The Soft And Rough Sides of Mike Sullivan, Republican Candidate For U.S. Senate06:20

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"Hi, I'm Mike Sullivan, I'm running for United States Senate," Mike Sullivan says, extending a free hand towards a startled man on Main Street in Brockton. "How are you? Nice meeting you," Sullivan continued in his trademark jovial manner. The man glances up, his eyes mostly hidden under the bill of a Boston Bruins baseball cap. "I’m a big Bruins fan too, if that helps," Sullivan said, handing the man a slick campaign brochure. Sullivan gets a wave and a brief response, "Good luck."

Sullivan pauses, looking down a largely deserted sidewalk for more potential voters. Sullivan says he can remember when Main Street was a busy two-way street. "When I first met Terry, Terry’s from Brockton, we used to cruise up and down Main Street."

Republican U.S. Senate candidate Michael Sullivan. (AP)
Republican U.S. Senate candidate Michael Sullivan. (AP)

Terry is Sullivan’s wife of 37 years. Sullivan, now 58, is a husband and father of four. His own mom raised seven children while waitressing and catering on weekends. His dad was a telephone lineman. Sullivan attended Boston College High School and, while working at Gillette, went on to Boston College and Suffolk Law School. He began his public service career as a state representative and went on to become the Plymouth County district attorney, U.S. attorney and, for a brief period, Sullivan ran the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Sullivan’s known as the law enforcement guy, especially in Brockton, where he was based as a DA.

Today, many of the stores Sullivan walks by in Brockton are closed. But John Merian, of Tuxedo’s by Merian, tells Sullivan Brockton has new energy. Merian points to a restaurant and a hair salon that opened recently.

"And that’s what creates [the energy]," Merian said. "I come up here, get my hair cut, it’s beautiful! Our community is ready to burst open, Mike."

Yes, says Sullivan, but "the economy hasn’t helped communities like Brockton over the last several years." Sullivan launches into a critique of federal tax policies and regulations that he says are squeezing the life out of small business. "You know, this is where I think government can best serve by listening as opposed to dictating," Sullivan concluded.

Listening is one of Sullivan's strengths, he says. He points to his role in the late 1990s, when he was Plymouth County district attorney and looking for ways to make Brockton as safe for kids as was his own town, Abington. Sullivan reached out to the mayor’s office in Brockton, the school district, the local YMCA, the Boys and Girls Club and "working with business people, we opened up summer playgrounds to make sure kids had organized activities, to help kids make the right choices in life."

Sullivan says his work in Brockton is also an example of how he focuses on issues, not political parties. The mayor Sullivan called was a Democrat. The mayor’s then-chief of staff, Mary Waldron, says Brockton’s crime rate dropped after Sullivan found money to create new programs for kids, "so they got fed, because many of them, when there was no school, they had no place else to go. So he really did bring together different businesses, as well as social service agencies and youth agencies to all be on the same team," Waldron added.

Some of the people Sullivan impressed in Brockton don’t know what to make of the reputation Sullivan earned in his next job as U.S. attorney. Sullivan became known as "Maximum Mike," not for putting shoe bomber Richard Reid in prison for life, which he did, nor for seeking the death penalty for convicted murderer Gary Sampson, which he did, but for all the minor offenses for which defense attorneys say he sought lengthy sentences.

"He was dogmatic, doctrinaire, way too tough and inflexible," said Robert Sheketoff, a longtime criminal defense lawyer in Boston.

Sheketoff mentions one former client charged with a minor role in a drug deal. He says the prosecutor from Sullivan’s staff suggested a lesser sentence for Sheketoff's client.

"But Mike Sullivan wouldn’t let him do it," wouldn't agree to waive a prior conviction, Sheketoff said. "The judge went ballistic at the sentencing hearing and blasted the assistant U.S. attorney."

But the judge, based on the prosecution’s recommendation, had little leeway and gave Sheketoff’s client 20 years. Sheketoff says about a year later, the prosecutor persuaded Sullivan to ask for revision and the sentence was reduced to 10 years.

In a separate case, federal Judge William Young wrote that Sullivan’s approach to prosecution “reveals such callous indifference to innocent human life as would gag any fair minded observer.” In this case, Sullivan's prosecutor was offering a woman who agreed to cooperate in a drug case a lesser sentence, but still planned to have the woman, an illegal immigrant, deported, even though she faced torture and possible death.

Gerry Leone, a Democrat who was Sullivan’s first assistant, defends his former boss. Leone says Sullivan followed the direction from the Bush administration when it came to sentencing.

"But I never knew Mike to be inflexible or anything but open minded," Leone added. "On a personal level, I came to know Mike Sullivan as a hard working, humble guy."

And that’s the character Sullivan hopes will resonate with voters who don’t agree with his conservative positions. Sullivan’s opposed to abortion and gay marriage, but said recently that he does not support the federal ban on gay marriage. On the campaign trail, Sullivan focuses on the federal deficit and the unfair burden he worries we are leaving for the next generation. With social or fiscal issues, Sullivan says voters don’t expect to agree with him on everything, but they want to know that they can trust his judgment.

"My practice is to be completely forthright and honest with people," Sullivan said. "To say to people in private the same things I say publicly, and not to have two messages depending on the audience. And I think that’s what people are looking for, too, so that they can trust [the candidate] in terms of whether they’re really going to do what they’ve shared that they’ll attempt to do as a United States senator."

Voters will decide whether to give Sullivan that chance on April 30, when he faces Cohasset businessman Gabriel Gomez and state Rep. Daniel Winslow in the Republican primary.

This program aired on April 22, 2013.

Martha Bebinger Twitter Reporter
Martha Bebinger covers health care and other general assignments for WBUR.