DA races drawing candidates and attention

Controversy and new political context give challengers an opening in DA races

Back in December, when the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts launched a voter education campaign targeting the state’s district attorneys, it seemed like a long shot. After all, races for district attorney are located pretty far down the ballot, places where the power of incumbency usually rules.

But as election season starts to heat up, races for district attorney are drawing candidates and attention. Passage of criminal justice reform legislation on Beacon Hill is providing a political context for some of the races — are new DAs needed to accompany a new approach to public safety that is more focused on keeping people out of the criminal justice system? In other races, controversy is giving challengers an opening.

Worcester County District Attorney Joseph Early is coming under fire for meddling in the handling of a State Police report on the drunken driving arrest of a judge’s daughter. Attorney General Maura Healey issued a report Friday saying no criminal laws were violated, but she referred the matter to the State Ethics Commission for review.

Early, who was first elected in 2006, has twice run unopposed for reelection. This year he is facing Blake Rubin, an independent who launched his campaign shortly after the controversy over the drunken driving report first surfaced. Rubin, whose campaign slogan is “Justice not politics,” on Monday called on Early to resign for his involvement in altering the arrest document.

There are also some stirrings in the race for district attorney in Berkshire County, where the incumbent, David Capeless, announced in early March that he was resigning  after 14 years as DA and handing the reins of his office over to his assistant, Paul Caccaviello, so he could run as an incumbent. The move drew fire from the Berkshire Eagle editorial page, which criticized Capeless and Gov. Charlie Baker for trying to discourage competition and give Caccaviello a leg up. Even so, Andrea Harrington, an attorney from Richmond, and Judith Knight, an attorney from Great Barrington, have jumped into the race.

Middlesex County District Attorney Marian Ryan is facing a challenge from Donna Patalano, a former Suffolk County prosecutor who lives in Winchester and seems to have cribbed her campaign playbook from the ACLU website. Patalano has called Ryan’s office a “black box” and promised more transparency and accountability about how the justice system works if she is elected.

Meet the Author

Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

The most wide open DA’s race of all is in Suffolk County, where the incumbent Dan Conley stunned everyone in February by announcing he was stepping down at the end of this term. His announcement has set off a scramble among five candidates, most of whom are using talking points straight off the ACLU website.

It’s still too early to say whether the lineup of DAs in Massachusetts will change much in November, but it’s clear that district attorney races are assuming a much higher profile this year than they have in the past.