A little more than one month into her history-making tenure as the state’s first Black female attorney general, Andrea Campbell said her office will aggressively target public corruption, gun violence, and reforms to the criminal legal system while still drilling down on the consumer protection issues that are traditionally central to the job.
“Residents right now, yes, they are talking about the trauma we’re all feeling from gun violence. But they’re also talking about how difficult and expensive it is to live in Massachusetts,” Campbell said Thursday, in her first sit down interview with the Globe since winning office in November.
“There is a way for me to be a national voice on police accountability and other areas under the criminal legal reform umbrella that I imagine will be unique from other AGs in the country,” she said. “But the other place that Massachusetts absolutely needs to show up is on the issues of economic opportunity, prosperity, and stability.”
In Massachusetts, attorneys general have historically focused their energy on civil litigation, empowered by state consumer protection laws that are stronger than in many other states around the country and give the attorney general broad authority to defend consumers in a range of areas, from the mortgage crisis to the opioid epidemic. Former attorney general Francis Bellotti, who revolutionized the office in the 1970s and 1980s, previously told the Globe that as attorney general, “at least 80 percent of what you do is civil.”
But as she laid out her blueprint for her administration, Campbell painted a different vision than her predecessors, one that uses the office’s authority in civil litigation to advocate fiercely for criminal and social justice issues. She noted, for instance, a state law protecting people from unfair and misleading business practices that former attorneys general have used creatively to tackle social issues such as climate change.
Campbell, who said she also intends to take the lead nationally on protecting abortion and reproductive rights, pointed to the same law as one way to limit the influence of crisis pregnancy centers, the anti-abortion agencies accused of intentionally misleading the newly pregnant about their healthcare options, often posing as abortion clinics in order to talk women and others out of getting an abortion.
The consumer protection statute can also be used, Campbell said, to crack down on ghost guns — rifles, handguns, and assault rifles that can be assembled at home, nearly untraceable because they come with no serial number or other means of identification. Police departments, including in Boston, have been trying to combat the production and sale of ghost guns for years. But because they are so easy to manufacture and sell in secrecy, the firearms often evade detection, moving silently into and around the state.
Campbell stressed that her office can better support the on-the-ground work of law enforcement by tackling gun trafficking and gun store owners who flout state regulations.
“There are bad actors that we can go after that are a lot easier for us to do than say a district attorney or police chiefs,“ she said. “The office is actively looking at what are some creative laws we could be using, including in the context of consumer protection, to go after gun store owners or those who are trafficking guns and intentionally circumventing our gun laws.”
One big early test for Campbell will be whether to continue Healey’s practice of defending the state in a lawsuit over a civil service promotional exam, after a Suffolk Superior Court judge slammed state officials in October, saying the exam discriminated against Black and Hispanic police officers.
Campbell acknowledged her history of advocating for an end to “biased” promotional exams for police in Boston. In 2021, Campbell called then-acting mayor Kim Janey’s initial decision to defend the exams “shameful,” criticizing her for not acting sooner.
“I don’t need external pressure to hold our departments accountable,” she said at the time.
In the interview Thursday, Campbell said her office is still reviewing the case, however, she hinted that her experience as a lawyer and Boston city councilor advocating for equity in the promotion process can provide “context” into her decision-making.
“But given the new role, I have to make sure I’m following process and procedure before I make a determination [as] the attorney general,” she said.
After campaigning on a promise to address police misconduct and criminal justice reform, Campbell shared her plan to extend change beyond law enforcement by also targeting government corruption. Campbell said her office will soon launch a government accountability working group that convenes lawyers from different bureaus to not only examine the prison system and policing, but also “public employees who are misappropriating funds... [or] those working in the public sector that are violating the trust of our residents.”
Although the US attorney’s office in Massachusetts has historically been the more aggressive prosecutor of public corruption cases, Campbell said her office “absolutely should be at the forefront” in those issues. The new attorney general inherited several high-profile cases from her predecessor, Governor Maura Healey, including allegations of illegal campaign finance activity by a sitting Republican state senator and the former head of the Mass GOP. Campbell said the office has not yet decided whether it will pursue those cases, but vowed to make her decision public.
One responsibility of the government accountability working group, Campbell said, will be setting up the office’s police accountability unit, which will be tasked with researching racial disparities in police interactions, as well as partnering with the Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission, created in 2020, to ensure officers are disciplined appropriately in cases of misconduct.
“Not just a slap on the wrist, not just de-certification,” Campbell said. “If a police officer harms someone, they should also go to jail just like anyone else.”
But the working group will also play a major role in determining the scope of Campbell’s office: should the attorney general conduct independent investigations of police shootings or excessive use of force, a duty currently reserved for district attorneys? Can the office more directly support incarcerated individuals as they prepare to return home? And, of personal significance to Campbell, how can the office hold the prison system accountable for the living conditions of incarcerated people? She has long been vocal about her twin brother Andre’s death, complicated by insufficient medical care while in a Department of Correction facility, before his 30th birthday.
In her first month, Campbell has already appointed high-profile players to the office, including former White House lawyer Pat Moore as her first assistant attorney.
Campbell acknowledged that she still remains close with the current governor, but said that even as she and Healey prepare to work together on issues such as affordable housing, she is cognizant of the ways their roles differ, and the responsibilities she holds as the state’s attorney.
Above all, Campbell said she wants to be an attorney general for residents across the state, with representation in satellite offices from Boston to New Bedford, Worcester, and Springfield.
“I want that to be seen and known with respect to my leadership,” she said. “I will be bold and fearless when taking on issues... [and] it definitely involves making sure everyone in this office feels as though they’re on the team.”