Rachael Rollins, a former federal prosecutor who ran as a self-described progressive, won the Democratic nomination for Suffolk district attorney Tuesday night in a stunning win over four other candidates, including a longtime prosecutor with the backing of police and the sitting top prosecutor in the county.
“I feel great. I feel really great,” said Rollins, 47, in a telephone interview as she headed to Canary Square restaurant in Jamaica Plain to thank supporters. “I think the world is changing and I love that I’m part of this.”
Rollins will face Mike Maloney, an independent and Brockton defense attorney, in the general election. But the victory Tuesday night was especially significant because Rollins became the first black, female candidate to be elected in the primary. If she beats Maloney in November, she will become the first woman to hold the seat in Suffolk.
The current district attorney, Daniel F. Conley, announced in February he would not be running for a fifth term.
Rollins said voters chose her because “I’m the most qualified candidate.”
“I think it says they want change,” she said. “They want a very qualified, assertive, smart and strong leader.”
She later released a statement in which she said she was “honored and humbled” by the victory.
“This is the time for us to claim our power and make good on our promises to make true criminal justice reform for the people in Suffolk County,” she said. “Reform that is progressive – that decriminalizes poverty, substance use disorder, and mental illness.”
Shortly after 9 p.m., Greg Henning, a career Suffolk prosecutor who was endorsed by Conley, former Boston police commissioner Edward F. Davis and Congressman Joe Kennedy III, called Rollins to concede the race.
Soon, other candidates, including Shannon McAuliffe, a criminal defense attorney, and Linda Champion, a former Suffolk assistant district attorney, followed with their calls of congratulations.
“I hope it’s a new day for criminal justice,” said McAuliffe, 50, who had also run on a progressive platform that in some ways was more aggressive than Rollins’. McAuliffe had called for the eventual removal of all cash bail for criminal defendants, while other candidates said it should be repealed in cases of low-level, nonviolent offenses.
“I hope we fundamentally redefine how we see justice so that we ensure that people . . . exit the system as opposed to getting caught in it,” McAuliffe said.
Champion, 44, who had criticized Rollins for touting credentials as a criminal prosecutor when much of her work had been done on the civil side, said in a statement that it had been a “great” race.
“I hope that Rachael takes the best from all the candidates and helps move the DA’s office and our city forward,” she said.
Representative Evandro Carvalho, another former Suffolk prosecutor, was also in the Democratic field.
For years, district attorney races have been well down on the ballot and even further from the minds of most primary voters.
But in a year of intense debate over criminal justice reform, an aggressive education campaign by the American Civil Liberties Union, and extensive candidate forums, the races in Suffolk and Middlesex drew close attention from political observers and law enforcement officials. In Middlesex, the incumbent, Marian Ryan, fended off a challenge from Donna Patalano, a former defense attorney and Suffolk prosecutor.
“I am proud of the grassroots campaign we built to advocate for equitable justice, transparency and accountability in Middlesex County,” Patalano said in a statement. “Though we came up short ... I am proud of the difference we made.”
Ryan had received nearly 54 percent of the vote with 66 percent of precincts reporting.
Last summer, the ACLU of Massachusetts released a poll that showed nearly four in ten voters in the state did not know that district attorneys were elected.
On Tuesday, volunteers for the ACLU, which earlier this year launched a campaign called “What a Difference a DA makes” to spur interest, said many voters were energized over the primary, particularly in Suffolk.
“In my neighborhood, this race is clearly very important,” said Jill Carrier, 66, of Dorchester, who spent the late morning calling voters to remind them about the election. “I’ve never seen more yard signs for the DA.”
In Roxbury, Tony Irving, 62, said he voted for McAuliffe.
“There is no one more progressive than Shannon,” said Irving, a photographer.
Minutes later, his landlord, 56-year-old Ronnie Williams, came out of the Shelburne Community Center on Washington Street wearing a Rachael Rollins T-shirt.
“She’s overqualified, I think,” Williams said. “I think she can run a good DA’s office . . . be more fair than what it has been in the past toward people of color.”
Rollins served as general counsel for the MBTA from 2011 to 2013 and Massport from 2013 to 2015. Before that, she worked at the US Attorney’s office, mostly in the civil division.
Most recently, she was working as a consultant specializing “in securing partnerships for organizations seeking to do business with the state, federal and local government” in Massachusetts and New England, according to her Linkedin page.
A single mother of a 14-year-old girl, Rollins is also taking care of two nieces over whom she has guardianship. Rollins had been living in Medford, where she owns a house, but said she had recently moved to Roxbury to run for district attorney. She said she had been renting a room in a campaign worker’s home but would find a more permanent place for her family once she won.