Tanisha Sullivan, Bill Galvin go head to head in testy debate 

Secretary of state candidates disagree about scope of the job

THE TWO DEMOCRATS running for secretary of the Commonwealth met in a testy debate Monday, which highlighted a fundamental disagreement over the nature of the job itself. 

Tanisha Sullivan, the Boston NAACP head who is challenging Secretary of the Commonwealth William Galvin in the Democratic primary, is pushing for a far more expansive vision of the office.  

Asked what they see as the office’s top priorities other than running elections, Galvin said securities regulation and public records laws, both of which are traditional mainstays of the secretary’s job. Sullivan cited an area not usually seen as related to the role: abortion rights. 

The secretary, Sullivan said, “can and should be on the front lines in our abortion fight.” Echoing an op-ed Sullivan published Monday in CommonWealth, she said the secretary could do more to protect the privacy of women and abortion providers, and could use the corporations division of the office to hold companies accountable for providing access to reproductive health care. Sullivan said Galvin is “anti-abortion.” It has previously been reported that Galvin voted to restrict abortion rights as a state legislator in the early 1980s. 

Galvin said he believes abortion “is a personal decision of the woman” and “any other representation about me or my office is untrue.” He noted that a recently passed law gave Galvin’s office oversight over keeping abortion providers’ home addresses confidential. 

Sullivan said she would also use the office to take a more proactive approach to expanding economic opportunities for small businesses, and she criticized Galvin for demanding businesses pay required fees during the pandemic. Sullivan said Galvin has been “reactive,” while she would “be looking for ways expand opportunities for all residents and clear roadblocks.” 

Galvin said he has encouraged economic development through the administration of a historic tax credit program with a focus on housing development, and he helped small businesses apply for federal loans during the pandemic.  

Sullivan repeatedly emphasized her involvement with civil rights and voting rights organizations, which she said would inform her views in areas like pushing to allow same-day voter registration. “You are not a friend of the voting rights community, you are not a friend of the civil rights community,” Sullivan charged. “You find yourself on the other side of justice all the time.” She cited lawsuits in which Galvin has been sued by the NAACP and others over his implementation of voting laws. 

Galvin said most of the lawsuits have been “frivolous” and “we’ve won virtually all of them.” Galvin said he has made efforts to ensure that minority communities have easy access to voting and are counted in the Census. He too has pushed for same-day voter registration, Galvin said, and he attributed its failure to pass to opposition in the House of Representatives. “My record on civil rights is pristine,” Galvin said. 

Galvin accused Sullivan of making “misstatements” about the lawsuits and his record. After Sullivan questioned Galvin’s implementation of automatic voting registration, Galvin said, “It shows my opponent’s ignorance of the office and laws around it.” 

Sullivan took offense at Galvin calling her misinformed and recited her educational and professional credentials, adding, “I’m more qualified and credentialed today than the day you walked into that office.” 

Meet the Author

Shira Schoenberg

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

On public records, Galvin cited his work pushing for reforms of the public records law, which went into effect in 2017 and made it easier to obtain records from public agencies. “I worked to change the law to make it more powerful,” Galvin said. 

Massachusetts remains “the least transparent state in the country,” Sullivan countered. “He’s been in office for a quarter century. There’s got to be some responsibility taken by secretary on that front,” she said of Galvin’s long tenure. She also cited a 2017 story in CommonWealth, in which Galvin failed to provide data about the diversity of his staff. “His office is notorious about being a black box,” Sullivan said. 

The debate was moderated by Tiziana Dearing on WBUR’s Radio Boston, which hosted the debate along with the Boston Globe and WCVB.