The candidates for state attorney general, Republican Jay McMahon and Democrat Andrea Campbell, clashed over abortion rights, policing, vaccine mandates, and the opioid crisis in the sole debate of a campaign that polls show Campbell is leading handily.
McMahon, a Bourne attorney, tried to tie Campbell, an attorney and former Boston city councilor, to calls to “defund the police” while Campbell attempted to cast McMahon as a threat to abortion rights during the debate, which was taped Thursday morning.
Throughout the debate, McMahon attacked his opponent, but Campbell mostly did not take the bait, returning instead to her campaign’s familiar talking point about the cost of living. The two candidates did, however, find common ground over a more robust response to the overdose crisis.
The debate, moderated by WBZ political analyst Jon Keller, will stream in full at 10 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday on CBS News Boston, and an edited version will appear at 8:30 a.m. Sunday on “Keller @ Large” on WBZ-TV. It will be available in full for viewing from Saturday on CBSBoston.com.
The debate started with a discussion of abortion rights.
Campbell pledged to create a reproductive rights unit within the attorney general’s office and work to expand abortion access in Western Massachusetts. McMahon, Campbell said, is “against a woman’s right to choose.”
McMahon pushed back forcefully, saying the right to abortion is enshrined in the state constitution. “I intend to impassionately protect every citizen of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts for every right that we have [constitutionally], both federal and state,” he said.
When the debate turned to youth gun violence, McMahon said more police are the answer.
“I am concerned about the liberal elitists on Beacon Hill who want to throw the police out of public schools,” he said. “I think the police need to be there.”
Campbell said she would enforce the state’s gun laws and expand grant programs to give more money to organizations working to prevent violence.
McMahon then said Campbell wants to “defund and degrade” the police. Shootings take place every night in Boston, which is experiencing a “crime wave” and “is starting to turn into Chicago,” he said.
In Boston, homicides fell 38 percent, rapes fell 12 percent, and robberies were flat in the first half of this year compared to 2021, according to a Major Cities Chiefs Association survey. Aggravated assaults were up slightly, the survey found.
“I live in the city of Boston,” Campbell told McMahon. “You do not. This is personal to me.”
Campbell said that she’s worked with many stakeholders, including police, to reduce violence and wants police departments to be “well funded.” However, police need to be transparent, she said, touting her efforts to implement body-worn cameras in Boston’s police force.
“I find it extremely offensive that he’s suggesting I’m anti-police,” she said. “It’s ridiculous.”
When the discussion turned to whether the candidates support vaccine mandates, McMahon denounced the measures and said he would stand with any of the state employees who were terminated because they did not comply with them.
Campbell said if there were another surge of coronavirus cases she would be open to revisiting “the possibility” of vaccine and mask mandates, but “we’re not there yet.”
“Most folks are enjoying coming out of some sense of isolation and are frankly more concerned about the economy and mental health than maybe a mandate issue,” she said.
The final debate question touched on the opioid crisis and how the attorney general’s office could be involved in the response to the homeless encampments and open-air drug market near Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard in Boston, known as Mass. and Cass.
Incumbent Democratic Attorney General Maura Healey, who is running for governor, gained a national profile for lawsuits against opioid manufacturers and distributors.
Campbell said she would expand grants to social services responding to the crisis and step up law enforcement against drug dealers. Suburban communities need to do more to contribute to the response as many of their residents come to the Mass. and Cass, she said.
McMahon said the opioid crisis is what motivated him to run after his son Joel died in 2008 after becoming addicted. McMahon said he wants more police in the Mass. and Cass area and wants to improve the success rates for government recovery programs to that of private programs.
“No parent should have to bury their child who has died from drugs,” McMahon said. “Every family in the Commonwealth has been touched by this opiate surge, and we have to do something about it other than watching them die on Mass. and Cass.”