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Who will succeed Brian Joyce in the state senate?

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Brian Joyce, who has held the seat representing Milton, Randolph, and all or parts of eight other communities south of Boston for 18 years, announced this year that he would not run for reelection.handout

The future of Brian Joyce, the ethically embattled state senator from Milton, has captivated and confounded observers for so long it threatens to overshadow the equally important race to succeed him on Beacon Hill.

Joyce, who has held the seat representing Milton, Randolph, and all or parts of eight other communities south of Boston for 18 years, announced this year that he would not run for reelection. That was probably a good idea because he's spending a lot of time these days addressing a federal corruption investigation, prompted in large part by Globe stories.

The candidates to succeed him include state Representative Walter Timilty of Milton and political newcomer Nora Harrington, a Milton businesswoman. Timilty, a representative since 1999, was long viewed as the seat's heir apparent, but his glide path to victory in the Sept. 8 Democratic primary might not be as assured as it once looked.

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Timilty is at risk of being upset by Harrington, a first-time candidate who has pummeled him — mostly in absentia — for owning one of the most conservative voting records in the Legislature.

Harrington and her partner, a psychologist, jointly run a behavioral health practice. A Bronx native, she moved to Massachusetts to attend Williams College in 1984 and stayed. Harrington said she had considered running for office previously but decided to enter this race, partly because she considered Timilty unrepresentative of the district's voters.

"In this race it seemed like there was nobody who was representing the more progressive side of the Democratic Party," she said. "Or even the moderate side, much less the progressive side."

She echoes Senator Jamie Eldridge's recent claims that the Senate — already by far the more progressive of the two chambers — needs more liberal voices.

Timilty is a member of a legendary political family and has been a career legislator who is well-liked by his colleagues. But in this race he is being forced to defend his record. Timilty has consistently opposed abortion rights and transgender rights. He is a staunch supporter of the death penalty. He has received an "F" rating from Planned Parenthood, which basically means he opposes anything it supports.

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Both candidates argue that they would be forceful advocates for local issues like funding for education and development. Harrington lists her priorities as education, health care, and LGBT and transgender rights. Timilty touts his ties to local officials and his support for environmental issues. But local issues are not the ones that really divide them.

"Whether it's around same-sex marriage or immigrant rights, I want to be a voice for under-resourced and vulnerable people," Harrington said. "And I believe in the expansion of rights, not the contraction of them."

Timilty's social conservatism isn't new but has drawn more scrutiny as he seeks higher office. That's to be expected. Yet Timilty seems to find the criticism offensive.

"The civil discourse that I have employed not just in this campaign but throughout my career is not being matched by my opponent," Timilty said. "I think voters deserve better."

Actually there hasn't been nearly as much discourse in the campaign as there should be because Timilty has refused to appear in any of the six scheduled debates between them. He contends that all of the debates have been organized by Harrington supporters. The one that he refused to attend Tuesday was organized by a student organization at Canton High. Hard to believe that a bunch of high school kids are in the tank for Harrington, or in on some anti-Timilty conspiracy.

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Perhaps Timilty has decided that the less he says on his positions, the better.

Timilty’s candidacy rests heavily on his history representing the core of the district. But he doesn’t seem to have anticipated drawing a serious contender whose politics differ so starkly from his own. Instead of coasting to election, he has pinned his hopes on running out the clock.


Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at adrian.walker @globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.