In four-plus years in office, Governor Charlie Baker has successfully navigated Massachusetts politics by preaching his “tough on the issues, soft on the people” mantra that hinges on policy, not picking fights.
But suddenly, the Republican who has built a reputation for working with Democrats is embroiled in an unusual high-profile spat with one, plunking Baker in the type of fight he’s long sought to avoid.
Baker’s days-long kerfuffle with Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins began with his administration’s sharp criticisms of her proposal to not prosecute certain crimes via a public letter from his top public safety official last week. She returned with pointed attacks and allusions to misogyny and elitism, deepening an already sensitive debate over race, privilege, and the criminal justice system.
It’s quickly thrust Baker onto unfamiliar ground. Reelected in a landslide last fall, the governor has rarely clashed so publicly with a leading Democrat, never mind a law-enforcement official — and this is the first time he’s faced off against a member of the wave of progressive Democrats who swept into office on a message of change last fall.
“An old guard of Democrats embraced him,” Erin O’Brien, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston, said of Baker. But, she noted, “that old guard is mostly white men.”
“You can send something out there — a political symbol, a policy letter. But you have no control over how it’s interpreted. And I think Charlie Baker is learning that lesson right now from a formidable political foe,” O’Brien added. “He is treading in water he doesn’t want to be swimming in.”
The first black woman elected to lead the Suffolk District Attorney’s office, Rollins responded with force to the two-page letter from Baker’s public secretary, Thomas A. Turco III, delivered to her and the media on Thursday.
Rollins hit back with shots at the legal troubles of the governor’s son and suggestions that the men who preceded her in office were treated “with quite a bit more respect.” On Sunday, only a day after Baker personally called Rollins to diffuse the rancor, she reignited it, including with a thinly veiled criticism of the makeup of Baker’s inner circle.
“The people that think they understand our community but don’t have a single black secretary in their Cabinet, you’re not going to have a job pretty soon,” she told a crowd of 200 rallying in support of her.
On Monday, Baker, who once lamented what he called the current “anything goes” mentality of public discourse, again steered from the cross fire, noting that aides to Turco and Rollins are scheduling a time to meet this week. He didn’t address a question about whether he regretted that his administration sent the letter or whether he was surprised by Rollins’s continued criticisms.
“I’m not much on personal attacks,” Baker said. “I prefer to focus on the issues, and that’s where I anticipate, based on the conversation that she and I had on Saturday, that’s what we’re going to focus on.”
The debate, though, is already drawing in more than just Baker. Rollins directly criticized Attorney General Maura Healey, one of the officials who endorsed her last fall but was not among the many Democrats who spoke out in support of her over the weekend.
“They CC’d the attorney general,” Rollins said Sunday of Turco’s letter, adding that she hadn’t “heard a thing” from Healey.
“Silence,” Rollins said, “is assent.”
In response, Healey released a statement Monday backing Rollins’s efforts, arguing that the criminal justice system is failing “too many people,” especially the poor and people of color.
“The people of Suffolk County elected District Attorney Rollins to explore and implement reforms to our justice system and I support her commitment to meaningful change,” Healey said. “I’m excited to continue working with DA Rollins and all our partners in law enforcement to make this system work better for everyone.”
Baker isn’t the first to jab at Rollins’s proposals. Defense attorneys, a Boston police union, retailers, and, more recently, the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement have also raised concerns after she campaigned on and later released a 65-page memo detailing, in part, her intentions to not prosecute certain drug possession crimes and relatively minor crimes.
The flap with Baker has returned such concerns to the fore. For one, Turco’s criticism of Rollins’s proposal to limit the review of a defendant’s criminal history to 36 months resonated among criminologists and law-enforcement specialists.
“We do incarcerate too many people,” said Jack McDevitt, a criminal justice professor at Northeastern University and the director of Northeastern’s Institute on Race and Justice. “But to [arrest] someone . . .
for a low amount of drugs and then not look at their prior history? This might be a violent person we want to take off the street. To say we don’t want to prosecute them is simplistic.”
Rollins’s policies intensify efforts that began under her predecessor, Daniel F. Conley, who, for example, began diverting juveniles from the criminal justice system, said Daniel Linskey, former superintendent in chief of Boston Police.
“That’s made some people pump the brake and say, ‘Wait, wait, we can’t do that,’” said Linskey. “But I think we should really give the district attorney a chance, give her team a chance to see what happens here.
“Are we going too far to the left?” he asked. “I’m going to wait and see.”
Baker’s method for airing his concerns — via a policy letter, through a secretary — was one he’s long used. He followed a similar playbook in 2016, for example, when he raised red flags about Healey’s crackdown on the sale of “copycat” assault weapons through a letter, sent by his public safety secretary and then made public.
But the target — a county DA — was unusual, and Rollins’s response veered far from political norms at a time when Baker and other state Democratic leaders have prided themselves on Massachusetts’ civil political discourse compared to the vitriol dominating Washington DC.
Scott Ferson, a campaign adviser to Rollins last fall, said the changing landscape around criminal justice, and the intense debate it’s spurred, is part of the heated context for the current spat.
“As far as political style, the DA demonstrated that she’s not afraid to mix it up, [whereas] more traditional politicians are more respectful of relationships and interactions between politicians,” he said.
“But I think that becomes the noise,” Ferson added. “The substance is the real battle over how you use law enforcement to prosecute.”