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Healey, McMahon clash during AG debate at UMass Boston

Maura Healey responded to a point from her opponent, James “Jay” McMahon, who challenged the attorney general on her approach to opioids, gun control, and the State Police overtime pay scandal.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Democratic Attorney General Maura Healey says fighting the opioid crisis has been her top priority as the state’s top law enforcement officer.

Her Republican challenger, James “Jay” McMahon, a Cape Cod attorney who lost his eldest son, Joel, to opioid addiction, says she’s not doing enough to combat the epidemic and accused her of letting drug dealers get the upper hand.

On Wednesday, the issue dominated a sometimes-tense debate between the two at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

“She’s soft on crime,” said McMahon, saying the state’s streets are “flowing with cocaine, heroin, and fentanyl.”

“We have an opioid crisis here and we’re letting these guys go out the door without giving them sufficient prison time,” he said. “The only way to drive these purveyors of poison out of Massachusetts it to be harsh with them.”


Healey, who is seeking a second four-year term, said her office has prosecuted hundreds of cases involving drug dealers and taken millions of fentanyl doses off the street.

She said she also proposed legislation that made trafficking fentanyl illegal, formed a strike force to target fentanyl dealers, and secured $1 million in federal funding to combat the synthetic opioid.

“Certainly we need to do all we can to get after the drug cartels and those who are pumping poison through our communities and our neighborhoods, but we’re not going to get there by that work alone,” Healey said. “My focus has also been on treatment. That’s what I hear from families. They need more access to behavioral health services. I have made that a priority. I will continue to make that a priority.”

The debate was sponsored by the McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies at UMass Boston, WBUR radio, and The Boston Globe. The event was broadcast live on WBUR’s “Radio Boston” and streamed on websites for the Globe, WBUR, and UMass Boston.


McMahon isn’t well known and his campaign account holds just under $15,000, state records show.

He defeated Hingham attorney Daniel Shores in September to win the GOP nomination.

Healey has more than $2 million in her campaign account and is considered a future candidate for higher office.

Their sharpest exchange during the 45-minute debate unfolded after Healey was asked about the overtime pay scandal involving the Massachusetts State Police.

McMahon said he has no confidence in Healey’s ability to investigate troopers and then accused her office of “heavy corruption.”

He tied the allegation to a Supreme Judicial Court decision issued earlier this month that tossed out thousands of drug convictions based on drug tests performed by a former state chemist, Sonja Farak, who pleaded guilty to tampering with drug samples in 2014.

In the decision, the justices said Farak’s evidence tampering was compounded by misconduct by two former prosecutors, who worked under then-attorney general Martha Coakley.

The prosecutors cited in the ruling now work for different state government agencies.

“These folks worked under the prior administration,” Healey said. “I did not hire them. I did not supervise them. They did not work during my time.”

Because of Farak’s misconduct, Healey said her office advocated for the dismissal of thousands of cases.

The candidates also clashed over gun control. McMahon described himself as staunch defender of the Second Amendment and said, if elected, he would rescind Healey’s decision to prosecute gun sellers and manufacturers who sell firearms with slight modifications intended to sidestep the state’s ban on assault weapons.


“She just banned wholesale categories of guns because she doesn’t like guns. She has a personal animus toward guns and apparently toward gun owners,” McMahon said.

Healey said a federal judge ruled her enforcement of the assault weapons ban is constitutional and disputed McMahon’s assertion that she dislikes gun owners.

“Couldn’t be further from the truth,” she said.

Laura Crimaldi can be reached at