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Atty. general candidates spar in first forum

Three Democrats debate issues including addiction, cannabis

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the Banner’s senior editor. VIEW BIO
Atty. general candidates spar in first forum
Former City Council President Andrea Campbell addresses the audience at Boston College Law School. BANNER PHOTO

The three Democrats running for the Massachusetts attorney general seat being vacated by Maura Healey faced off last Thursday in their first debate, with candidates seeking to differentiate themselves from the pack by citing their experiences using the law to fight injustice.

In the debate, held by Boston College Law School’s Rappaport Center, candidates Andrea Campbell, Shannon Liss-Riordan and Quentin Palfrey cited their experiences in government and law and outlined the priority areas they would work on as the state’s top lawyer.

Campaign finance figured prominently in the debate, with Palfrey calling on his opponents to refuse support from political action committees (PACs), Liss-Riordan affirming her commitment to do so and Campbell refusing to respond.

Campbell, who in January led in a MassINC poll with support from 31% of likely Democratic voters, compared to Liss-Riordan’s 2% and Palfrey’s 3%, received support from a PAC funded by charter school supporters in her bid for the Boston mayor’s seat last year. So far in this year’s race, there has been no activity from PACs.

Opening remarks

Palfrey, a former deputy general counsel at the U.S. Department of Commerce, cited his experience working in the administration of former President Obama and in the office of the Massachusetts attorney general.

Former City Council President Andrea Campbell, labor attorney Shannon Liss-Riordan, debate moderator and Boston Globe Senior Opinion Writer Kimberly Atkins Stohr and former U.S. Dept. Deputy General Counsel Quentin Palfrey. BANNER PHOTO

“Now more than ever, we need the people’s lawyer to lead on the issues that affect us the most — racial injustice, the climate crisis, attacks on our democracy, attacks on workers’ rights, reproductive rights, LGBTQ rights, student loan debt, housing costs, gun violence,” Palfrey said in his opening remarks.

Campbell cited her experience growing up in Boston with family members who were incarcerated and said she would fight to protect Massachusetts residents’ rights to health care and education.

“I have been stressing that we live in the best state in the nation, and that government indeed can actually help residents who are grappling with a whole range of issues, especially the attorney general’s Office,” she said.

Liss-Riordan cited her experience as a labor attorney taking on large corporations.

“We have won against corporations like Starbucks, FedEx, Uber, Amazon, IBM, my alma mater, Harvard University, which I have proudly sued at least four times,” she said.

Liss-Riordan, who has staked her campaign with $500,000 of her own funds, said she will remain independent from special interests.

“I will not be beholden to corporations,” she said. “I take on corporations. I know how to hold them accountable. I look forward to continuing and expanding on this work I’ve been doing as a private attorney general for the last 20 years now with the power of the state of Massachusetts behind me.”

Addiction and mental health

Asked what she would do alleviate the crisis of drug addiction and mental health in the state, Campbell said she would use the office as a bully pulpit to fight for more resources for gateway cities and rural communities, many of which lack access to treatment and health care.

“The AG’s office has a critical role to ensure that they even can bring resources to bear to invest in local organizations, including community-based nonprofit organizations and providing gender affirming care in some of these communities, resources to bear to invest in those institutions,” she said.

Palfrey spoke out against the criminalization of addiction and said he is committed to single-payer health care, safe injection sites and rent stabilization measures to make housing more affordable.

“The war on drugs has been a colossal and disastrous failure,” he said. “We are not going to arrest and incarcerate our way out of a set of challenges that are primarily about structural racism, mental health care, substance use disorder, unstable housing. What we need to do is invest in those communities.”

Liss-Riordan praised outgoing Attorney General Maura Healey for her work on a class action suit against the pharmaceutical companies that drove up demand for opiates and said she would continue in the same vein.

“This is exactly the type of work that I’ve been doing for more than 20 years — taking on big corporations and holding them accountable for the harm that they’ve caused to our families to our communities,” she said, adding that there is room for more legal action against drug manufacturers.

“I want to get these corporations who are responsible for the devastation they’ve caused us to pay, and I will do everything I can as attorney general to ensure that funds that are used from this litigation goes to help the people who most need it,” she said.

Cannabis businesses

Asked about the attorney general’s role in protecting cannabis businesses and making sure people of color have opportunities to own such businesses, Liss-Riordan said she would work to prevent corporations from gaining a large market share in Massachusetts.

“Unfortunately that already seems to be happening in the cannabis industry,” she said.

Liss-Riordan also said she would work to void convictions for people who have served or are serving time for marijuana-related crimes.

“I will be an active partner for the Legislature to get the records expunged for those people who have been who have past arrests and convictions for marijuana-related offenses as well as other low level drug possession offenses,” she said.

Campbell cited her work on the Boston City Council helping Black-owned businesses break into the marijuana market, noting that the first Black-owned cannabis firm to open in the state opened in her district. She said she would work on expungement and said the office could help entrepreneurs of color overcome the barriers posed by the high cost of opening such businesses.

“Working with the next governor, working with financial institutions, it’s possible to create funds to actually generate capital for the folks we’re talking about to be able to enter this industry and to be able to actually own a business,” she said.

Palfrey cited his work in the Department of Commerce, which supervises the Minority Business Development Agency, and said he, too, would work to expand opportunities for entrepreneurs of color.

“We need to make sure that the cannabis industry — and this is not true at this moment — does benefit all of the communities that we serve in the Commonwealth,” he said. “I think the AG’s office can play a real role, both in remedying of the historic inequities in the criminal justice system and in building an economy that works for all communities.”

Education

Campbell, who supported the 2016 Ballot Question 2, which would have lifted the state-wide cap on charter schools, said she does not support charter school expansion, citing the vote on the question.

“I always take my direction from families in Boston, in particular my district,” she said. “There are charter schools, and the majority of students attending those schools are Black kids and Black students who have been failed by traditional public schools and are looking for a choice. So while we improve those main traditional systems, we need to be mindful that we’re not judging the choice of parents who desperately need access to education.”

Liss-Riordan and Palfrey both said they are in favor of leaving in place the cap on charter expansion as well.

Asked what the attorney general’s role should be in ensuring education in Massachusetts is equitable, Liss-Riordan cited her work on a discrimination lawsuit in Georgia.

“This is the type of work that I’ve been doing for my whole career — enforcing our laws against discrimination, and that applies absolutely to our schools,” she said. “We need to make sure that our schools have the tools that they need and that our teachers are supported and that our laws are enforced equitably throughout our education system.”

Campbell said she would work on issues including racial disparities in school discipline and how districts provide services for learning-disabled students. She said the attorney general’s office can work to alleviate the so-called achievement gaps between wealthy and poor districts.

“These disparities are real,” she said. “The AG should be lifting those up every single day talking about the achievement gaps, the opportunity gaps.”

Palfrey said the state is failing in its constitutional obligation to ensure students receive adequate educational services, but he cautioned against charter schools and the PACs that support them through campaign contributions, in an apparent dig at Campbell.

“That money cannot be the determining force in the race for AG because if you want an AG who is independent of the charter schools, who was actually going to fight for solving this, there is no place for the Citizens United-enabled flood of corporate money,” he said.

Name recognition

While Campbell seems to have the greatest name recognition, coming on the heels of her 2021 mayoral candidacy, Palfrey ran for lieutenant governor in the 2018 election. In 2019, Liss-Riordan ran for the U.S. Senate seat held by Ed Markey but withdrew from the race after then-U.S. Rep. Joe Kennedy III entered the race.

The winner of the Sept. 6 Democratic primary will face Republican candidate James McMahon, who ran unsuccessfully for the Plymouth and Barnstable State Senate District in 2020. McMahon was invited to last week’s debate but declined the invitation.

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