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Stark Contrast Shows in First AG Debate

October 4, 2018

Attorney General Maura Healey and Republican challenger Jay McMahon faced off Wednesday at a WGBH-TV debate. [Photo: Courtesy/Sam Brewer/WGBH News] Sun staff photos can be ordered by visiting our SmugMug site.

By Matt Murphy

STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

BOSTON -- Attorney General Maura Healey and Cape Cod attorney Jay McMahon tussled in a nearly half-hour debate Wednesday during which McMahon, a conservative Republican, challenged Healey for being “soft on crime” while the incumbent Democrat called attention to her record of suing President Donald Trump and fighting big drug companies.

The two attorneys who have spent careers working at opposite sides of the courthouse also disagreed over whether the system is always fair to minority defendants, with McMahon saying he has never seen an example of discrimination in 30 years of practicing law as a defense attorney.

Healey would not go as far as U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren in calling the criminal justice system racist, but said there were documented disparities that must be addressed.

The televised debate on WGBH’s Greater Boston marked the first time the two candidates had met in person, and was also the first of at least two head-to-head debates scheduled to take place before the November election.

Healey, who many Democrats had hoped would run for governor this cycle, is seeking a second term as attorney general this fall after four years as the state’s top prosecutor during which time she has gained notoriety nationally as a thorn in the side of the White House.

McMahon, meanwhile, is a former cop and long-time defense attorney from Bourne who embraces Trump and disagrees with the incumbent Democrat on everything from from the president’s proposed travel ban to the elimination of mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenders.

“I do know that Attorney Healey is soft on crime,” McMahon said. “I mean she has actually been on record as saying the Massachusetts sentencing guidelines are too harsh. I say they’re not harsh enough.”

McMahon, who lost a son to the opioid epidemic, said that as the state’s top prosecutor he would work to drive “drug purveyors” out of state. “Let them go to another state where the laws are more lenient. We’re fighting a war here,” McMahon said.

Healey defended her record of working with lawmakers on Beacon Hill and Gov. Charlie Baker to fight the opioid epidemic, citing a fentanyl “strike force” in her office set up to go after the cartels, her lawsuit against Purdue Pharmaceuticals and her efforts to bring opioid education into the public schools.

“We need to stop addiction before it sets in,” Healey said.

The debate featured 25 minutes of rapid-fire questioning from moderators Jim Braude and Margery Eagan that put Healey and McMahon on the record on a lot of topics, but didn’t necessarily allow for much back-and-forth exchange.

One exception was Eagan’s question about Warren’s description of the criminal justice system as “racist....front to back.”

“I don’t know that I’d characterize it that way,” Healey said. “What I would acknowledge is the real disparities that exist within the criminal justice system along racial lines, but also along socio-economic lines and I think that we’ve got to work to improve the fairness of the criminal justice system and to make sure that it is working effectively.”

McMahon could not have disagreed more thoroughly.

“I have not seen any examples of racism and I’ve represented hundreds of minorities” McMahon said, adding, “There is no racism in the law enforcement system...”

And the difference of opinion didn’t stop there.

McMahon said he wanted to “wait and see” the results of the FBI investigation before deciding on the merits of Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court, while Healey said Kavanaugh should “absolutely not” be confirmed, and said the hearings last week confirmed that he lacked the “judicial temperament” to serve on the Supreme Court.

McMahon supported President Trump’s proposed restrictions on immigrants from certain countries coming to the United States, while Healey sued over it.

The Republican also said he supported off-shore drilling and opposed the Legislature’s actions to pass a “red flag” gun law and to ban bump stocks after the Las Vegas mass shooting, and would vote to repeal the transgender public accommodations law that is on the ballot in November.

“I’m going to vote no to repeal the law because it doesn’t go far enough. It doesn’t protect women from sexual predators,” McMahon said about the law that allows transgender individuals to use public facilities that match their gender identity.

Healey called that a “gross mischaracterization” of the law, and said there has been “no evidence anywhere” of someone using a similar protection to commit a crime.

Asked whether Massachusetts should become a “sanctuary state,” Healey said, “That’s not my call. I’m the attorney general. My job is to enforce the law.”

McMahon, however, charged Healey with failing to follow her own job description, accusing the attorney general of “making her own law” by reinterpreting an assault weapons ban to take previously legal weapons out of the hands of lawful gun owners.

Healey defended her record of stepping up enforcement the state’s assault weapons ban after the Orlando nightclub shooting, arguing that thousands of guns once being sold in violation of state law are no longer being sold.

“I think it’s probably pretty clear I’m not the NRA’s favorite candidate in this race,” she said.

McMahon did say that despite being personally opposed to the state’s assault weapons ban, he would enforce it, as he would enforce other laws he doesn’t necessarily agree with. He similarly called abortion and gay marriage settled legal issues.

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