Outsider Harrington topples Berkshire DA, Ryan reelected in MIddlesex
AGAINST THE BACKDROP of a national rethinking of criminal justice policies, Suffolk County residents voted for big change in the district attorney’s office as Rachael Rollins, a former federal prosecutor running on strong reform platform, topped a five-way Democratic primary field in the contest to replace incumbent Dan Conley, who did not seek reelection.
Change was also in the air in Berkshire County, where defense attorney Andrea Harrington defeated Paul Caccaviello, who was appointed to the post earlier this year, in a three-way Democratic primary.
Rollins, an African-American single mother and breast cancer survivor who held several top legal posts under Gov. Deval Patrick, was able to coalesce the backing of progressive organizations and minority voters to capture the Democratic nomination.
She beat back strong backing from the law enforcement establishment for Greg Henning, a veteran prosecutor in the Suffolk DA’s office who was endorsed by Conley received more than $60,000 in campaign donations from police officers.
According to unofficial results from Boston’s elections department, Rollins won just over 40 percent of the citywide vote, with Henning finishing second with 22 percent, followed by Dorchester state Rep. Evandro Carvalho with 17 percent, defense attorney Shannon McAuliffe with 10 percent, and Linda Champion, a former Suffolk prosecutor who now works in state government, with 9 percent.
Suffolk County also includes Revere, Winthrop, and Chelsea. Complete figures from the those communities were not available late Tuesday night.
The 47-year-old Rollins said voters were sending a clear message that they want change in how the office operates. “They understand that mass incarceration isn’t working. The war on drugs didn’t work. There are racial disparities in the criminal justice system,” she said by phone from her victory party in Jamaica Plain.
Many of the forums held by different groups during the campaign turned into primers on criminal justice reform, as candidates were peppered with questions on their positions on problems in the justice system.
From the start, there was concern among minority activists and progressives that their votes would be split among several candidates, a dynamic that they feared would hand the election to Henning, who could win with far less than a majority of the primary vote. Several progressive organizations focused on reviewing the candidates’ positions and records with the goal of uniting behind a single progressive candidate to head off that outcome.
Progressive Massachusetts, statewide liberal organization, as well as several of its Boston chapters threw their support behind Rollins. An umbrella group representing progressive political organizations and labor unions, the Justice for Massachusetts Coalition, also got behind Rollins. Meanwhile, she built a broad base support in the city’s black community, with support from several current and past elected officials.
Rollins, who served stints as general counsel to Massport and the MBTA, has called for an end to the cash bail system, for the elimination of many mandatory minimum sentences and other reforms. She has also vowed to increase racial diversity among the assistant district attorneys who handle the office’s 35,000 cases each year.
The race was one of three contested Democratic primaries for district attorney in the state.
In Middlesex County, incumbent Marian Ryan held off a strong challenge from Donna Patalano to win a second term. Patalano pushed a strong reform message focused on racial disparities in the system and a lack of transparency in the DA’s office. But Ryan sought to blunt that message, claiming she had embraced reforms that other DAs in the state resisted, calling herself the “proven progressive” in the race.
In the Berkshire County race, Harrington defeated Caccaviello, the former first assistant DA who was appointed district attorney in March by Gov. Charlie Baker when longtime DA David Capeless resigned. Placing third in the primary was Judith Knight, who ran for the office once before, in 2006. Harrington, who has worked as an employment and defense attorney, was the only candidate in the race without any background as a prosecutor.
Caccaviello’s appointment stirred controversy as Capeless said, in announcing his retirement, that he decided not to wait and serve out the remainder of the term so that his assistant could be named to the office and have the benefit of running this fall as an incumbent. But Harrington, running a reform platform and with backing from several progressive leaders in the county, narrowly edged him. With no Republican November ballot, she’s poised to become the first woman DA in Berkshire County history.
The DA races unfolded amidst a public information campaign mounted by the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts that was designed to highlight the crucial role played by district attorneys.
“The whole point of this is really change the conversation about criminal law reform and put focus and emphasis on one of the true centers of power, which is the district attorney’s office, which has very little oversight and very little public awareness about it,” said Rahsaan Hall, who directed the ACLU’s “What a Difference a DA Makes” initiative.
A survey commissioned last year by the ACLU of Massachusetts that showed a striking lack of understanding among voters of basic facts about the justice system. Half of voters surveyed thought district attorneys had little impact on the functioning of the criminal justice system, while 38 percent were not even aware that district attorney was an elected position.
In Suffolk County, Rollins faces an independent candidate, Michael Maloney, in the November election, but will be heavily favored to become county’s first woman DA. She would be the second African American to hold the post following Ralph Martin, who served as DA for a decade, from 1992 to 2002.
“The outcome suggests that Suffolk County voters were looking for a transformative candidate,” Hall said of Rollins. “I think they felt the conversation about racial justice is critical, which quite a few of the candidates lifted up as a priority, but also her comment to reducing overincarceration and eliminating cash bail and repealing mandatory minimums — these were the things they felt were very important and these were things that she put forward in her campaign.”
“This definitely is a showing by progressive voters,” said former state public safety secretary Andrea Cabal. “I think the results reflect not just a desire for change, but an active desire to see women in political roles effectuating that change.”