When Marian Ryan was appointed district attorney of the state’s most populous county, Middlesex, in April 2013, she was lauded as a relentless prosecutor with 33 years of experience on the most challenging cases; a community leader who put together coalitions to fight drug abuse, crimes against the elderly, and domestic violence; and a dedicated professional who eschewed the riches of private legal work to strive in one of the most underpaid, but crucial, public-safety jobs.
Within four months, after Jared Remy murdered his girlfriend Jennifer Martel just one day after a Middlesex prosecutor failed to ask that he be held in jail, Ryan was suddenly under a harsh spotlight. Her decisions in the aftermath of that crisis — from her coldly by-the-book assessment of what went wrong with the case, to her decision not to release all the details of an investigative report, to her aggressive implementation of sweeping reforms — have kept her under siege.
Now, a year after the case, Ryan is running for a full term, in a race that has become one of the most negative of the political season. Not only is Ryan under criticism for what she admits is a tough management style and for her initial failure to release 19 pages of interviews from a report on her office’s handling of the Remy case, but her opponent, Middlesex Clerk of Courts Michael Sullivan, is under the microscope for earning $1.6 million in outside income while serving in his $110,220-a-year post.
The complaints about both the candidates are serious, and voters need to ask themselves whether Ryan has learned enough from her travails to become the progressive DA that Governor Patrick and others believed she could be, or whether Sullivan, with his own baggage and far less prosecutorial experience, would do a better job.
To the surprise of many, Ryan has put on a spirited campaign. As demanding as she may be as a boss, she’s effective at interacting with the public. She has stoutly defended her decision, after the Remy murder, to have prosecutors seek advice from superiors on bail hearings in domestic-violence cases; though the move left some of her assistant DAs feeling undermined, the new policy was necessary to protect victims. She called attention to other creative reforms, including a ground-breaking procedure for independent review of cases in which a convicted defendant claims actual innocence. Most importantly, she admitted to making mistakes.
She deserves a chance to correct them, in part by pulling together a leadership team that complements her sharp prosecutorial judgment with outside managerial expertise. After her rocky 16-month shakedown cruise, Ryan should be given the opportunity to show that she can be the DA that her admirers envisioned. She is the best choice for Middlesex voters.
That might not have been the case had Ryan faced a better-credentialed opponent, or one committed to running a more elevating campaign. Sullivan served as an assistant district attorney for four and a half years in the late 1980s. He spent three more years in the attorney general’s office before embarking on a long career in Cambridge politics, including seven terms on the Cambridge City Council and eight years as clerk of courts. His prosecutorial experience pales in comparison to Ryan’s, but he insists he has the political judgment and people skills that she lacks. Still, there are reasons to doubt his fitness for the job.
The most damning has nothing to do with his record but rather the fact that he’s chosen to run a campaign almost entirely based on lambasting Ryan’s tenure. A more thoughtful candidate would have sketched out in more specific terms just how he’d fulfill his goal of restoring the Middlesex DA’s office to the “gold standard” of its past performance. But at every chance to do so, he instead offers one big fix: Get rid of her.
At the same time, he stresses that he shares her commitment to reducing mandatory-minimum sentences — an unusually progressive stance that’s a credit to them both — and would also work to fight opioid addiction. But it’s a thin platform overall, made thinner by the recognition that Ryan, in her long career, has already implemented more anti-crime and victim-advocacy programs than Sullivan even proposes.
And the questions about his outside income are troubling. While serving as clerk of courts — an elected position with broad managerial responsibilities — he simultaneously did unspecified, but highly compensated, consulting work for a large Cambridge developer, helped with a family trucking business, and collected a $1.2 million fee for referring a personal-injury case to a private law firm. Ryan claims he should have reported his real estate work as a potential conflict of interest, but that’s debatable: The real offense is that he did so much extra work in the first place. It raises inevitable questions about his priorities and commitment to public service. (He has since said he regrets his consulting work for the developer, adding that “the appearance bothers me.”)
No one questions Ryan’s commitment to public service. But her problems can’t be summarily dismissed, either. While Sullivan’s claim that she violated the Freedom of Information Act is arguable, she should have had the good judgment to release the entire outside report on her office’s handling of the Remy case. Instead, she turned over the executive summary and findings, while withholding the interview notes to protect the anonymity of the young subordinates who were involved in the case. The notes, it turned out, contained no scandalous revelations. But Ryan owed it to the public to provide the full report.
These and other lapses shouldn’t be repeated in a full term. But her long experience and talent as a prosecutor can’t be easily replaced, and aren’t by Sullivan. The Middlesex DA’s office handles 35,000 cases per year. Overseeing those cases requires the kind of knowledge that Ryan has developed over 34 years. But she needs to learn from her mistakes.