AG Hopefuls Square Off in Virtual, ‘Visions for the Commonwealth,’ Debate

The three candidates now vying to succeed Maura Healey as the state’s attorney general squared off during a virtual debate sponsored jointly by Boston Ward 5 Democrats and Boston Ward 4 Democrats on Monday, May 23.

On hand for “Visions for the Commonwealth: Attorney General Debate” were Andrea Campbell, an attorney and former District 4 City Councilor from 2016 until 2022 and its president from January of 2018 until January of 2020 , as well as an unsuccessful candidate for Mayor of Boston in 2021; Shannon Liss-Riordan, a labor attorney who was a Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate in the 2020 election, but withdrew before the primary; and Quentin Palfrey, who once led the health care division in the Attorney General’ Office and served as general counsel in the U.S. Commerce Department under President Biden, and who lost in the 2018 lieutenant governor’s race to incumbent Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito.

The event was moderated by Renée Loth, opinion columnist and former editor of The Boston Globe’s editorial page.

Asked why he chose to enter the attorney general’s race at this time, Palfrey said, “Democracy is literally under attack…and it’s important to stand up for the most important rights.”

Palfrey said the attorney general would need to be “independent,” which he described as one of his personal strengths. “I have a bold, aggressive vision for this office, and I’ll stand behind it,” he added.

Liss-Riordan said she has spent the last 20 years acting as a “private attorney general” and has “made headlines taking on some of the largest corporations in the country,” like FedEx, Starbucks, and Uber.

“I’m the only practicing lawyer in the race.  I’ve won jury trials and won appeals…and helped shape laws to serve the people,” said Liss-Riordan, who added that she has also received the endorsement from the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, which represents around 500,000 people across the state.

Liss-Riordan said she has “spent 23 years not just as a practicing lawyer, but as one of the top plaintiff lawyers in the country.”

Her top priorities as attorney general would include protecting consumers’ rights and the environment, as well as her commitment to race issues, according to Liss-Riordan.

Campbell said she hadn’t “jumped into this race lightly” and had first talked with employees in the attorney general’s office and with past attorney generals before announcing her candidacy.

As for what distinguishes her from the other two candidates, Campbell said her legal background is “more comprehensive,” and that she had started out doing pro bono work for children to ensure they have access to “high-level education.”

Asked who should be “most afraid” of her candidacy, Campbell replied those “who accept the status quo,” adding that she’s in this race for “bold issues, and to always be a leader.”

“I really believe in transparency and accountability,” added Campbell.

Liss-Riordan said those who should fear her candidacy the most are “powerful interests who think they can skirt laws and take advantage of workers, consumers, and our environment.”

To this end, Liss-Riordan said she intends to establish a fund to allow workers to immediately recover stolen wages, as well as a “green bank,” which would use money won in environmental cases to fund clean energy projects and for environmental justice projects.

“People who violate laws and take advantage of regular people are those who should be afraid of me being attorney general,” said Liss-Riordan.

Palfrey said he wants to “set a fair tone during a time of great conflict,” pointing to what he describes as a “failure of leadership on an international level,” an imbalanced Congress, and a “Supreme Court that has been hijacked by extremists.”

“I want to have a tone of decency and respect so people who are willing to deal fairly have nothing to worry about,” said Palfrey.

On the biggest challenges now facing Massachusetts, Campbell cited mental health issues not only for adults, but also for children, along with the need for more housing.

Liss-Riordan said Massachusetts residents are now most impacted by the high cost of living, so she wants to ensure that they all recover “every penny” of their lost wages.

Palfrey pointed to “structural racism” and “wealth inequality” as currently the most pressing issues for the Commonwealth’s residents.

Regarding the possibility that the Supreme Court might now strike down Roe v. Wade, Campbell said there is “real fear and angst in Massachusetts related to these issues,” especially since many people don’t realize that the case has already been codified in the state, which ensures the right to abortion and  reproductive health care.

Liss-Riordan said, “With the failure of Roe, we now see a legal landscape unlike anything we’ve seen since the Civil War. It’s going to take a creative legal strategy to keep that from happening.”

Moreover, Liss-Riordan pledged that if a national ban on abortion comes to pass, as attorney general, she would never enforce it in Massachusetts” and would also introduce “litigation to ensure that other states can’t reach into our borders to enforce their laws here.”

Palfrey said he had seen the movement towards a national ban on abortion “coming for a long time,” which, he added, has “clearly been the goal of a radical group of jurists.”

As attorney general, Palfrey committed to do his part to reverse this trend by making the state’s laws surrounding this issue as strong as possible, and to enforce them vigorously, as well as to create a “safe harbor” for those who are fleeing other states with more oppressive abortion laws.

All three candidates said they would strongly oppose a ballot question that would designate “gig” workers (e.g. Uber, Lyft) as independent contractors.

“We’ve got to fight like hell against this ballot initiative, but this is just the beginning,” said Palfrey. “We’re going to be in this fight for the long haul regardless of how this ballot initiative turns out.”

Palfrey said he wants to see increased power for the attorney general to help combat the $1 billion lost to wage theft annually throughout the Commonwealth. “There’s a lot we can do with the tools we have,” he added.

Liss-Riordan, who currently serves on the Coalition to Protect Workers’ Rights board, said, “It was challenged even getting it on the ballot, so I think we have a fighting chance of keeping it off the ballot this year.”

But regardless of the fate of the ballot question, Liss Riordan acknowledged that this issue isn’t going away either.

“I’ve been in a chess match with these companies,” said Liss-Riordan, “and we need an attorney general who can play the next round in this match. This is the future of employment in America that’s at stake.”

Campbell said it’s now critical to inform Massachusetts voters of this ballot measure, as well as to educate them about the repercussions of gig workers being “misclassified” as independent contractors.

Additionally, Campbell said this is in fact a broader issue, which also includes employers taking advantage of workers who are afraid to come forward with their grievances on account of their questionable immigration statuses.

Regarding climate concerns, Campbell said she doesn’t think the state’s goals for limiting emissions are “aggressive enough,” and that the utility companies and corporations would merely adjust their business plans to meet these goals.

Campbell also said she would do her part to engage communities of color and rural communities on environmental issues, who thus far have been left out of the conversation.

Regarding climate concerns, Palfrey said, “What we do and what we fail to do will determine what kind of lives our children and our grandchildren face.”

As attorney general, Palfrey said he would follow the example set by President Biden’s executive order “to make climate a priority in everything we do in the state.”

All three candidates agreed that using nuclear power to reduce the state’s dependency on fossil fuels isn’t a viable solution.

In response to Palfrey’s question about Campbell allegedly receiving support from a Super PAC, she fired back that her campaign, which she describes as “grassroots, people-powered campaign,” has been mischaracterized. She always holds [herself] accountable to the people” and isn’t “beholden to special interests,” added Campbell.

“There are no corporate interests in this race. There’s no PAC in this race. It’s all from individual donations,” Campbell said of her $800,000 war chest. “I’m really proud and honored that people have taken money out of their pockets to invest in my campaign.”

While Liss-Riordan acknowledged that she had in part self-funded her campaign, she said this is a far different scenario from taking money from corporations or special interests.

“It’s night and day about taking money from corporate entities and special interests and having the money to invest in one’s own campaign,” added Liss-Riordan.

(“I’ve never been able to self-fund, so there are barriers to entry for some candidates,” replied Campbell.)

Palfrey said his “loyalty is to the people,” and that his campaign “needs to be free from conflicts of interest or even the appearance of conflicts of interest.”

Regarding the ongoing opioid epidemic now facing the Commonwealth, Palfrey said, “I do think safe injection sites need to be part of the solution.”

Palfrey cited the failure of the War on Drugs and added that  Massachusetts now needs to focus on providing treatment, rehabilitation, and stabilized housing for those afflicted by substance abuse.

Likewise, Liss-Riordan said she would support safe injection sites as one more tool necessary to combat the ongoing opioid crisis. “Saving a life in Worcester or Pittsfield  is just as important as saving a life in Boston,” she added.

In contrast, Campbell was more circumspect and said she would instead defer to individual cities and towns on  this matter.

“I’d never stand in the way of a municipality starting safe injection sites, but as a statewide issue, there needs to be more conversations,” said Campbell, particularly in regard to where they would be located.

Asked how he would address the Commonwealth’s current need for more housing, Palfrey recommended building dense housing near public transit in an effort to not only address housing affordability, but also to help meet climate goals.

“I do believe rent control should be on the table as a solution,” said Palfrey.

Likewise, Liss-Riordan pledged she would advocate for building more densely concentrated housing nearby public transit and said she would also establish an Office of Tenant Advocacy to represent tenants and to expand mediation in courts “so they’re not just mills for evicting people.”

Moreover, Liss-Riordan said she would take on banks to engage in discriminatory lending practices and agreed that “rent control is part of the answer.”

Campbell pointed to the foreclosure crisis of 2008-09 when the attorney general’s office adopted some “really innovative practices” to help keep people from losing their homes and said we should think about bringing back such measures.

Campbell also recommended using receivership to activate city-owned lots for the purpose of building new housing as another possible solution.

Regarding rent control, Campbell said, “Rent control is a conversation for the municipalities. I have real concerns about whether it’s an effective tool.”

The general election for attorney general of the Commonwealth is set for Tuesday, Nov. 9. Healey announced in January she wouldn’t seek a third term as the state’s attorney general so she could instead focus on her candidacy to succeed Gov. Charlie Baker in this November’s gubernatorial race.

To view a video recording of the virtual debate, visit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jZHd6wdCNhI.

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