Democratic AG candidates talk Roe v. Wade, climate change, the MBTA in debate Wednesday

Election day for the Democratic primary for attorney general is Tuesday, Sept. 6.

From left, attorney general Democratic primary candidates Andrea Campbell, Shannon Liss-Riordan, and Quentin Palfrey. Jonathan Wiggs / The Boston Globe

Shannon Liss-Riordan, Quentin Palfrey, and Andrea Campbell — attorney general candidates in the Democratic primary — discussed the job, hate, the MBTA, Roe v. Wade, and climate change in a debate Wednesday.

Liss-Riordan is a labor attorney who has filed suits against large corporations like Uber, Lyft, and Amazon; Palfrey is the deputy general counsel at the U.S. Department of Commerce; and Campbell is the former president of the Boston City Council and the first Black woman to hold that position. She is also backed by current Attorney General Maura Healey.

The debate was moderated by WBUR’s Tiziana Dearing and WCVB’s Sharman Sacchetti as part of a partnership between WBUR, WCVB, and The Boston Globe. Conflict flared several times throughout the debate as the candidates criticized each other for their avenues of funding and their attorney experience, but Liss-Riordan, Palfrey, and Campbell largely agreed on the actual issues at stake. 

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The job itself 

In the discussion on the job of attorney general, Dearing and Sacchetti asked about balancing local issues with national issues and ensuring “nonpartisan rigor” in how cases and issues are chosen, referencing the fact that Healey (who is in the midst of a bid for governor) sued former President Donald Trump’s administration more than 100 times but never Biden’s. Candidates focused on the former half of the question.


Campbell emphasized local issues, saying she wants to focus on Massachusetts itself.

“That means making sure every family has access to a community, for example, that is safe. I recently had a 15-year-old shot and killed in my neighborhood. The office can do a lot more when it comes to community violence and guns,” Campbell said, referencing Curtis Ashford Jr.’s death a few weeks ago.

Liss-Riordan advocated for a variety of issues.

“I plan to be a leader among attorneys general nationwide in the fight against climate change, in protecting our reproductive rights, in making sure our rights here in Massachusetts are protected,” she said.

The first conflict of the debate began when Sacchetti asked the candidates if they planned to do more to prioritize public corruption.

“Absolutely we need to take on public corruption,” said Palfrey, who then called out Campbell for getting $2 million in funding from super PACs when she ran for Boston mayor last year.

Campbell pushed back and noted that “of our money, over 90% comes from Massachusetts residents.” She then dug into both Palfrey and Liss-Riordan.

“Quentin is receiving taxpayers’ state money to fund his campaign. Shannon put in $3 million dollars, she will probably put up to $12 million trying to buy this election,” Campbell said. 


The three candidates came back to agreement on reform in the Massachusetts State Police, all saying that the attorney general needs to take on reform and accountability to get a handle on the corruption and mismanagement that has occurred in the agency.

Neo-Nazi hate

The questions shifted to hate as Dearing and Sacchetti asked about recent displays of Neo-Nazis in Boston at drag queen story hours for children. Again, Liss-Riordan, Campbell, and Palfrey all took similar stances. 

“As attorney general, I will work to make sure that we are kept informed of these groups so that actions are taken to keep our communities safe,” said Liss-Riordan. 

Campbell advocated for working with the next U.S .attorney to make sure data is being reported in addition to stories, and for prosecuting people directly.

They then dug into each other again, this time on the question of experience. 

“It’s really important to have as the attorney general someone with direct experience as a government lawyer to crack down on these kinds of problems,” Palfrey said. “I hear Shannon say over and over again, ‘I’m the only practicing lawyer.’ I’ve been a practicing lawyer for 20 years.”


Liss-Riordan then said, “I am the only practicing lawyer on this stage.” She turned her attention to calling out Campbell’s experience. 

“Andrea Campbell has worked less than five years practicing law and a handful of short-term legal jobs, including her longest legal job was two years at a notorious union busting firm that represents management against working people,” Liss-Riordan said. “I have fought for working people for more than 23 years, and I’ve won for them.”

Campbell responded by noting that she has Healey’s endorsement, and that vote of confidence suggests she can do the job, before making a pointed statement at Liss-Riordan. 

“I maybe haven’t made millions on class actions on the backs of workers, but I’ve done the work of really delivering for residents on the issues they care about and where they need government officials and lawyers to really step up,” Campbell said.

The T

With the MBTA constantly under fire these days (once, quite literally) and impending Orange Line and Green Line Extension shutdowns, Dearing and Sacchetti took time to discuss the candidates’ thoughts on it. All were in agreement that the state of the T is appalling, and all support the so-called millionaires’ tax, which would tax the wealthy an additional 4% and use that revenue for public education and public transportation maintenance.

“We deserve to know exactly what the T is going to be doing during those 30-day shutdowns. They haven’t even posted what their punch list is, we don’t even know whether this is going to create the fixes that will make this transportation service safe and available for residents,” said Liss-Riordan.


Palfrey called it a “civil rights crisis” because the Orange Line serves some of the lowest-income communities in Boston. 

Campbell considers it an opportunity for the attorney general to work collaboratively with the governor, who she said will “definitely be Maura Healey.”

Palfrey blamed current Gov. Charlie Baker for letting the MBTA get to the point where the Federal Transit Authority had to step in

Roe v. Wade 

Healey put out a warning last month about crisis pregnancy centers in the wake of the overturning of Roe v. Wade. All three candidates supported and agreed with her statement; Palfrey suggested more should be done. 

“We have to crack down on crisis pregnancy centers. …We should use both civil and criminal laws,” Palfrey said. “We need to do more on this issue.”

Liss-Riordan echoed him, saying, “I will investigate and bring cases against these centers to make sure that they are not taking advantage of people who are in a very difficult time.”


On climate, opinions were similar: Healey has done good work, but more can be done.

“I would build upon her leadership,” Campbell said. “We can indeed reach these goals, but we have to be more intentional in going into communities of color to get them to understand the importance of climate justice and environmental justice.”

Palfrey criticized the inactivity of former politicians on the issue, and Liss-Riordan said she hopes to be the leading state attorney general in the fight against climate change. 


“I will take on the big polluters in court, and I plan to use the penalties we’ll recover from those legal battles to set up a green fund that will fund clean energy projects, environmental justice projects,” Liss-Riordan said.

Election day for the Democratic primary for attorney general is Tuesday, Sept. 6. The winner will almost certainly be running against Jay McMahon, who is running unopposed in the Republican primary.

Watch the full debate:


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