Five Democrats vying for Suffolk DA job make their cases

By Jeremy C. Fox, Globe Correspondent

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Five Democrats vying to be the next Suffolk district attorney attempted to woo Dorchester voters on Saturday, sharing experiences that shaped them and outlining platforms focused on reducing incarceration by addressing the root causes of crime. 

The Ward 15 Democratic Party Committee heard from Rachael Rollins, former chief legal counsel for Massport and the MBTA; former Suffolk prosecutor Linda Champion; Suffolk Assistant District Attorney Greg Henning; defense attorney Shannon McAuliffe; and state Representative Evandro C. Carvalho.

The committee is considering an endorsement in the race but did not issue one Saturday.

The candidates are competing for the post at a time when crime is down nationally. But urban violence and mass incarceration remain hot-button issues, particularly in communities of color, and there is heightened scrutiny around law enforcement as cases of black men shot and killed by police continue to emerge. 

State lawmakers earlier this month responded to changing views on crime and punishment by passing a sweeping criminal justice reform bill.

Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley, announced in January that he is not seeking reelection to the post he’s held for 16 years, overseeing all prosecutions for Boston, Chelsea, Revere, and Winthrop. In that time, his office has pursued high-profile cases that include the double-murder trial of former New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez and the prosecution of Philip Markoff, the so-called Craigslist killer, which was dropped after Markoff’s suicide.

The Democrats will face off in a state primary in September before the November general election. No Republican has so far announced a candidacy. 

As they addressed committee members Saturday, the candidates highlighted traits intended to set them apart in the crowded field.

They cast themselves as a highly competent technocrat (Rollins); an empathetic survivor of child abuse (Champion); a new-style prosecutor seeking solutions rather than convictions (Henning); a grass-roots organizer and activist (McAuliffe); and an advocate from the demographic most affected by criminal justice (Carvalho). 

Rollins approached the forum as a job interview, focusing on her pedigree as a highly educated and experienced attorney who has held high-level jobs in state and federal government. 

She said she has spoken with Conley and three other current and former DAs about what the role requires.

“What all of those four district attorneys told me is, one, you need somebody who’s done the job,” she said. “Number two, you need somebody who’s led an incredibly large group of people. Three, you need somebody who is brave, and has shown courage in crisis, and has handled real crisis situations.”

Like a litigator, Rollins methodically laid out her experiences as a prosecutor, defense attorney, and administrator running a large office, saying they demonstrate her readiness for the job. 

Champion talked less about her courtroom experience and more about the painful past that shaped her, surviving abuse at the hands of her Vietnam War veteran father and neglect by her immigrant mother to find mentors who guided her into a career in the law. 

“We need to be mindful of the fact that sometimes children are placed in positions that they may not want to be in” she said, “and sometimes they’re placed in positions of fight or flight.

“Sometimes they’re placed in positions of being disruptive in class,” she continued, “but that disruption has nothing to do with them not being good kids. It has everything to do with the fact that they might be hungry, or they’re dealing with an unstable house environment.” 

Henning also shared a personal story, discussing how the sudden loss of his parents helped guide him toward greater community involvement and a volunteer position coaching a basketball team than included a player he had sent to jail. 

“That meeting of the minds... changed the career trajectory that I thought I would have,” he said. 

Seeing up close the circumstances that led the young man to crime made Henning want to work more closely with young people, he said, and in 2011 he became a teacher at a Hyde Park charter school. He later returned to the district attorney’s office with a new focus on approaching defendants as people to help rather than criminals to lock up. 

He often goes to jails to visit men he has convicted, he said, to show them that “we are not looking to try and re-incarcerate him; we are looking for him to succeed.” 

McAuliffe spoke of her unconventional career path, which includes 12 years as a defense attorney in Suffolk County, studies at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and a stint as director of Roca, a Chelsea program that seeks to redirect at-risk young men toward education and employment. 

In her work, she said, she has seen that the criminal justice system is flawed at a basic level. 

“What’s happened,” she said, “is we’ve had this traditional approach of the war on drugs being tough on crime, mass incarceration, and really a prosecutor’s office that is invested in winning at all costs.” 

“We have rewarded prosecutors for racking up convictions and pushing up sentences,” she added. “And that’s really the core of the culture that needs to change, because what we know now is that doesn’t actually make us safe. What it does is waste billions of dollars.” 

Carvalho said he came to Dorchester from Cape Verde at 15 not knowing English, attended Madison Park Technical Vocational High School and went on to college at UMass Amherst and law school at Howard University, later working as a Suffolk assistant district attorney. 

He said in Boston the district attorney is “probably the most important public official in our community. I don’t think there is any other office that has a bigger impact on communities of color.” 

Carvalho said his experiences as a Dorchester resident, a member of the Cape Verdean community, and a former prosecutor give him credibility in addressing criminal justice reform. 

“When I talk on these issues, folks listen,” he said, “because they know that I’ve been through it.”

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