The comment followed a question about police accountability.
What would the candidates for Suffolk district attorney do if a police officer fatally shot someone on the streets, a young man asked Thursday night during an intimate candidates’ forum in the Back Bay.
Rachael Rollins, the first black woman to secure the Democratic nomination for Suffolk District Attorney, stood and pointed to her challenger in the general election, Michael Maloney, a white man, according to a video of the debate later posted on Maloney’s Facebook page.
“I have said to police officers that look very much like that man right there, if you are not racist, if you are following the law, we will get along very well together,” Rollins said as Maloney stood quietly 5 feet from her. “But if you have racist Facebook pages, if you are discharging your weapon in an incident that requires no such behavior you will be held accountable by me.”
The comment was made at a candidates’ night hosted by More Than Words, a nonprofit dedicated to helping young people who are homeless or in the foster or criminal court system.
It was the first time both candidates appeared together following the Sept. 4 primary in which Rollins, a former federal prosecutor, stunned the county by handily beating four other Democrats.
The forum was mostly civil but Rollins’s reference to Maloney sparked a heated back and forth Friday between both campaigns that touched on the tense topic of race.
Maloney, a 38-year-old criminal defense attorney who did not reply to Rollins’s comment at the time, said Friday that he was stunned by her apparent reference to his race.
“Just the overall tone and the respect was poorly lacking,” he said. “My jaw dropped in that moment. I don’t shy away from confrontation . . . I wanted to bite my lip and chill until I fully absorbed it.”
He accused Rollins of using race to undermine his campaign.
“She’s trying to compensate for her lack of qualifications by playing the race card,” Maloney said.
In a statement, Rollins’s spokesman, Corey Welford, said the context of Rollins’s comments, following the question of a young man of color about lethal force, is critical.
“It is clear that Mike’s comments are offensive, insensitive, and uninformed,” Welford said. “The reality is that our systems — including the criminal justice system, our education system, health care, and other systems — do not treat all people fairly. Rachael has a healthy respect for those in law enforcement, has working relationships with the police, and will hold police who are not doing their job accountable. Those things are not at odds.”
Rollins’s reference to Maloney was made during an emotional moment for the Democratic nominee. Rollins, who was raised by an Irish-American father and a black mother, seemed to fight back tears as she addressed the issue of police-involved shootings, specifically of African Americans.
“Black people are dying every day on the street,” said Rollins, 47, during the forum. “That’s why I’m running . . . There are people who have lost their lives because of systemic problems.”
Later in the forum, both candidates were asked to name their favorite characters from a young adult novel.
Rollins, after pausing for several seconds, said “Atticus Finch,” the lawyer who defends a black man against rape charges in “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
“Tom Sawyer,” Maloney replied.
Rollins shook her head and frowned.
“Racist,” she said.
Maloney’s campaign manager, Linda Arian, who sat in the front row, loudly said, “Tom Sawyer is not racist.”
Maloney laughed and said, “I want to say ‘Huckleberry Finn.’ ”
Welford said Rollins responded to Maloney’s answer the way she did because “the Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn novels are known to have racial themes and language.”
On Friday, Maloney noted Rollins was scheduled to campaign with Senator Edward Markey, who is also white, over the weekend.
“I think it’s ironic that she’s pointing a finger at me . . . later she’s out campaigning with white guys that look like me,” Maloney said.
Maria Cramer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.