called the race for Campbell just before 10 p.m., less than two hours after polls closed. But the initial announcement seemed to catch people by surprise. Louder, more confident cheers broke out the second time the screen showed the red check mark next to Campbell’s name.
Soon after, Campbell arrived to thunderous applause and cheers, and chants of “A.C. for AG.”
“To all of those who have felt unseen, this victory is for you,” she told the crowd, shaking her head in seeming disbelief at her victory. “I’m here to say that I see you.”
Campbell also reflected on the historic nature of her win.
“We have turned our movement into a moment, a historic moment,” she said. “It is not lost on me that this is the first time a Black woman has been elected nominee not only for attorney general but for any statewide office.”
She added, “This campaign is about recognizing that this office can knit together our communities.”
With her victory, Campbell will now square off against Bourne attorney James R. McMahon III in the November general election. McMahon, who ran unopposed in the Republican primary, has unsuccessfully run for office before, and will now face a Democratic opponent who has the advantage of name recognition and a statewide profile after almost a year of campaigning.
The candidates are vying to replace Attorney General Maura Healey, who won Tuesday’s primary election to be the Democratic nominee for governor.
After the results were announced, Liss-Riordan, 53, of Brookline, took the stage at her watch party at the Fairmont Copley Plaza Hotel to rousing applause and cheers of “We love you Shannon!”
“This is not the speech I was hoping to give,” Liss-Riordan said. But, she added, “we have so much to be proud of, so much to be thankful for.”
Liss-Riordan said she will be “proud to stand with Andrea Campbell” in the fight for the values she has long championed: “Workers rights, environmental rights, reproductive rights.”
“This is an incredibly difficult time in our Commonwealth and our country,” she said.
Campbell, 40, a mother of two from Boston, vowed to bring the same style of advocacy to the Attorney General’s office that has driven her career to date, such as pushing for reforms to the criminal justice system. She has promised to “be an advocate for fundamental change and progress.” In a nod to Healey, she said she’d maintain the office as “the people’s law firm.”
“I’ve dedicated my entire life to fighting for greater opportunity and equity, and that’s exactly what I’ll do as the next attorney general of Massachusetts,” Campbell said when she launched her campaign in February.
Her victory dramatically closed out what had been one of the most competitive and combative races on the statewide ballot, marked by a late slate of major endorsements and eye-popping spending.
Recent polls showed that she and Liss-Riordan had been neck-and-neck, though Liss-Riordan has been riding a wve of momentum that saw her close the gap from polling in the single digits in June to dead heat with Campbell in the days leading up to the election.
That momentum was largely fueled by Liss-Riordan’s self-funded $9 million campaign ad blitz, which drew criticism from detractors who said she was trying to buy her victory. She argued that she was merely doing what was necessary to ensure voters heard her message.
Still, the race remained up for grabs straight into Tuesday, with a recent tracking poll of voters in the last several days finding that 32 percent were still undecided. The poll was conducted for the political action group Priorities for Progress, whose organizers support Campbell, though the group said its research was independent.
The race was marked by a series of twists and turns ever since Healey announced in January that she would be leaving the office.
Campbell, who ran for Boston mayor last year, officially announced her bid in February and quickly emerged as the front-runner, getting more than 30 percent of support of likely voters in a poll that was conducted at the time by the research group MassInc. Liss-Riordan, by comparison, had just 3 percent support.
A third candidate, voting rights attorney Quentin Palfrey, helped keep the race competitive until he decided last week to end his campaign and endorse Campbell, reshuffling the narrative into a two-person contest after roughly 225,000 Democrats had already cast a ballot.
Palfrey had the endorsement of the state Democratic Party and a number of progressive groups, but his supporters split between Liss-Riordan and Campbell.
Big-name Democratic players in Massachusetts had been equally divided over the candidates. Liss-Riordan earned the support of Boston Mayor Michelle Wu, Senator Elizabeth Warren, and former acting mayor Kim Janey. Labor groups also rallied on her behalf at Labor Day events, giving her a significant push into Tuesday’s primary.
But Campbell had the support of Representative Ayanna Pressley and Senator Edward Markey, as well as five of the six still-living Massachusetts attorneys general, including Healey, who said Campbell was best suited for the job.
As attorney general, a high-profile and politically powerful position, Campbell would have the ability to set the state’s legal priorities. Healey, for instance, used the role to challenge the policies of the Trump administration. She also sued big corporations such as Purdue Pharma, securing a $4.3 billion payment from the pharmaceutical company and the Sackler family for its role in the opioid epidemic.
While Liss-Riordan sought to position herself as the true progressive in the race, Campbell swayed voters with the promise that her approach to the job would be based on her own personal experiences.
Early on in her legal career, she defended youth who were involved in the criminal justice system, and often refers to the story of her twin brother, Andre, who was ensnared in the school-to-prison pipeline. He died at age 29 while in the custody of the state Department of Correction.
Campbell was a baby when her mother was killed in a car accident. She and Andre were raised by relatives and in foster care while their father served time in prison, until they were 8-years-old.
Campbell refers to the diverging paths that she and Andre were on as motivators to bring reforms the criminal justice system. She attended Boston Latin School, Princeton University, and UCLA Law School.
Campbell later worked as an attorney in the Governor Deval Patrick administration, and was the first Black woman elected president of the Boston City Council. She served on the council for three two-year terms.
Liss-Riordan loaned her campaign $9.3 million leading up to the primary election, a number that could increase once all figures are tallied. She had earlier set a spending cap of $12 million, an estimate she was required to make under the state’s public financing program, which Palfrey participated in.
She also loaned herself $3 million in her failed 2018 bid for US Senate. Campbell estimated she would spend $3 million, and ultimately spent $1.6 through Sept. 1, according to state campaign finance data.
By contrast, in 2014, the last open-seat race for attorney general, the three candidates spent $4.3 million total.
Milton J. Valencia can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him @miltonvalencia and on Instagram @miltonvalencia617. Alexander Thompson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @AlMThompson Ivy Scott can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her @itsivyscott.