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Public Service

The Consummate Public Servant

State attorneys general share their stories and views of a profession to which they are deeply committed.

From left, James Tierney, Andrea Campbell, Peter Neronha, and Charity Clark. Photo by Reba Saldanha 

When Jerry and Phyllis Rappaport established the Rappaport Center for Law and Public Policy more than twenty years ago, they hoped their contribution would galvanize future generations of Boston College Law School students into pursuing careers in the public sector.

They’d also be pleased to hear that the latest Rappaport Center panel, entitled “The People’s Lawyer: The Impact of State Attorneys General,” was the single best-attended event in the eight years since the organization relocated to BC in 2015. Public interest is not just alive and well at BC Law. It’s thriving.

Four state attorneys general—James Tierney, former AG of Maine (1980-1990); Andrea Campbell, current AG of Massachusetts; Charity Clark ’05, current AG of Vermont; and Peter Neronha ’89, current AG of Rhode Island—engaged in animated and frank conversation about the highs and lows of a life dedicated to public service. Although each described countless challenges they face on a daily basis, all four speakers agreed that they wouldn’t trade their jobs for the world.

Tierney was effusive in his praise for Boston College and the Rappaport Center’s commitment to public interest work. “Government can take a lot of hits out there, but this school has always understood the importance of strong governance,” he said, singling out former Massachusetts attorney general and newly minted centenarian Francis X. Bellotti ’52. Perhaps unsurprisingly, both Clark and Neronha both had their start at BC Law (Neronha is a Double Eagle, no less).

Clark, a tenth-generation Vermonter on both sides of her family, shared a touching story about her journey to Montpelier: After spending her early years in her family’s small-town grocery store, she came to understand what it meant to serve a community. “The supermarket is the center of the community and there I saw it all—the kids hanging on their moms, the widowers, the skiers on a weekend getaway—so much humanity, all there in that grocery store,” she observed. Beginning in 2014, Clark served first as assistant attorney general and then as chief of staff in the Vermont AG’s office before making a bid for the top office.

Like many, Clark was galvanized by what she saw as federal overreach during the first few years of the Trump Administration. “It was inspiring to see so many attorneys general click into collective action at once… I realized we have the power to protect people and the systems on which they rely, like our electoral system, our criminal justice system, and our stream of commerce,” she said.

“I get to work with incredible lawyers and passionate public servants who are overworked and underpaid. We care deeply about doing the necessary work with a sense of urgency, empathy, compassion, and a standard of excellence across the board.”

Massachusetts Attorney General Andrea Campbell

Neronha echoed the sentiment, relishing the scope and responsibility of the office: “As attorney general, your power on the civil side, in particular, is as broad as you make it to be, and then you realize that you’ll never get to every issue that you want to address.”

Among the issues Neronha has tackled since assuming the office in 2019 is lead poisoning in children. Over 1,300 children in Rhode Island are diagnosed with lead poisoning every year, and the issue disproportionately impacts Black and brown children, according to Neronha. Delinquent landlords who fail to properly remove lead paint in apartments and older homes are the chief offenders.

Neronha’s crusade has made a tangible impact on the lives of Rhode Island’s most impoverished families: “When I became AG, these landlords had been blowing off the Department of Health for over a decade in some cases. The entire AG’s office collectively decided that we had to use our power to help these people, and since then we have brought nearly thirty lawsuits, some against the biggest landlords in the state, requiring them to clean up those properties and put those families in temporary housing at the landlord’s expense. That’s only a small corner of the work we do for the state every day.”

Massachusetts’ Andrea Campbell acknowledged the inherent difficulties of the office, citing ongoing attacks on the rule of law and democratic institutions across the United States; AGs, she said, are “possibly the most relevant and involved office when it comes to the issues we’re grappling with as a country.” But even on the toughest days, Campbell wouldn’t trade it for the world. “I get to work with incredible lawyers and passionate public servants who are overworked and underpaid. We care deeply about doing the necessary work with a sense of urgency, empathy, compassion, and a standard of excellence across the board,” she said.

Campbell’s commitment to justice was instilled in her when she was a child. After she was born, her father was sentenced to an eight-year prison term, and her mother Roberta was tragically killed in a car accident on her way to visit him in prison. Campbell was then only eight months old. “I carry my role with a deep sense of gratitude and humility, because my path [to the AG’s office] was definitely not straight—the criminal justice system, the legal system, the prison system were all very much entangled in my life from the very beginning.”

She would go on to Boston Latin School, then Princeton, and eventually UCLA School of Law. The adversity she faced has invigorated her mission as attorney general, and she has promised to focus on the communities too often left out or left behind: “Not just our BIPOC community or the LGBTQ community, but also our poor, rural communities across Massachusetts that are so often left out of the conversation.”

Toward the end of the panel discussion, Campbell issued a parting clarion call to the audience of students interested in public service: “I encourage everyone here to apply to our fellowship program or to the AG’s office directly, fresh out of law school,” she said. “The work is intensive, but it will set you on the path to a fulfilling career in public service… or anything you dream up for yourselves.”