BOSTON — Primary day is a little more than a month away, and while the gubernatorial election may be getting most of the attention, there’s actually a more competitive battle further down the ballot that’s bringing out Democratic devotees and dollars: the race for attorney general.
When Maura Healey, a rookie politician running for the post, took the stage at the Democratic convention in June, the weary crowd went wild. The applause that echoed around the arena sounded louder for her than it did for many of the governor’s candidates.
But another candidate, former state Sen. Warren Tolman, brought out the party loyalists. He’s run for statewide office twice before, and people expected him to win. He scraped by, capturing the convention endorsement by 161 votes.
“It’s gonna be a race, and we knew that coming in,” Tolman said. “And that’s what it’s all about. It’s about my message of leadership versus my opponent’s.”
Tolman’s focus on leadership hints at the fact that these two candidates don’t disagree much when it come to policy. They’re both liberal Democrats with long resumes who speak up about the need to combat gun violence and sexual assault.
But the candidates differ in their base of support. Healey is openly gay, and she has gathered a fanbase among women and the LGBT community. She’s an upstart who’s worked in the attorney general’s office for years. Tolman, on the other hand, is a veteran politician with endorsements from labor unions and many men who previously held this office.
At a recent senior lunch in Cambridge, Tolman worked the crowd, handing out fliers, joking about his bald head and comfortably switching to fragmented Spanish or French. To some in the crowd, Tolman had the air of an important man. A group of Chinese immigrants who didn’t speak English jumped up to take photos with him. But others clearly knew him, remembering when Tolman was in the State House.
“God bless you…for everything you’ve done and everything I know you will do,” Patricia Casola said as she gave Tolman a hug. She said she plans to vote for him this September and is urging her friends to do the same. Casola doesn’t know much about Maura Healey but said she trusts Tolman; years ago, they worked on affordable housing issues together.
“I know Warren from a long time ago, and I know he’s a man of integrity,” she said.
Tolman told voters he stood up for tough issues before they were popular, fighting big tobacco and pushing for HIV/AIDS curriculum in schools. These days, his focus is smart gun technology that would prevent a gun from operating if someone other than the owner tried to shoot it.
“This is about making our communities safer,” he said. “That’s a real substantive difference that the attorney general of Massachusetts can unilaterally implement on day one.”
Across the lawn, a couple of college-age volunteers passed out pamphlets for Healey. One of them, 22-year-old and fresh Harvard grad Rodrigo Plaza, said he’d almost gone with Tolman.
“I actually got asked to work for Warren Tolman first,” Plaza said. “I was going to the interview and the night before I was reading about both of the candidates, and I realized that I would vote for Maura Healey.”
Plaza said he still went to the Tolman interview, but the next day called up Healey’s staff and asked to volunteer. He liked her because she seemed authentic; her personal narrative — being female; being openly gay — and her experience persuaded him.
“It seemed to me like she had a lot of experience that Warren Tolman didn’t have in the office itself and that she was doing it for the right reasons,” Plaza said. “She’s very passionate about these issues — like she’s very much doing this because she thinks she can make a difference. It’s very refreshing for me.”
Healey supporters often mention that “passion gap” as the reason they believe in her, and she’s been building on that grassroots support — in living rooms, in coffee shops and even on the basketball court.
Healey used to play professional basketball in Europe — a 5-foot-4 point guard — and throughout her campaign, she’s tried to find ways to play ball and connect with people.
Healey recently joined a group of kids in Boston’s Franklin Park. They’re in a summer program run by Mothers for Justice and Equality.
“I just wanted to come both to support but also to talk to these kids and hear from them directly about what life is like for them,” Healey said. “It’ll definitely help me be a better attorney general.”
Healey and Tolman both talk a lot about gun violence, but Tolman tries to set himself apart by emphasizing his leadership.
Healey insists that experience is key. She oversaw two bureaus in the AG’s office.
“It matters that you have an attorney general…who was there to stand up and sue the federal government and win and beat the Defense of Marriage Act,” she said. “I understand firsthand the power and possibility of that office.”
That message is energizing Democrats, especially women like Marianne Gries, who first heard about Healey through friends.
“I had heard about her from one person,” Gries said, “and then it seemed as time went on a lot more people that I like and respected had said, ‘Oh, hey, have you heard about Maura Healey? You should learn more about her.’ ”
So, Gries said, she did learn more about Healey and was sold. Healey is focusing on the power of those word-of-mouth referrals. Political analysts say she’s taking a cue from another political neophyte, emulating Deval Patrick’s 2006 campaign, when he courted activists and won.
Tolman and Healey face off Sept. 9. The winner will challenge Republican John Miller in the general election.