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Hall challenges GOP DA in Plymouth County

Saraya Wintersmith, GBH News
Hall challenges GOP DA in Plymouth County

Voters across Plymouth County will decide Nov. 8 whether to keep Massachusetts’ only Republican district attorney or elect a Democratic reformer to replace him.

The matchup pits District Attorney Timothy Cruz, who has held the office since 2001, against progressive Rahsaan Hall, who built a name and network working in Boston, most recently as director of the ACLU of Massachusetts’ racial justice program. In one of Massachusetts’ more conservative counties, the national conversation on progressive prosecutors is permeating the local election.

The Plymouth County District Attorney prosecutes crimes in the 27 communities across the South Shore. The office, financed by the state, commands a budget of slightly more than $11 million.

Although the race is one of few in the state in which a Republican boasts the advantage of incumbency, Hall said he is hoping to catch the wave of voters who identified with calls for racial equity and criminal justice reform amid the civil unrest of 2020 that followed the police murder of George Floyd.

“Even though there is a long history of racial tension and injustice in the criminal legal system, 2020 opened a lot more people’s eyes about the need for change in the criminal legal system,” he said during a recent interview from his Brockton campaign office. That, he said, combined with the influx of new residents into the county — particularly people of color — bodes well for his campaign.

Hall pointed out the gap between the 40,000 votes he received in the Democratic primary and the 28,000 votes Cruz garnered in the Republican primary. He called it a sign that Democrats are energized, and that this election cycle could play out differently than in years past.

Despite the gap in turnout, Cruz said he’s treating his sixth reelection bid with the standard operating procedure of past campaigns.

Since his appointment by former acting Gov. Jane Swift, Cruz has withstood three challengers, winning each contest handily.

“That’s part of the job, it’s a political seat,” Cruz said during a recent interview in his Abington campaign office. “I expect to have challengers and I’m a Republican in Massachusetts, so therefore, I have more challengers than most.”

But Cruz’s position as a Republican in a blue state has not alienated him in Plymouth County, where former President Donald Trump earned 40% of the vote in the 2020 presidential election. Bristol, to the west of Plymouth, is the only Massachusetts county where Trump earned a slightly larger slice of votes, with 43%.

Brian Frederick, chair of political science at Bridgewater State University, said that may be why Hall refrained from invoking Trump during their first debate this month.

“It’s not like the former president is going to be that heavily invested in the Plymouth DA race,” Frederick said. “So, [Hall] might have just felt like it wasn’t going to generate much of a political benefit.”

But a couple of other high-profile backers have made their opinions known in the race. Hall received a pair of endorsements, one from singer-song writer John Legend and the other from Massachusetts U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley, whose district borders the northern tip of Plymouth County.

Cruz, who has the support of dozens of public safety organizations and elected officials, dismissed Hall’s celebrity support as the kind that doesn’t win elections.

“I look at my endorsements,” Cruz said. “Those are the people that they’re here, working in the county.”

National themes are looming over the race from beyond the county’s borders, even if the former president isn’t.

Cruz broadly criticized the nationwide rise of progressive prosecutors as “failing all around the country” in their first debate.

At the same time, the DA also expressed support for a state prison construction moratorium pending before the Legislature, and agreed with the idea that police officers are frequently called upon to deal with mental health-related issues with they are ill-equipped to handle. Cruz said he supports more officer training and paying for mental health workers to ride along on police cars as long as financing permits.

In a recent ad, Cruz also touts a combination of lowered crime and lowered incarceration statistics as evidence that Plymouth County is safer and he has successfully curbed crime.

Frederick said those points are evidence of the national movement towards less punitive criminal justice approaches seeping into the local landscape. It forces Cruz to strike more of a balance between being tough on crime, but open to reform, he said.

“I think Cruz recognizes that he’s running in an area where there are members of his community that want to see alternative approaches to solving the crime problem,” Frederick said. “And while his orientation might be approaching it from a strict prosecutorial standpoint, he at least has to listen and be somewhat open to some of the ideas that are gaining traction in more liberal circles.

“I think that’s why he’s perhaps voicing some of the sentiments he may not have in the past,” Frederick added.

“I see myself as fair on crime,” Cruz said when asked about his public safety messaging. “I have a responsibility to everybody in our county and I think that if somebody broke into your home, if somebody hurt you, or hurt your family, you would want them to be held accountable for their actions.”

The DA points to his office’s early support of diversion strategies, creating the Handle With Care child trauma intervention program and the partnership with Brockton Area Multi-Services Inc., a nonprofit that the DA’s office informally refers clients to for various social services.

Meanwhile, challenger Hall has presented himself as better suited to adopt a less punitive approach to the office.

During their first debate, Hall linked his progressive advocacy to Cruz’s lowered crime and incarceration statistics.

“For all of the things that my opponent has claimed are driving crime down, they are a result of some of the progressive policies that I’ve advocated for,” Hall said, pointing to the Criminal Law Reform Bill of 2018 and the police reform bill of 2020.

Hall was part of the lobby for the state’s 2020 police reform bill, which created a commission to certify and decertify law enforcement officers, made it easier for decertified officers to be sued for civil rights violations and outlawed racial profiling by law enforcement agencies.

Hall also testified and lobbied for the 2018 bill, which eliminated mandatory minimum sentences for some low-level, non-violent drug offenses. It also required DAs to create pre-arraignment diversion programs they can use to prevent the creation of official criminal records for veterans, active members of the military or people with substance use disorder or mental illness.

Hall, who served as an assistant district attorney in neighboring Suffolk County for eight years, has criticized the sitting DA on topics like transparency.

At a recent event in Marion, Hall pointed to the ACLU’s lawsuit against Cruz’s office over a public records request. As the organization sought a trove of documents representing five years’ worth of data on how the Plymouth County DA’s office does things like request bail, weigh immigration statuses and assess police misconduct, Cruz’s office failed to respond and claimed furnishing the data would cost $1.2 million.

“That’s just not reasonable,” Hall said to the crowd, pledging to foster clearer policies and a more transparent office if elected.

Other reforms Hall has campaigned on include broadening the office’s existing conviction integrity unit and increasing training for assistant district attorneys.

In addition to differing political stances, the two candidates differ in their fundraising and campaign spending.

This year is the first time Cruz is being bolstered by a super PAC, an organization that can legally raise unlimited amounts of money but cannot work with a candidate. This month, the Mass Majority IEP shelled out $12,600 worth of digital advertising on Cruz’s behalf, according to records from the state’s campaign finance oversight agency.

Additionally, in the six months between April and September, Hall outraised Cruz taking in nearly $40,000 more than the incumbent — about $140,000 to $100,000 — according to a GBH News review of state campaign finance data.

The gap in fundraising, Frederick said, could be a sign that Cruz’s camp may be more wary than it has been when facing past challenges.

“Maybe they’re just getting a general sense that because [Democratic candidate for governor Maura] Healey is strong at the top of the ballot, that that could have negative coattails for Republican candidates,” he said. “Or maybe there is a concern that in some of these other races nationwide, you’ve had outside groups get involved and support more progressive prosecutors.”

Still, if cash on hand is any indication, Cruz remains well-positioned to fend off the challenge. At last check, the DA had $86,000 in the bank. Hall had a little under $5,000 — less than 10% of his opponent’s war chest.

Both candidates are gearing up for their second and final debate in Fairhaven on Halloween, hosted by WBSM.

Saraya Wintersmith covers Boston City Hall for GBH News.

Plymouth County District Attorney