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News analysis

In Baker-Rollins spat, how are the players faring?

Governor Charlie Baker (left) and Suffolk DA Rachael Rollins.
Governor Charlie Baker (left) and Suffolk DA Rachael Rollins.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/File photos/Globe Staff/File photos

It started with a letter on a Thursday evening. Nearly a week later, the unusual spat between Governor Charlie Baker and Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins over a policy memo has included heated attacks, discussions about race and misogyny, and the appearance of it all being put to bed . . . only to flare up once more.

It’s been eventful, to say the least. So how are the players faring so far? Depends on whom you ask:

Rollins: Three months into the job, Rollins is largely giving her supporters the fierce advocate for change they voted for, including with her fiery response to the Baker’s administration’s criticisms of her plans not to prosecute certain crimes.

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Hundreds rallied for her on Sunday, and there’s been an outpouring from other elected officials, including Representative Ayanna Pressley and city councilors Michelle Wu and Andrea Campbell. So she’s not going to this fight alone.

But it hasn’t come without shrapnel. The Roxbury Democrat on Monday distanced herself from the Fruit of Islam, the security force of the Nation of Islam that gave her an escort into the Sunday rally, including after an official from the Anti-Defamation League called her with concerns. Some of the attacks Rollins used also left Democrats split, particularly her reference to allegations of sexual assault against Baker’s son, Andrew “A.J.” Baker, while she tried to make a point about disparities in the criminal justice system.

“I think that was unnecessary and not relevant to the issue,” Phil Johnston, a former chair of the state Democratic party, said of her rhetoric. “If she sticks to her policy arguments, she’ll win the day.”

Baker: His administration touched off the debate, but it’s Baker who has spent days on the defense from Rollins, including from attacks over the racial diversity (or lack thereof) in his cabinet, shots at his family, and suggestions she’s being treated differently than her male successors.

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Baker has largely held his tongue publicly but he moved quickly to try to diffuse the situation, personally calling Rollins a day after she held an explosive press conference responding to his administration’s criticisms of her 65-page policy memo. But that didn’t make the heat go away, meaning he again had to respond to her attacks and discuss the allegations against his son. The younger Baker was not arrested after a woman accused him of groping her on a June flight, and the US Attorney’s office has not commented, noting that in any probe, it would not provide a public update if it chose not to pursue charges.

But whether the hits ultimately stick to Baker remains to be seen. He said his record of making diverse appointments will “stand up against anybody’s,” and he’s built a sturdy reputation as an even-handed, if careful, executive who tries to stay above the political fray. His responses to Rollins have kept squarely within that tone, and those who’ve supported him for his tact — including his decision to personally call Rollins — are also seeing the governor for whom they voted.

Criminal justice reform: Amid the noise of the Rollins-Baker spat, the argument that the state’s criminal justice system is in dire need of reform is again enjoying the public spotlight. Elected officials at all levels — Congress, the State House, and of course, Suffolk County — are now breathing oxygen into the debate of how best to handle prosecutions and crimes.

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The specific details of Rollins’s “do-not-prosecute” list are hotly contested. But when state lawmakers passed, and Baker signed, an omnibus criminal justice reform bill a year ago, one concern among advocates was that the discussion could lose momentum after the years-long effort to get changes into law came to fruition. Now, the debate is, again, front and center.

Attorney General Maura Healey: One of the party’s rising stars, Healey caught flak over the weekend, including from Rollins herself, for not publicly weighing in to support the prosecutor. Healey ultimately did, saying Monday she backs Rollins’s “commitment to meaningful change,” but by that point, her leap into a heated debate only came after she faced pressure to act.

Healey is widely viewed as a potential contender for higher office, including for governor in 2022, and she was careful Tuesday not to throw her support behind any specific proposals. She said she has yet to read Rollins’s memo, and that she plans to meet with the district attorney later this week to “hear her out.”

A reminder: It was Healey who, three years ago, was on the receiving end of a letter from the Baker administration raising concerns about her decision to crack down on the sale of so-called “copycat” assault weapons. Asked if she felt she was treated differently because she was a woman — a point Rollins has made — Healey paused.

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“No, I . . .” she said, laughing. “I’m not going to get into characterizations. I’m here to talk about policy and substance.”

Boston progressives: They propelled several of their candidates into offices last fall, and now one of their own is taking on a popular Republican governor in a high-profile fight. That’s a win for many Democrats who are also seeing their criminal justice priorities drive the tension.

Progressives in Massachusetts already have been eager to push change, including at the State House, where a crop of vocal first-year lawmakers is helping drive the debate. And nationally, newcomers like Boston’s new congresswoman, Pressley, and US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have become rising stars by breaking from the usual political norms. Rollins gives them another reason to cheer locally.

Thomas A. Turco III: Members of a gubernatorial cabinet play an important role in delivering on a governor’s priorities. But they’re often low-profile players, well-known within their respective circles but hardly household names.

For Turco — just four months into the job as Baker’s public safety secretary — this isn’t the wider introduction many would want. Turco wrote the letter to Rollins outlining the administration’s concerns about her policies, putting him at the center of the fracas and likely on the tips of some people’s tongues for the first time.

Rollins also criticized Turco for not contacting her before the letter was released publicly, even suggesting that “you wouldn’t have heard a word from me” if he had first called her directly. Turco’s office has said he’s scheduling a meeting with Rollins’s staff for later this week, though aides did not have an update Tuesday on when that will take place.

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Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him on


Twitter @mattpstout.