Warren Tolman and Maura Healey, Democratic rivals for attorney general, clashed not over policy, but over how to handle the unfolding crisis at Market Basket as they met Thursday in their first televised debate before the Sept. 9 primary.
Tolman, a former state senator, said he would have met weeks ago with Arthur T. and Arthur S. Demoulas, the feuding cousins at the center of the ownership struggle that has paralyzed the company, and tried to help them broker an agreement.
“It’s a time for leadership,” he said during the 30-minute debate on WGBH-TV. “You don’t wait. You don’t try to search the statute to say, ‘Oh, gee, can I do this?’ ”
Healey, a former top deputy to Attorney General Martha Coakley, argued that it is not the role of the attorney general to intervene in such disputes.
“I don’t know that we want an attorney general who is going to show up on people’s doorsteps,” she said. “Usually, you do that when you have a subpoena in hand.”
The disagreement underscored how the candidates agree on most policy issues and have been arguing instead over the proper role of the attorney general.
Tolman has vowed to use the power and prestige of the office to pressure colleges to combat sexual assault and to call on drug companies to fight opiate abuse. When an attorney general speaks out, “whether you have the authority or not, people listen,” he said.
Healey argued the attorney general’s role is to focus on building legal cases against unscrupulous lenders, gun traffickers, and other lawbreakers.
“It’s about making investigations, making cases, putting together the evidence, putting people on the stand, and taking a case to trial,” she said.
The debate did not feature any pointed attacks, as the candidates both vowed to vigorously enforce laws designed to prevent harassment outside abortion clinics and the state’s tough gun restrictions.
They both said they would oppose legalization of marijuana for recreational use, calling it a gateway to harder drug use.
They also decried the police response to protesters in Ferguson, Mo., who have taken to the streets after the fatal shooting by a police officer of an unarmed black teenager.
Healey said the Missouri case ponts to the need for better police training.
“It would not happen here in Massachusetts if I were attorney general,” she said.
Embracing again a muscular role for the office, Tolman said that if he were attorney general in Missouri, he would meet with the police and community leaders to try to broker peace. “Look, this cannot happen, and sunshine is the best disinfectant here,” he said.
Turning to the job-rigging scandal in the state Probation Department, Healey suggested it would be harder for Tolman, as a former legislator, to crack down on patronage.
“I know you were in the Legislature in the 1990s and personally observed some of this,” she told Tolman. “I certainly bring an independence to this. I have not worked on Beacon Hill.”
Tolman rejected that argument, pointing out that as a legislator he helped pass campaign finance and ethics laws. “I’m proud of my record on Beacon Hill,” he said. “I take a back seat to no one.”Michael Levenson can be reached at michael.levenson@