5 takeaways from the latest Mass. attorney general primary debate

Andrea Campbell, Quentin Palfrey, and Shannon Liss-Riordan went head to head on GBH.

From left to right: Shannon Liss-Riordan, Andrea Campbell, and Quentin Palfrey. Jim Davis /Jonathan Wiggs /John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

A GBH debate between the democratic primary candidates for Massachusetts attorney general on Monday saw candidates going after one other on issues such as campaign finance, legal experience, and support for progressive policies.

The 30-minute debate was moderated by “Greater Boston” host Jim Braude, and featured frontrunner and former Boston City Councilor Andrea Campbell, former state prosecutor Quentin Palfrey, and class action lawyer Shannon Liss-Riordan.

Earlier in the day, current Attorney General Maura Healey, who is the frontrunner in the governor’s race, endorsed Campbell for attorney general.

Here are the big takeaways from the debate:

Palfrey is unafraid to criticize the Massachusetts Legislature

Braude began the debate by asking what the candidates thought of the Legislature passing last-minute bills and leaving other legislative priorities out in the cold last night as it prepared to go on a five-month break.


While Campbell said she wanted to focus on how the Attorney General’s Office can help constituents with issues like inflation and the housing crisis, Liss-Riordan said she would’ve liked to see more bills passed but looks forward to working with the Legislature.

But Palfrey was unequivocal in criticizing the Legislature for not doing more to help Massachusetts residents and for lacking transparency in its dealings.

“Our democracy is not working well. On the national level, our democracy is literally under attack. But our democracy doesn’t work right here in Beacon Hill,” he said.

“The $250 taxpayer rebates passed by the Legislature] excluded people [making] under $38,000 a year. But then when there was an amendment to try to include the people who needed that relief the most, there was just a voice vote, and therefore the people of Massachusetts wouldn’t know how their representatives voted. We need democracy that is more transparent and where people can be held accountable for their vote.”

The candidates each cite something different when asked what sets them apart

Campbell said her real life experience dealing with issues such as the loss of her brother and parents gives her an edge.

“I have lived the very challenges that residents are experiencing right now, and I will do everything in my power to make sure the Attorney General’s Office addresses those with a sense of urgency,” she said.


On his turn, Palfrey emphasized that he does not take money from “special interests,” and said he and Campbell disagree on many policy issues, citing his support for Medicare-for-all, safe injection sites, and a cap on charter schools.

Liss-Riordan in turn highlighted her legacy as a class action lawyer.

“This is a very important job leading hundreds of lawyers that requires a seasoned attorney. I am widely known as one of the most effective lawyers in the country. I have spent more than 20 years fighting and winning for working people,” she said.

The three candidates have different funding models

Campbell and Palfrey went after each other and Liss-Riordan about their funding during the debate.

Palfrey began by accusing Campbell of taking money from Super PACs, but Campbell countered by saying that she’s only taken money from one, the Environmental League of Massachusetts Action Fund, whose support she is proud to have and whose support both Palfrey and Liss-Riordan attempted to get.

Campbell also highlighted that she has vastly outraised the other two candidates overall and among Massachusetts residents.

Still, Palfrey went unanswered when he asked Campbell why she wouldn’t sign the “people’s pledge,” which is a formal campaign finance agreement meant to reduce the influence of Super PACs in an election.


Campbell finished by pointing out that she is not getting funding for her campaign from the state, like Palfrey is, or using millions of her own funds, like Liss-Riordan is.

The candidates have different focuses when it comes to combatting racism

When asked how each would combat systemic racism as attorney general, each candidate had a different focus.

Palfrey began by saying he would work to end racial disparities in access to and quality of healthcare.

On her turn, Liss-Riordan said the attorney general should be taking on as many civil rights cases as possible and cited her record as a civil rights attorney.

“I’ve taken on the state for its discriminatory use of civil service exams, and based on my work, I got Black and brown firefighters and police officers hired across Massachusetts. I’ve taken on Uber for its discriminatory practices, for its customer rating system which disparately impacts Black and brown drivers. That’s the type of work that I’ll do as attorney general,” she said.

Campbell specified that as attorney general, she would have a particular focus on prison and criminal just reform, but also said she would approach every aspect of the job of attorney general with an eye towards racial justice.

“As a person who sits in this gender and skin, I don’t have the luxury not to take on racial disparities,” she said. “Everything the office would do would be through a racial equity lens…That is the norm of what the office should be doing every single day.”

Liss-Riordan wants to paint Palfrey and Campbell as having inadequate legal experience, but they aren’t afraid to push back

Several times during the debate, Liss-Riordan highlighted her record as a class action lawyer and implied that the other two candidates lack experience.


“There’s some states that, in order to be an attorney general, you have to have at least 10 years experience practicing law, and if that was the law in Massachusetts, I’d be the only one on the stage,” she said. “I am the only practicing lawyer in this race, and I’m the only one who’s run a law firm.”

Palfrey later countered, saying she was mischaracterizing the situation.

“I’ve been a practicing lawyer for 20 years, and being an assistant attorney general is quite different from being a class action lawyer,” he said. “…Do you believe that assistant attorneys general aren’t practicing lawyers? Because when you say that we’re not practicing lawyers, you undermine the work that the [Attorney General’s] Office does.”

Liss-Riordan then couched her claim that she is the only candidate who is “a practicing lawyer” in the fact that she is the only one with malpractice insurance, which is required to practice law in Massachusetts.

Campbell later addressed Liss-Riordan’s claims, saying that her endorsements show that other lawyers think Campbell is qualified.

“All of us come with a legal background that is unique and distinct. And if, for example, I didn’t have enough experience, Maura Healey would not have endorsed me in this race,” she said.

Liss-Riordan’s opponents also tried to counter her narrative of being the people’s lawyer by referencing a 2016 decision by a federal judge to reject her plea deal with Uber because he felt the $100 million she was asking Uber to pay nearly 400,000 drivers was only 0.01% of the potential full verdict value of the case.

There are many issues on which all the candidates agree, but Campbell is more moderate

Despite efforts by the three candidates to differentiate themselves, they seemed to agree on a number of issues, including investing more money in infrastructure, speeding up the process for getting wrongful convictions overturned and compensation given out to them, and standing against companies accused of polluting around the state.


But there were also a number of issues on which Palfrey and Liss-Riordan took clear stances where Campbell gave a more measured response.

Firstly, Palfrey and Liss-Riordan said they opposed Gov. Charlie Baker’s bill to expand dangerousness hearings to more crimes while Campbell said she “wouldn’t have pushed for it.”


Then, when the candidates were asked whether they agreed with Baker’s suggestion that taxpayers could be given back more than $2.5 billion due to a 1986 law, Liss-Riordan and Palfrey said that money should be used on transportation and education, while Campbell said she’d want more input from voters before deciding.

Later, when Palfrey reiterated his support for Medicare-for-all, Campbell said she is supportive of single-payer healthcare, but that she sees it as a national issue she can’t promise to voters.

Finally, when asked about rent control, Palfrey and Liss-Riordan said they supported it while Campbell said she would “not stand in the way” of communities passing it as attorney general. She gave the same answer on the question of communities creating safe injection sites.

GBH will hold its next debate Tuesday at 6:30 p.m., this time among candidates for lieutenant governor. You can watch it live on their YouTube channel.


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