What do Suffolk County voters want in a district attorney?
That isn’t a question they ponder often, given that the office changes hands roughly once a decade or so. But with the retirement of longtime incumbent Daniel Conley, it’s one being fiercely debated right now, in the best race being conducted below the radar.
It is also a question being considered in a different era. Well-founded concerns about mass incarceration and police brutality, among other issues, have prompted fresh thinking about mandatory-minimum sentences, cash bail, and a host of other issues. In cities across the country, what constitutes effective prosecution is being rethought.
In the Suffolk County race, challengers Shannon McAuliffe, Greg Henning, Evandro Carvalho, Rachael Rollins, and Linda Champion are running in the Democratic primary, with the winner virtually assured of moving into the office in January.
Henning is a current Suffolk County prosecutor. Carvalho is a state representative from Dorchester and former Suffolk prosecutor.
McAuliffe — who announced before Conley decided to leave — is a former public defender and administrator of ROCA, a well-regarded anticrime program based in Chelsea. Rollins has held high-level legal posts in two state agencies and is a former assistant US attorney, while Champion is an attorney for a state agency, the Department of Industrial Accidents.
Perhaps inevitably, the race is in part a referendum on Conley. With the exception of Henning, the candidates are banking on a public appetite for a change — for a more activist approach to the job.
As a former public defender, McAuliffe has criticized the current office for emphasizing courtroom victories, while stubbornly ignoring the larger social forces at work. Skin color, zip code and income, she argues, all too often determine outcomes in the system.
“Being a public defender for 12 years is a tough and unpopular job, but I did it proudly because I thought it was the right way to use my law degree,” she said. “I want to make unfair systems more equitable.”
Rollins, the former general counsel for the Massachusetts Department of Transportation and Massport, cites her family background in explaining her candidacy. Two of her siblings have been in and out of the criminal justice system, which she claims gives her a different perspective on what a prosecutor’s office requires.
“I ran because of my family situation and just the turning tide in the country and Massachusetts, and I think the office has been tone deaf to that,” Rollins said. “The job description has changed.”
Henning may have the clearest path to victory. The son of popular TV anchor John Henning, he has emerged as the favorite of those who don’t believe the office needs overhauling — including police officers and others who work in the system. Henning, who lives in Dorchester, has headed the office’s gang unit (he’s currently on leave) and touts his work with youth, both in and out of the office. He left the office for a year to teach in a Boston charter school, before returning to prosecute cases.
Henning says he would make a priority of solving more shootings and building closer relationships with the community — in part, because that would make solving tough crimes easier.
“Having witnesses reluctant to participate makes people less safe,” Henning said.
Politically, the dynamics of race are anyone’s guess. Henning has a hold on the most traditional (older, white) voters. Rollins is clearly picking up momentum among progressives, as measured by cash and endorsements. McAuliffe has fund-raising capacity and a resume that backs up her pledge to fight for greater equity. Carvalho is a great campaigner who has worked in the office.
Whoever wins, the debate over what the next district attorney should bring to the office is worth having. In fact, it’s overdue.
Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: adrian_walker.