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Inside the Audition for Democrats’ Next Crusading Attorney General

Want to know where Democratic politics are headed? Watch Massachusetts.

The state has always had a crusading streak — it was, after all, founded by religious dissidents. Massachusetts prides itself on leading the nation on progressive causes, be it overthrowing the British, outlawing slavery and Jim Crow, establishing universal health care or legalizing same-sex marriage. In an 1858 article in The Atlantic, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. only half-jokingly called the statehouse atop Boston’s Beacon Hill “the hub of the solar system.”

The departing attorney general of Massachusetts, Maura Healey, gained a national following for suing Donald Trump’s administration in dozens of cases. At the Boston Women’s March the day after Trump’s inauguration in 2017, she famously stood in front of an enormous crowd and shouted what would become a signature line: “We’ll see you in court!

So the race to succeed Healey, who is running for governor, is very much worth following. At a time when many Democrats find themselves demoralized by the paralysis in Washington and by President Biden’s low approval ratings, its contours will tell us something about what voters on the left are most passionate about.

It is also exposing a fault line within the Democratic Party over corporate money — between those who see it as inherently corrupting and reject it, and those who view it as a necessary evil.

The leading candidate in the primary, by all indications, is Andrea Campbell, a former Boston City Council president who finished third in the city’s mayoral race last year. She faces Quentin Palfrey, a former assistant attorney general, voting rights lawyer and official in the Obama and Biden administrations who supports Medicare for all; and Shannon Liss-Riordan, a self-financing labor lawyer who has the backing of major unions.

All three are running as different flavors of liberal, fitting what local Democrats say is the public’s appetite for someone willing to wield the power of the office aggressively to protect consumers and correct injustices.

“What voters are looking for is people who are going to fight on their behalf,” said Mary Anne Marsh, a Democratic strategist in Boston who is not supporting any of the candidates.

The attorney general in Massachusetts has a storied muckraking tradition dating to Frank Bellotti, who transformed the office into a formidable platform for law in the public interest during the 1970s and ’80s.

Scott Harshbarger sued major tobacco manufacturers, resulting in a huge settlement in the late 1990s; more recently, Healey has gone after pharmaceutical companies that made and marketed opioids, effectively shutting down Purdue Pharma.

“It’s the people’s attorney,” said Marie St. Fleur, a former assistant attorney general in Massachusetts who is close to Campbell. “That’s who we are.”

This weekend, the three candidates will face their first test when delegates to the Democratic Party’s state convention will vote to decide who receives the party’s endorsement. Any candidate who does not reach 15 percent support among delegates will not make the primary ballot.

Palfrey and Liss-Riordan have attacked Campbell for refusing to disavow a super PAC, Better Boston, that spent $1.6 million in support of her mayoral run. Palfrey has said the donations could create “a conflict of interest” if Campbell becomes attorney general. Both have pushed Campbell to sign the People’s Pledge, an agreement to reject corporate donations that was popularized by Senator Elizabeth Warren. She has refused.

“That’s probably because they realize that Campbell has the early lead,” said David Paleologos, the director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center, who has seen private polling in the race that heavily favors Campbell.

Better Boston has not spent any money so far in the attorney general’s race, though it has not shut down, either. Its donors include Reed Hastings, a chief executive of Netflix, who chipped in $250,000; Andrew Balson, a former managing director at Bain Capital, who likewise gave $250,000; and Jim Walton, an heir to the Walmart dynasty, who donated $45,000. Sonia Alleyne, a former bank executive listed as the chairwoman of the group, did not respond to emails.

Critics of corporate money in politics say the super PAC’s looming presence in the race is unprecedented, and has the potential to be corrupting even if the group is not currently active.

“I’m not aware of a super PAC spending in an attorney general’s race in Massachusetts, ever,” said Jeff Clements, the president of American Promise, a nonprofit group that supports tightening campaign finance laws, and a former chief of the public law enforcement bureau in the Massachusetts attorney general’s office. “When that kind of raw power can be used to decide who can be the chief law enforcement officer of a state, that’s a big deal.”

Campbell has raised nearly $1 million so far, significantly ahead of Palfrey and Liss-Riordan. She rejects what she says are “lies” spread about the financing of her campaign by her opponents, though she has declined to say whether she would disavow Better Boston’s support should it resume spending.

“I’m not accountable to corporations or PACs,” she said in a recent television interview, emphasizing that 93 percent of her campaign donations had come from within Massachusetts. “I’m accountable to the people.”

Credit…M. Scott Brauer for The New York Times

With little to fear from Republicans in most general elections, Democrats in Massachusetts tend to race to the left in primaries for attorney general. But the candidates in this race have struggled to differentiate themselves on the issues.

Where national Democrats have pivoted to loudly proclaiming their appreciation for America’s police officers, Campbell has gotten into public scrapes with police unions. And while Democrats in Congress have all but abandoned hope of banning military-style rifles like the one used in the shooting in Uvalde, Texas, Palfrey is calling to banish gun manufacturers from the state altogether.

“Guns will be a big issue,” said Phil Johnston, a former chairman of the state Democratic Party who supports Palfrey, noting that Massachusetts already has some of the toughest gun laws in the country. “This is a very anti-gun state.”

Campbell, who would be the first Black woman to win statewide office in Massachusetts, has leaned heavily on her extraordinary life story.

Her father, an associate of Whitey Bulger, the notorious Irish mobster, spent much of his life in prison. When Campbell was just 8 months old, her mother died in a car accident while trying to visit him. Despite living with an assortment of extended family members and foster parents, Campbell managed to attend Boston Latin, the city’s most prestigious public school, then went to Princeton University for her undergraduate studies and to U.C.L.A. for law school.

Her father died when she was 19 and still in college. “It shook my world,” she has told reporters. She has woven the story of Andre, a twin brother who died in prison from an undertreated medical condition, into the case she makes to voters — that she is someone who is uniquely able to empathize with stories of injustice and tragedy. Her older brother, Alvin, has been charged with serial rape.

“Lived experience means something, especially if you’re running for an office where people depend on and expect that,” said Debra Kozikowski, a vice chairwoman of the Massachusetts Democratic Party who is backing Campbell.

“People in Massachusetts are pretty content,” said Scott Ferson, a Democratic consultant who is neutral in the race. He expects the primary, which will be held on Sept. 6, to be a low-turnout affair. “They aren’t looking for revolution.”

And though Campbell on Thursday secured the endorsement of Emily’s List, which backs candidates who support abortion rights, Massachusetts long ago codified Roe v. Wade into state law. Being a bastion of liberalism can sometimes mean that the biggest issues in national politics have already been settled.

“When everyone’s the same on policy,” Ferson said, “people vote for biography.”

  • The Florida Supreme Court has rejected a challenge to a new map of the state’s congressional districts, despite a lower court’s ruling that the map illegally diluted the power of Black voters, Michael Wines reports.

  • Maya King and Nick Corasaniti investigate a Georgia mystery: How many Democrats voted in the state’s Republican primary?

  • President Biden is expected to call for a change in the nation’s gun laws in a White House address on Thursday evening, according to Michael Shear. A group of Senate lawmakers has said it is making progress in bipartisan talks, led by Senator Chris Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut.

— Blake & Leah

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