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As a statewide Democratic sweep looms, can Republicans hold on to their last two district attorneys?

Contests in Plymouth and Cape and Islands test progressive prosecution

Dave Manly (left) spoke with Rahsaan Hall at the Duxbury Senior Center. Hall is running for district attorney of Plymouth County and was visiting the senior center.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

DUXBURY — With a statewide election approaching, Dave Manly hadn’t given the Plymouth district attorney’s race much thought until he ran into Democratic candidate Rahsaan Hall in the Duxbury Senior Center last month.

The pair talked a little college football before the conversation turned to politics. “What’s your opinion of ‘Defund the police’?” Manly, a Republican, inquired. The slogan is divisive, Hall said, but it started an important conversation.

“What about no cash bail?” Manly asked skeptically, referring to the progressive proposal to ban bail requirements for defendants in certain criminal cases. Hall said he does support the concept. “Ah, come on,” Manly responded, waving his hand dismissively.

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Welcome to Plymouth County, where a conservative view of law enforcement has kept control over the district attorney’s office for decades, despite voters’ preference for Democrats in federal elections. Republican District Attorney Timothy J. Cruz has fended off three Democratic challengers since he took office in 2001.

But Hall, a former Suffolk assistant district attorney and criminal justice reform advocate at ACLU Massachusetts, has mounted perhaps the most high-profile challenge Cruz has faced so far — with endorsements from Senators Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey, and even Patriots player Devin McCourty and singer songwriter John Legend. He proposes progressive reforms in the mold of Rachael S. Rollins, a former Suffolk district attorney and the current US attorney for Massachusetts, with whom Hall attended law school. He has applauded, for instance, Rollins’s refusal to prosecute certain nonviolent crimes.

The race south of Boston is one of two in Massachusetts this election cycle in which Democrats are looking to grab control of district attorney offices that conservative, law-and-order style prosecutors have governed for decades.

The Cape and Islands office hasn’t been served by a Democratic district attorney since 1970, but longtime incumbent, Republican Michael O’Keefe, is stepping down.

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However the Democrat there is taking a different, and perhaps less risky, approach than Hall.

Attorney Robert J. Galibois, a Democrat, is running a more traditional campaign to get tougher on drug dealers and introduce modest changes to beat O’Keefe’s chosen successor, Assistant District Attorney Daniel T. Higgins.

Higgins and Cruz pan the liberal prosecutors and say their opponents are too fixated on national political issues. The pair of Republicans say they are no-nonsense prosecutors focused on reducing crime and recidivism.

“We’re doing the job,” Cruz said. “You want to be safe in your home, safe in the streets? You go with me.”

Meanwhile, voters in Essex County are bound to see a new top prosecutor as conservative Democrat and 20-year incumbent Jonathan Blodgett retires. State Representative Paul Tucker, a former Salem police chief, is running unopposed to succeed him, though he shares many of Blodgett’s policy views.

Elections of district attorneys, here and across the country, are attracting statewide and in some cases national attention, a testament to the interest in local law enforcement and criminal justice reform after police shootings and civil rights protests over the past decade and an uptick in violent crime nationally. The races will serve as a test of both the appeal of progressive prosecutors, who have faced backlash in some parts of the country, as well as Massachusetts Democrats’ and independents’ willingness to vote for a Republican.

Hall, sporting his trademark bow tie, was in his element before an audience of about 20 people at a Brockton Area NAACP forum on a recent weekday evening. Hall, an ordained preacher, waxed poetic about the role of the district attorney as a “minister of justice” and said “justice cannot endure this administration,” in reference to Cruz.

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He listed off a series of cases he believes Cruz mishandled (Cruz rejects that characterization) and said, to applause from the audience, that the prosecution of certain low-level offenses is “the underbrush” that should be deemphasized in order to “free up resources to do investigations” of serious offenses.

Hall wants to collect and publish more data on demographics of those involved in the legal system and program outcomes, recruit more assistant district attorneys of color, and expand the scope of the existing conviction integrity unit to guard against bias at every step of a prosecution.

But Cruz countered that Hall’s reforms would upset years of progress his office has made through a focus on diversion programs and drug abuse prevention work funded by grants Cruz has brought back to the county. Between 2015 and 2020, violent crime fell 20 percent in Brockton, the county’s largest city, according to law enforcement data.

“The numbers show that what we’re doing is working,” he said.

Progressive reforms in places like New York, Philadelphia, and San Francisco let criminals off the hook and crime “skyrocketed,” he said. For his part, Hall points to academic research that suggests that wasn’t the case in Boston under Rollins.

But progressive prosecutors have suffered reversals in some recent elections. In June, San Francisco voters recalled their prosecutor after a year and a half on the job. Andrea Harrington, the district attorney in Berkshire County, lost her first reelection campaign in September’s Democratic primary to a more traditional challenger. Boston City Councilor Ricardo Arroyo lost his bid for Suffolk district attorney to Kevin Hayden, a moderate who had been serving in an interim role.

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Brian Frederick, who chairs Bridgewater State University’s political science department, said that Cruz “should definitely be considered the favorite,” thanks in large part to his broad political network in the county.

“When they are able to disassociate themselves from national politicians who are more conservative and focus in on local issues, Plymouth County is definitely willing to back Republican candidates,” he said.

Rather than parrot national conservatives’ tough-on-crime messages, Cruz and Higgins say they’re committed to tackling the root causes of crime, praise the Commonwealth’s low incarceration numbers, and list their top priorities if elected as increasing support to juveniles traumatized by crime or caught up in the criminal justice system.

“Our job as DA is not only to punish crime, but we should be on the prevention side as well,” Higgins said. “I think politics don’t have business in a DA’s race.”

Even Democrats are split on their approaches.

Galibois, the Democrat seeking the Cape and Islands seat, has hewed closer to the political middle ground, focusing his campaign on innovations around data collection and diversion programs other Massachusetts district attorneys have already implemented.

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“The progressive prosecutor model? I don’t fit it,” he said. “I’m bringing a couple progressive ideas, [like] a mental health court and the veterans session, and I’m utilizing certain more tough on crime tools.”

Back at the Duxbury Senior Center, Manly said he’d probably vote for Cruz.

“I’m very worried about crime. The media I watch says it has to do with liberal prosecutors,” Manly said. But, he told Hall, “I hope you do well. I really respect that you’re doing it.”

Hall thanked Manly for chatting and the pair shook hands.


Alexander Thompson can be reached at alexander.thompson@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @AlMThompson