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Democratic attorney general candidate Warren Tolman apologized on Wednesday if anyone was offended by his use of the word "unbecoming" to describe his opponent Maura Healey's criticism of his private sector record, as female Healey supporters blasted the comment as "sexist."
Tolman used the word during a Boston Globe Opinion debate Tuesday as Healey criticized him for not being forthcoming about his registration as a federal lobbyist while working as an attorney at Holland & Knight.
The episode conjured memories of a 2002 debate when candidate for governor Mitt Romney drew the ire of prominent women like Teresa Heinz Kerry and Hillary Clinton for describing then-Treasurer Shannon O'Brien's attacks on his abortion position as "unbecoming."
"If anyone listened to the debate or watched the debate they know that was not my intention, but I'm always sorry if something I say offends someone," Tolman told the News Service on Wednesday. "The point I was trying to make is that she continues to make accusations that are just not backed up by the facts and she knows it."
O'Brien, who in May endorsed Tolman for attorney general, called his use of the term a "non-issue."
"In 2002, when Mitt Romney said that, I said it was not a big deal. That it was sort of a distraction. There were a lot of groups, because Mitt Romney had a questionable background supporting women's rights, a number of women's groups saw this as problematic. In Warren's case he has such a solid record of achievement supporting women supporting women's rights that it is completely a non-issue," O'Brien told the News Service.
In the final moments of the debate between the two Democrats, Healey accused Tolman of not being upfront with voters about his lobbying activity. Tolman denies doing any lobbying work despite being registered as a federal lobbyist, which he said was standard practice at his law firm for anyone working on a project regardless of their duties.
"You go down this path. Maura, it's just unbecoming," Tolman said.
While neither Healey nor her campaign reacted to the comment in the moment or immediately after the debate when the candidate and her team chatted with reporters, Healey's campaign blasted out a fundraising appeal Tuesday evening signed by former state representative and Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts CEO Marty Walz.
"Calling a woman 'unbecoming' just because she's asking tough questions is demeaning, sexist, and certainly no way to celebrate Women's Equality Day. I, for one, won't stand for that. I hope you won't either," Walz wrote.
On Wednesday, Healey followed up by reiterating her concerns about Tolman being upfront with voters about his activity as a registered lobbyist as well as his involvement with an online gaming company and a hedge fund.
"While I'm certainly offended Warren Tolman tried to diminish my questions about his lobbying work as 'unbecoming,' I'm even more disturbed that someone would diminish the importance of the office by misleading voters," Healey said in a statement. "This race is a clear choice between someone who has advocated and led as the people's lawyer and someone who, more and more, looks, acts and sounds like just another overbearing Beacon Hill politician."
Asked whether he considered the word unbecoming to be sexist, Tolman said, "I'm always sorry if something I say offends anyone."
O'Brien said it's important to consider the context in which the word is used.
"I don't think on its face it's sexist," she said. "I think you have to look deeper into the person who is making the comment...I think it would be pretty hard to say Warren Tolman has been anything other than a champion for women. I think he was simply trying to deflect what was apparently some pretty pointed criticism during the debate."
While the prominent national fundraising group Emily's List seized on the dust-up, Tolman said he hoped to move past the controversy to focus on issues like gun violence and campus sexual violence against women. The primary between the two Democrats is less than two weeks away, on Sept. 9, and the winner will face Republican John Miller.
"What I hope we can do is that we can focus on the substantive differences of the different visions that Warren Tolman will bring and Maura Healey will bring. At the end of the day, I think that's a healthy comparison," Tolman said.