Patriots star power fuels DA debate
McCourty twins, Slater question Suffolk candidates
COME FOR THE chance to meet New England Patriots stars, stay for the conversation on important criminal justice issues.
That was the game plan for a forum Tuesday night in Dorchester that featured three Patriots standouts posing questions to candidates for Suffolk County attorney, and it went mostly according to script.
About 200 people showed up at the Lilla Frederick Middle School, where Devin McCourty, his twin brother Jason, and Matthew Slater quizzed five candidates looking to succeed longtime Suffolk County DA Dan Conley, who announced in February he would not seek reelection this fall.
The forum was the fourth held nationally by the NFL Players Coalition as part of a series dubbed “Launching Justice,” which involves conversations with DA candidates. The coalition is a player-directed organization that received funding from the NFL to pursue projects promoting social justice.
Advocates for criminal justice reform have zeroed in on district attorney races across the country, trying to raise the visibility of races that often don’t draw lots of attention. The Patriots players, like members of the Players Coalition who have convened similar sessions in other cities, are frank about the fact that they are trying to leverage their celebrity to change that equation.
“Hopefully, it gets someone who maybe had no interest in what was going on locally,” said Slater. “Hey, I’m coming to see Devin, Jason, and Matthew. But then they actually come and get educated. If we have any kind of drawing power with our position as NFL players, we’re going to use it to our advantage.”
“We’re citizens first,” said Devin McCourty. “We live in these communities.”
McCourty was among those black NFL players who “took a knee” during the national anthem before some games last season to make a statement about racial injustice in the criminal justice and law enforcement system. The focus on DA races, he said on Tuesday night, is how players are translating that anger to productive action.
“Taking a knee was a protest to get people to understand what we’re trying to do. This is what we were trying to do,” he said prior to the forum focused on criminal justice policy. “We’re trying to make changes to the community. We’re trying to get people to learn different things and see how they can help. I don’t think a lot of people even knew that you elected these district attorneys.”
Four of the five Democrats running in the September 4 primary attended the forum — Evandro Carvalho, Linda Champion, Shannon McAuliffe, and Rachael Rollins. The campaign for a fifth Democrat, Greg Henning, said he had a prior commitment. The four Democrats were joined by unenrolled candidate Michael Maloney, who will face-off against the Democratic primary winner in the November election.
The Democrats are all struggling to break out from the pack. That generated the one testy moment between candidates, a back-and-forth between Rollins and McAuliffe, who are both angling for support among more progressive-leaning voters.
When asked what they would do to ensure that prisoner rights are respected, Rollins, who has worked as a county and federal prosecutor, said she has visited the state prison in Norfolk, the South Bay House of Correction in Boston, and Department of Youth Services detention centers. She called the conditions in the facilities “abysmal,” and said the DA should speak out about those issues.
“I didn’t wait to be on a campaign trail to actually visit jails and prisons,” said McAuliffe, the only Democrat in the race who has never worked as prosecutor, something she has highlighted to regularly in candidate forums. “I’ve been to MCI-Norfolk, I’ve been to every state prison that there is in Massachusetts.” Alluding to her work as public defender, she said, “This is a choice I made, these are the values that I’ve lived, in fighting injustice and helping people who are caught in the system and trying to change the system.”
Rollins, who said in her opening statement that she has a brother who is currently incarcerated, shot back that she’s “been to jail many, many times” to visit family members. “It’s very easy to talk about choices that you have if you’re wealthy,” she said.
“I chose to be a public defender because I believe in those values,” McAuliffe responded.
The only other fireworks came from a woman in the audience, who heckled several candidates repeatedly, despite entreaties from Jason McCourty for the crowd to respect those who want to hear from the candidates.
Judy Rose, a Dorchester resident who attended the event with her 11-year-old son, Dellon, applauded the Patriots players for bringing attention to the DA race. “They are using that celebrity for the betterment of our community and society as a whole,” she said following the forum.She said her son, who usually gets bored when she takes him to similar events, “was hanging on every word that the Patriots players were saying.”
“It’s fun. It’s engaging to have the community come together and learn about politics,” said Dellon, poised well beyond his age — which was true even after he eagerly made it known he would turn 12 on June 21.