After beating the establishment candidate to win the Democratic primary battle for district attorney in Berkshire County, Massachusetts, Andrea Harrington now has to do it again.
On September 19, two weeks after losing the September 4 election by 692 votes, her primary opponent, Paul Caccaviello, announced a write-in campaign.
In many ways, the primary election was a referendum on criminal justice reform strategies. Harrington and a third candidate, Judith Knight, both advanced a more progressive approach than Caccaviello. Harrington, for example, pledged to review all unindicted cases of sexual assault and rape from the last 15 years, addressing the department’s perceived indifference toward rape and sexual assault. Knight’s campaign prioritized criminal justice reform for cases targeting youthful offenders, proposed drug and alcohol education initiatives, and focused on prosecuting violent crime.
By contrast, Caccaviello ran on a status quo platform — largely promising to continue the policies of his predecessor David Capeless, who abruptly resigned his position earlier this year to give Caccaviello the opportunity of incumbency. “I’m taking this step now,” Capeless told reporters, “because I want Paul to be able to run as the district attorney, as I did 14 years ago.”
Yesterday, Caccaviello announced that he was heeding the call of “hundreds” of supporters urging him to stay in the race, citing his experience as a prosecutor as necessary for the job. “They must know that their DA is an experienced criminal attorney with a vast depth of knowledge, not a product manufactured by a powerful political machine,” wrote Caccaviello. (When asked what he, the establishment candidate, meant by that characterization of Harrington, Caccaviello demurred, telling The Intercept that he would go into more detail on the charge in the weeks to come).
“The voters made their choice, and elections have consequences.”
Harrington hit back hard against that charge in an interview with The Intercept, saying, “These are the ideas that were thoroughly debated during the primaries. The voters made their choice, and elections have consequences.”
Harrington sees her primary win as a victory for the county’s marginalized communities against entrenched power. “Women, people of color, people with disabilities — we fight and we fight and we fight, and we don’t win,” said Harrington the night of her viewing party at the Flavours of Malaysia restaurant in Pittsfield, Massachuestts. “But tonight, it looks like we may have changed that story.”
Caccaviello dismissed Harrington’s ideological mission as motivated by political considerations, and said that he would bring a nonpartisan approach to the office if re-elected. “Citizens must have the utmost confidence that their District Attorney will represent and protect them without regard to their party affiliation or political ideology,” wrote Caccaviello in an email to The Intercept.
The primary election results seem to corroborate Harrington’s view that voters wanted reform. Although Harrington won by only a narrow margin, her vote share, combined with Knight’s, suggests that voters chose progressive “change” over the status quo by a margin of over 25 percent.
But although they both ran to the left of Caccaviello, Knight and Harrington are far from allies. Knight was friendlier toward Caccaviello than Harrington during the campaign — even attending his election night viewing party. Knight told The Intercept that if Caccaviello embraces progressive change, she might support him, but she can’t imagine a situation in which she would support Harrington — both because of the tenor of the campaign and Harrington’s relative inexperience. “She has great progressive ideas, but the daily running of the office, in light of her limited experience, will take up all her attention,” said Knight.
Throughout the campaign, Knight distinguished herself from Harrington by pointing to the length of her career: Knight worked as an assistant district attorney in eastern Massachusetts’s Middlesex County for 5 years and has practiced criminal law for 30 years, while Harrington has been practicing defense and civil litigation for the past 15 years.
Knight added that she thinks she can convince Caccaviello to take a more progressive stance, and said that if he sufficiently changed his approach, she would consider taking a job with his office — even though she pledged not to during a debate. “If a new day dawns in that office, then maybe,” Knight told The Intercept.
“That speaks for itself,” said Harrington when asked to comment.
The primary campaign kicked off in earnest in April when Capeless and Gov. Charlie Baker agreed to hand off the incumbency to Caccaviello before Capeless’s official resignation.
Ultimately, that strategy may have backfired. Harrington told The Intercept that while canvassing, a number of voters told her that they resented the political favoritism demonstrated by the maneuver. That indignation may have helped her pick up some primary votes from constituents who wanted a change from insider politics — even if they were less than enthused about Harrington’s program of reform, she opined.
Massachusetts’s open primary system allowed Harrington to reach left-leaning voters outside of the Democratic Party, which was a boon for her given the political leanings of her district. Berkshire County is liberal, even by Massachusetts standards. As of August 15, according to the Massachusetts Elections Division, 54.76 percent of voters identified as “unenrolled,” or as having no party affiliation, while 35.44 percent identified as Democrats. Only 8.6 percent of registered voters are Republican — hardly a factor in the region’s elections. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton performed significantly better in this district than they did statewide in the last three presidential elections, and there’s no Republican candidate running in the general election.
But despite the politics of Berkshire County voters, implementing criminal justice reform there has been an uphill battle. The Berkshire County DA’s Office lobbied against criminal justice reform at the state level in 2017, when Capeless was one of a number of Massachusetts DAs who signed a letter decrying proposals like bail reform as “a return to the old and discredited ways of the past.”
The office is notorious for setting bail for black defendants at 5 times the amount for white defendants. Shirley Edgerton, a local education and community activist who also sits on the board of the local NAACP, explained that people who can’t afford bail languish in jail, missing work and getting further behind on their bills — even though they have yet to be convicted of a crime. Once they’re free, they have to explain to their employer — if they still have one — why they missed work. And once employers are made aware of the charges against their employees, many employees lose their jobs and become unable to afford rent or food. It’s a pattern Edgerton has seen for years with the Berkshire DA. “It’s the beginning of the destruction of their lives,” she said.
According to Hall, there’s a sense of “liberal exceptionalism” in Massachusetts that allows residents to ignore the state’s very real criminal justice issues.
The bail issue is part of a greater problem of racial injustice in the state and country as a whole, said Rahsaan Hall, director of the Racial Justice Program for the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, who added that it’s an issue that’s having a rare moment in the public discourse, in part because of Michelle Alexander’s book “The New Jim Crow,” and the subsequent activism that the book inspired against the prison system.
“The atrocities, gross injustice, the indignities — people felt like they needed to do something but were unsure of how to do it. Harrington ran a progressive, reform-minded campaign that spoke to the desires of all those people who felt they wanted to do something,” Hall told The Intercept.
According to Hall, there’s a sense of “liberal exceptionalism” in Massachusetts that allows residents to ignore the state’s very real criminal justice issues. It’s a state with some of the lowest levels of incarceration of the country, but where racial disparities are well above the nation’s average. “The enforcement of criminal laws does not visit the doorstep of white liberals in the same way it does to people of color,” said Hall. “The way it happens to communities of color makes it a much more pressing issue to these communities.”
Edgerton said that Harrington’s campaign pushed back against a system that disproportionately hurt economically disadvantaged men of color. It’s part of why Edgerton approached Harrington to run for office back in 2016. “When I heard the seat would be vacant, I thought it would be a prime opportunity to select and support someone we thought would be open to ideas of compassion, justice, and equity,” said Edgerton.
Another Harrington campaign committee member, Darcie Sosa, told The Intercept that her candidate’s platform appealed to voters looking for nontraditional solutions to criminal justice issues, and required buy-in from those members of the community. The question remains whether the buy-in that won Harrington the primary will carry her to victory if Caccaviello splits the ticket in the general.
Even if Harrington wins this fall, changing local policy will likely be an uphill battle. The office has historically been hostile to the kind of reform Harrington is proposing, and during the primary, she faced an entrenched political system.
“She understands that she’s under the microscope and that there are people who want her to fail,” Sosa told The Intercept. But Sosa believes that her candidate’s openness and accessibility will allow for the kind of community engagement that’s necessary to effect change.
Edgerton told The Intercept that the successes of progressive DAs across the country — like Larry Krasner in Philadelphia — are heartening. Harrington agreed, pointing out that some people who object to criminal justice reform are not opposed to the policy. They’re just concerned that compassion has to come at the expense of safety. The county’s drug problem and an increase in violent crime have left many in the Berkshires wondering what’s not being done — and looking for solutions. “People don’t see it as reform but as what we’re doing not working,” Harrington said.
“The voters made the determination that I was the right one for the job, and I trust the voters.”
Harrington knows she has to work to find common ground with people in the community and the DA’s office who have different approaches to criminal justice. She says that’s a challenge she’s happy to take on. Transforming how the community looks at criminal justice requires a “big tent” approach. “You do that by listening and being gracious and attentive,” said Harrington.
Caccaviello’s decision to run in the general hasn’t prompted Harrington to change her strategy or her schedule. She still believes she’s going to win in November. “The voters made the determination that I was the right one for the job,” she says, “and I trust the voters.”