AG candidates spar over MBTA, experience, fundraising

Democratic attorney general candidates (from left) Andrea Campbell, Shannon Liss-Riordan, and Quentin Palfrey discussed action to explore failures at the MBTA, cracking down on crisis pregnancy centers, and each other's campaign funding during a Wednesday debate. [Screenshot]

One Democrat hoping to win the office believes the attorney general should "absolutely" consider action against the MBTA amid a string of debilitating failures, and candidates in the race also want to ramp up enforcement of crisis pregnancy centers.

When they were not reiterating well-trodden campaign points about each other's fundraising and resumes -- in some cases ignoring moderators' attempts to steer focus elsewhere -- the trio of Democrats vying for the state's top law enforcement office drew lines Wednesday around where they would and would not seek to expand its prosecutorial footprint.

Dysfunction at the MBTA, the opioid crisis, a string of prominent public actions by hate groups and the attorney general's role in combating the climate crisis all featured as prominent topics during the livestreamed debate between Quentin Palfrey, Shannon Liss-Riordan and Andrea Campbell hosted by WBUR, the Boston Globe and WCVB.

All three Democrats said they are concerned by the state of the T, where a series of injurious, sometimes fatal and disruptive incidents have prompted service cuts, a Federal Transit Administration probe and a looming maintenance shutdown of the entire Orange Line and portions of the Green Line.

"It's a travesty, the lack of diligence and maintenance that we have had in our public transportation system," Liss-Riordan, a labor attorney who ran for U.S. Senate in 2019, said. "Something I can do as attorney general is make sure that rules and laws are being followed. I'm particularly concerned about the outsourcing of much of the work that the T has done. The T has plenty of very knowledgeable workers who understand the system, and bringing in the federal government to try to fix this is not the answer. That's going to cause even more delays and folks who don't know our system."

Campbell, a former Boston city councilor, added that she believes the attorney general's office "needs to step up" to ensure the MBTA awards enough contracts to women, people of color and small business owners to meet diversity requirements.

"This is an opportunity where an attorney general coming together with the next governor, who will definitely be Maura Healey -- we have an opportunity to really tackle these issues in partnership, and we've talked about that," Campbell, who on multiple occasions during the debate mentioned that she earned Healey's endorsement to succeed her, said. "There's a way in which both offices can work together to ensure adequate funding."

Of the three, Palfrey was the most willing to attribute the problems at the MBTA to both Gov. Charlie Baker -- who won reelection in 2018, the year that Palfrey was the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor -- and to the Democrat-dominated Beacon Hill.

"This is Governor Baker's fault, and it's been Governor Baker's fault for almost 20 years, but it's also a fault of the Beacon Hill culture that doesn't work very well," he said. "We have a Beacon Hill that is the least transparent of any state government and we have an establishment in Massachusetts that is too cozy."

Moderator Tiziana Dearing asked if there was a "prosecutorial dimension that the AG's office ought to be considering, either with the administration or the MBTA, given where we are with the T."

"Absolutely," Palfrey answered. "We've got to look into how we got to this place. People are actually getting harmed."

All three candidates voiced support for a proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot in November that would implement a 4 percent surtax on household income above $1 million and calls for putting the new revenue toward education and transportation.

Both Palfrey and Liss-Riordan also agreed the state's top prosecutor should do more to deal with crisis pregnancy centers, which Healey last month said claim to offer reproductive health care services while working "to prevent people from accessing abortion and contraception."

Palfrey said the attorney general should "crack down" on those facilities in Massachusetts, using "both civil and criminal laws" to ensure they truthfully represent the services they offer.

Referencing a consumer protection measure known as Chapter 93A, Liss-Riordan said she believes crisis pregnancy centers are violating state law and pledged to "investigate and bring cases against these centers to make sure they are not taking advantage of people who are in a very difficult time."

Campbell did not go quite as far as her two opponents. She said Healey's office is already "prioritizing this," adding that using consumer protection and criminal statutes for action would be an option before pivoting to tout that she was endorsed by the Planned Parenthood Advocacy Fund of Massachusetts.

Polls have indicated the three-way primary remains open with Campbell holding slightly more support than the other two but many voters still undecided. The winner will face off against Jay McMahon, who is unopposed in the Republican primary, in November.

Like their televised debate last week, Wednesday's affair grew cagey at times as the trio jabbed at one another.

Campaign cash was a particularly sore spot. Liss-Riordan called Campbell's donor list "a who's who of lobbyists for fossil fuel industries (and) the Koch brothers." In response to a question about prosecuting public corruption, Palfrey said Campbell "received $2 million in super PAC support in last year's mayor's race."

Firing back at her opponents, Campbell during the debate pointed to Palfrey's qualification for $165,412 in matching public funds during the primary race and to Liss-Riordan's substantial self-funding.

"Quentin is receiving taxpayer state money to fund his campaign. Shannon put in $3 million, she will probably put up to $12 million trying to buy this election," Campbell said. "I've always been accountable to the people. I will remain accountable to the people."

"It's a very cynical view that Andrea has that the people of Massachusetts can be bought," Liss-Riordan replied. "They are going to vote for the attorney general who they think is the most experienced and will fight and win for them."

In May, both Palfrey and Liss-Riordan signed a "People's Pledge" aimed at keeping outside super PAC money out of the race. Campbell did not, and she is the only one in the field for whom state campaign finance records show independent spending in support.

The Environmental League of Massachusetts Action Fund has spent $11,833.46 on mailers and digital advertising backing Campbell, and 1199 SEIU MA spent $9,500 on mailers supporting her as well, according to Office of Campaign and Political Finance data. That represents 3 percent of the total spending on Campbell, with the other 97 percent coming from her own campaign committee.

Candidates also took aim at each other over their qualifications, debating exactly what kind of legal experience best suits someone to take over the top law enforcement role.

"Being a class-action lawyer is very different from being an assistant attorney general," Palfrey said, attempting to contrast Liss-Riordan's experience from his. "This is one of the examples of why it's really important to have as the attorney general someone with direct experience as a government lawyer to crack down on these kinds of problems."

Liss-Riordan referred to herself as "the only practicing lawyer on this stage," then kept the train of criticism moving down the line by contending that Campbell "has worked less than five years practicing law in a handful of short-term legal jobs."

"If Maura Healey did not think I had the adequate records and legal experience, she would not have endorsed me in this race," Campbell retorted. "I maybe haven't made millions on class actions on the backs of workers, but I've done the work of really delivering for residents on the issues they care about."

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