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Hopeful State Attorneys General Make Their Cases

Lively panelists illuminate their strengths as they campaign for Massachusetts's top legal post.

Candidates Andrea Campbell, Shannon Liss-Riordan, and Quentin Palfrey surround moderator Kimberly Atkins Stohr.   Photograph by Reba Saldanha

Room 120 in the East Wing of Boston College Law School served as the meeting ground for three Massachusetts Attorney General candidates April 28 as they shared plans and opinions with an audience of interested students, faculty, and community members.

The event, sponsored by the Rappaport Center for Law and Public Policy, offered candidates Andrea Campbell, former Boston city councilor; Shannon Liss-Riordan, attorney at Lichten & Liss-Riordan, PC; and Quentin Palfrey, former assistant attorney general, the opportunity to make their pitches. Their experiences and stances on local and national issues came in response to questions by moderator Kimberly Atkins Stohr, senior opinion writer and columnist for the Boston Globe.

In their opening remarks, each candidate provided a summary of their personal and professional backgrounds as well as their intentions should they be elected as Massachusetts Attorney General.

Palfrey, who was assistant attorney general while President Trump was in office, said that witnessing the attorney general continuously fight back against what he called a “corrupt and immoral administration,” inspired him to enter the race.

He said the people deserve an attorney general who focuses on the issues that affect Americans the most. He cited as his main concerns racial injustice, the climate crisis, attacks on democracy and rights, the housing crisis, student loan debt, and gun violence.

“If I am AG, I pledge to be the people’s lawyer and to be truly independent, because that’s what the people’s lawyer does, and that’s the kind of AG I want to be,” said Palfrey.

Campbell said she entered the race recognizing that families in Massachusetts are struggling. “I’m not leading with a pessimistic message,” said Campbell. “At the same time, I have been stressing that we live in the best state in the nation, and that the government indeed can help residents who are grappling with a whole array of issues, especially the attorney general’s office.”

Campbell knows this, she explained, because she is living proof. “I had a childhood filled with incredible instability. When I was eight months old my mother died in a car accident while going to visit my father who was incarcerated at the time,” she said. Her father and brother cycled in and out of the prison system, and her twin brother died 10 years ago at the age of 29 while in the custody of the state Department of Correction as a pre-trial detainee. As the first person in her family to go to college, she said, she has dedicated her whole life, personal and professional, to making sure every resident in this state has access to the same opportunities she had growing up in Massachusetts.

“This office is more than just the chief law enforcement office. It has all the tools, the resources, and certainly the talent, to make sure every family in this state has access to health care, a high-quality education for their children, access to a living wage, the tools to stay in your home, to buy a home, and to grow your wealth,” Campbell said.

Liss-Riordan highlighted her “unparalleled experience” as a trial lawyer fighting for the working class against large corporations. “I’m very proud that I have spent my career fighting for the people against the powerful and winning, which is exactly what I plan to do for you as your next attorney general,” she said.

Issues that deserve significant attention include income inequality, corporate bad actors, and the threat of the US Supreme Court taking away nearly fifty years of reproductive freedom,” Liss-Riordan said. “The people of Massachusetts deserve a champion.”

“I consider this race to be a job interview,” she continued, “and I am asking you all to consider my skills, my background, my experience, my passion, and my unparalleled record in delivering a meaningful change as you are deciding who you want to hire to be the next lawyer for the people of Massachusetts. I’m the only candidate in this race who is an actual practicing lawyer, and I am the only candidate in this race who has run a law firm.”

When asked what in their backgrounds would help them succeed in the massively important role—leading a 600-plus employee organization—each candidate leveraged a different area of expertise.

Campbell described her experiences leading teams as general counsel for a regional planning agency that covered 101 municipalities in the state, adding that one immediate focus would be to look at the diversity within the AG’s office. “I think it’s really important who you’re surrounding yourself with. There’s a lot more we can do to ensure that the leadership teams are reflective of the communities they serve,” she said.

Palfrey drew attention to the experience of previous attorneys general, both in Massachusetts and other states. “It has typically been somebody who has led teams of government attorneys, either in an AG office or a district attorney office, and I think there’s a reason for that,” he said. That is, he explained, the attorney general’s office is a unique kind of place, and his experience as the chief of the health-care division in the US attorney general’s office provides him with a necessary and unparalleled understanding of that unique environment.

“The AG has an enormous amount of power, but you have to understand how to use it, and I think the learning curve for someone coming from outside of that kind of environment is much steeper than for someone who has led in the office and other government offices like this before,” Palfrey said.

For her part, Liss-Riordan reiterated that “my experience as a private attorney general for the last 20 years is the most pertinent experience for this job.”

She said her work as an employment lawyer has made her particularly sensitive to the needs of the employees who are doing the work of attorneys general. “In terms of the culture, I’m in the best position to make sure that we are treating our staff, our investigators, our attorneys at that office as they deserve to be treated, with the respect and the skills and the tools that they need,” said Liss-Riordan.

Asked to share with a lecture hall packed with law school students what advice they would give to their 1L selves, the candidates responded:

Liss-Riordan: “Just keep believing. Do what you want to do, go where your passion lies. You didn’t go to law school just to get a job to figure out how to pay off your law school debt. There are opportunities to do a lot of great work in the legal world and figure out what means the most to you and do it. It will work out.”

Campbell: Get out of the building more. It’s important to engage with residents and organizations doing legal work or doing work related to our laws in a meaningful way to actually be able to bring what you’re learning to practice, and to understand it in a deeper way. I spent too much time in the classroom. Get out of the building.”

Palfrey: “The law can be an incredible tool for making a difference in people’s lives, so figure out where your path is in the law that will be consistent with your sense of what you want to accomplish in the world. Keep your moral compass.”