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Mass. AG candidates battle over fundraising in Democratic primary03:27
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Candidates for Attorney General (L-R) Andrea Campbell, Quentin Palfrey and Shannon Liss-Riordan. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Candidates for Attorney General (L-R) Andrea Campbell, Quentin Palfrey and Shannon Liss-Riordan. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Editor's Note: After this story published, Quentin Palfrey announced he would withdraw from the race. His name will still appear on ballots. He endorsed his former rival Andrea Campbell.


The three Democrats running for attorney general in Massachusetts are all taking shots at each other. But instead of debating public policy, they're fighting over something more basic: Money. Specifically,  how they're funding their campaigns.

When Quentin Palfrey decided to run for the state's top law enforcement job, he said he wanted to avoid any conflicts created by donors.

That’s why the government lawyer says he chose to receive public money for his campaign. The state will match small donations up to a total of $250,000 in exchange for following certain limits on fundraising.

"It's really important to have an attorney general candidate who is funded in a way that's above reproach," Palfrey said.

But Palfrey is the only candidate to opt for state funding. And without clear ideological differences between the three Democrats, the issue of campaign funding has become a defining feature of the race.

Andrea Campbell lashed out at opponents at WBUR’s attorney general debate, taking aim at both Palfrey and Shannon Liss-Riordan, a wealthy attorney financing her own campaign.

"Quentin is receiving taxpayers' state money to fund his campaign," she said. "Shannon put in $3 million — she will probably put up to $12 million trying to buy this election."

Campbell, meanwhile, counters that she's accountable to the people of Massachusetts. But her opponents have teamed up to attack her over the source of money that fueled her unsuccessful run for mayor of Boston.

An independent political action committee that supported Campbell, known as Better Boston, raised over $1 million dollars, including contributions from the CEO of Netflix, a former managing director of Bain Capital and an heir to the Walmart fortune.

"Andrea's donor list is a who's who of lobbyists for fossil fuel industries, the Koch brothers," Liss-Riordan said. "I will not be beholden to wealthy donors and special interests."

Liss-Riordan is an employment attorney who has made millions defending workers in high profile cases, including against Uber. Rivals have slammed her for taking too large a share of settlements, but she says she's collected hundreds of millions for workers who otherwise couldn’t afford legal representation.

"It's a right wing Republican attack on trial lawyers — to criticize lawyers who represent working people on contingency," Liss-Riordan told WBUR. "I'm just very surprised to see it come up in a Democratic primary."

Both Liss-Riordan and Palfrey have signed the so-called People's Pledge to curb outside spending on their campaigns.

Campbell says she's proud of the support she's received from outside groups, including the Environmental League of Massachusetts PAC. And Campbell thinks the complaints about Super PACs are designed to distract voters from the issues that matter most.

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"As I crisscross the state, residents are asking about health care, gun violence, the Supreme Court, wage theft, economic prosperity, mental health and so many other important issues," Campbell told WBUR.

Joanna Zdanys, a lawyer at the Brennan Center for Justice in Washington, D.C. who focuses on money in politics, says donations can often be a controversial issue in elections.

"Candidates who get big donations from special interests, or who are supported by a great deal of outside money, run the risk of having voters question whether they'll be swayed by that money," Zdanys said.

The attorney general’s seat opened up after Maura Healey announced her campaign for governor last winter. The winner of the Democratic primary will take on Republican Jay McMahon in the general election in November.

A recent MassINC poll finds Liss-Riordan and Campbell in a dead heat in the Democratic primary, with Palfrey trailing them by double digits. And yet nearly a third of voters are undecided, according to the poll.

On primary day next week, the voters will get to determine what matters most in selecting the next attorney general.

This article was originally published on August 30, 2022.

This segment aired on August 30, 2022.

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Simón Ríos is an award-winning bilingual reporter in WBUR's newsroom.

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