Underdog Criminal Justice Reformer Rachael Rollins Wins District Attorney Primary in Boston’s Suffolk County

In Boston’s Suffolk County, an underdog won a race to be the top prosecutor by promising to do a lot less prosecuting.

Photo: Diana Levine/Courtesy of Rachael Rollins for Suffolk DA

Prosecutor and criminal justice reformer Rachael Rollins won the Democratic primary for district attorney in Boston’s Suffolk County on Tuesday, winning in a five-way race and defeating the leading establishment candidate by a 16-point margin.

All of the candidates ran on the promise of some commitment to criminal justice reform, aimed at making the system more humane and compassionate.

But Rollins offered the starkest contrast with the status quo. She laid out explicit policy changes she would make to the DA’s office, including naming the charges in which the default would be not to prosecute unless supervisor permission is obtained. These charges include minor crimes like trespassing, disorderly conduct, drug possession, or a standalone resisting arrest charge, but taken as a whole, they are an effort to decriminalize poverty, addiction, and mental illness.

The establishment candidate in the race was Greg Henning, an assistant district attorney in the current DA’s office. Henning was backed by the outgoing DA, Dan Conley, and the lion’s share of police unions. (The only police group backing Rollins being the MBTA Police Association.)

Massachusetts law strictly limits how much a political action committee can give to a candidate. So the bulk of Henning’s financial support from the police came from individual contributions by police officers, which totaled over $69,000. The average donation from police and law enforcement individual contributors was $263.

Henning was considered the favorite in the race. In May, Boston Herald columnist David Bernstein, a prominent political watcher in the area, conducted a straw poll of 50 regional political insiders — 60 percent said that Henning would succeed in the race. Just 16 percent said Rollins would win.

It is likely that high turnout in Jamaica Plain, a neighborhood that has a large share of African-American and Hispanic voters, benefited Rollins. That uptick is also a data point for the case often made by backers of the movement to elect progressive prosecutors — that even if the Democratic Party doesn’t care about the issues from substantive perspective, simply as a pragmatic matter, putting criminal justice reformers on the ballot has the potential to engage new voters in the political process, ones who are likely to vote Democratic up and down the ballot.

The Jamaica Plain neighborhood has some overlap with the Massachusetts’s 7th Congressional District, where At-Large Boston City Council Member Ayanna Pressley defeated 10-term Democratic Congressman Michael Capuano in his primary. But any synergy between the two candidates was organic.

Neither Pressley nor Capuano endorsed Rollins.

In contrast, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who has been compared to Pressley, decided to endorse Cynthia Nixon in her Democratic gubernatorial primary one day before her own congressional primary — a move that risked alienating her among Cuomo’s supporters, who vastly outnumbered those of Nixon’s. She also later went on to support Zephyr Teachout in her attorney general bid, and backed Julia Salazar, a democratic socialist seeking to unseat a nearby incumbent state senator, back in April.

Although full demographic data on the election has yet to be collected, several individuals who worked closely with the campaign said that support for Rollins cut across demographic lines, and that it would be a mistake to attribute her victory solely to turnout among minority groups.

One of the organizations that advised the Rollins campaign was Real Justice PAC, which works to elect reform-minded prosecutors across America. (Shaun King, an Intercept columnist, is affiliated with the PAC.)

Julia Barnes, a senior adviser to the organization, pointed to strong support in neighborhoods from various racial backgrounds.

“Rachael built a truly impressive coalition of voters that cut across age, race, and geographies within Suffolk County. She had equally impressive support in places like Allston/Brighton, as in East Boston, as in Roxbury. She pulled impressive margins in South Boston, West Roxbury and Hyde Park. Her margin was bolstered everywhere,” Barnes, who was formerly the national field director for the Bernie Sanders 2016 presidential campaign, said.

Top photo: Prosecutor and criminal justice reformer Rachael Rollins.

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