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The DA Identity

Candidates Dave Sullivan and Michael Cahillane strike blows in the first contested Northwest DA's race in decades.

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Thursday, August 26, 2010
Photo By Mark Roessler
DA Candidates Dave Sullivan and Michael Cahillane

Both candidates in the race for Northwest District Attorney came to the Advocate offices in August, Michael Cahillane on Friday, Aug. 6 at 10 a.m. and Dave Sullivan on Thursday, Aug. 19 at 9 a.m.

Both meetings were arranged by staff from the respective campaigns. Local political consultant Matt Barron requested and scheduled the interview on behalf of Cahillane; Mary Carey, a former Daily Hampshire Gazette/Amherst Bulletin reporter, did the same for Sullivan.

Both candidates were accompanied to the meeting by at least one other person from the campaign. Cahillane came flanked by Barron and Jim Spencer, a Boston-based political consultant. Barron and Spencer both identify as progressive Democrats, an idea supported by their respective client lists. Sullivan arrived with Carey, who took an immediate detour upon arriving at the Daily Hampshire Gazette building on Conz Street in Northampton (where the Advocate's offices are located) to visit with a former colleague.

Both candidates arrived for morning meetings looking fresh—crisply attired, tan, fit. Neither appeared hurried, nor inclined to force the interview in any particular direction. Both interviews centered on the respective candidates' criticisms of each other and covered much of the same subject matter, including three high-profile cases that have helped to animate the DA's race so far.

While both candidates remained utterly civil about it, each objected to the way he was being portrayed by the other. Whether or not by design, the lasting impression each candidate left was essentially the same—a mirror image, in fact, of the other's withering attacks. Politeness prevailed; neither applied the offending label to his opponent, but each spoke the epithet that had been aimed at him.

So Michael Cahillane said he wasn't "the incumbent."

And Dave Sullivan said he wasn't "a hack."

*

The prosecutor versus the politician?

Jim Spencer threw his hands in the air. A wiry bantam clad in tight blue jeans, dress shirt sans tie and black loafers, he smiled as he spit out a string of jabs: "Unbelievable. Absolutely incredulous. That's why I got involved [in this race.] Sullivan comes from this wicked bad political machine and he wants to paint Michael as the entrenched incumbent? It's just unbelievable!"

At the outset of the Aug. 6 interview, Michael Cahillane remained silent as his political advisors framed the race between the two Democrats, which will be settled in a Sept. 14 primary (without a Republican challenger in the general election in November). For Matt Barron and Jim Spencer, it all came down to one simple question.

"Both candidates have experience," Barron said. Cahillane had served as an assistant district attorney for a decade, had prosecuted hundreds of criminal cases, required no on the job training. Sullivan, meanwhile, had spent the last 10 years or more building a career as a politician, climbing his way to the quietly influential position of Register of Probate.

"The question is, do you want an experienced prosecutor or an experienced politician?" Spencer said.

Barron said the job of district attorney was too important to leave in the hands of a person more interested in climbing through the political ranks than in championing the cause of criminal justice in the Northwest District, comprising Franklin and Hampshire Counties and the town of Athol. In addition to Cahillane's proven skill as a courtroom litigator who'd successfully prosecuted hundreds of cases, Barron said his candidate understood firsthand the politics of the job.

"The Legislature micromanages the judiciary through the budget," Barron said, adding that Cahillane's nuanced understanding of the DA's office and its budget would allow him to participate in funding battles more effectively than Sullivan, who would be less likely to expend political capital and take on ranking lawmakers because of his long-range ambitions.

Cahillane listened to his advisers make the case, then added a mildly worded criticism of his own: Despite any pretense to the contrary, he said, "Dave Sullivan is not a reformer." To the degree that voters would like to see changes in the Northwest DA's office—changes and improvements that are needed, Cahillane acknowledged—Sullivan's lack of experience and dedication would likely get in the way.

While the word "change" is often bandied about in political races, particularly at times when voters are feeling frustrated with the status quo, the word has specific connotations in this race. Cahillane has spent the last decade working under incumbent DA Elizabeth Scheibel, a Democrat who changed her party affiliation to Republican when she was appointed to the position by former Gov. William Weld in 1993. Scheibel hasn't faced opposition since, and the office itself hasn't been contested since 1982. Until recent years, Scheibel seemed to have a lock on the office, showing little vulnerability to a potential challenge.

Then came the so-called "pottygate" affair in 2008, a controversy involving Juvenile Court Clerk Christopher Reavey and his allegedly unauthorized use of a key to the bathroom in Scheibel's office suite. The DA convened a grand jury to investigate Reavey, beginning a long and politically charged process that eventually led Scheibel to issue subpoenas to, among others, the chief justice of the state trial courts, Robert A. Mulligan, and a reporter for the Boston Globe. Despite her insistence that the case was other than a mere internal feud over turf, Scheibel and her office ultimately came under fierce criticism from Judge John Agostini, who ruled against the various subpoenas and labeled Scheibel's probe "dubious."

Had the Reavey case been the only controversy in the DA's office, Scheibel might have been spared further embarrassment. But at least two other cases kept her office in the news.

The 2008 arrest and subsequent prosecution of a black UMass student named Jason Vassell put Scheibel and her team on the wrong side of hundreds of Vassell's supporters, who argued that the accused student had been defending himself against two white men, both with prior records, who shouted racial slurs as they attacked him in the lobby of his dormitory. After nearly two years in which the prosecution was repeatedly decried as racially biased, following a judge's ruling that the DA must turn over evidence sought by Vassell's defense team to prove a pattern of racially influenced prosecution, the DA ultimately dropped the charges—a move some critics saw as a way to avoid turning over earlier case files.

Scheibel also raised eyebrows in her handling of a high-profile bullying case in South Hadley. Amid nationwide publicity that followed the suicide death of Phoebe Prince, a 15-year-old high school student who was allegedly tormented for months by classmates, the DA sought and obtained a grand jury indictment against five students on civil rights violations. She also leveled vaguely worded criticism at South Hadley school officials, whose inaction, she said, was "troublesome." Scheibel has since come under criticism from those who view the charges against Prince's alleged tormentors as excessive and unlikely to prevail.

For Cahillane, the various controversies surrounding his former boss have nothing to do with his own qualifications for the job.

"My role [in the DA's office] was purely apolitical," Cahillane said. He declined to comment specifically on any of the three cases. Pressed for his opinion of Scheibel's handling of the Prince case, Cahillane said, "My opinion of her handling of the Phoebe Prince case isn't important. What's important is what we do going forward." Cahillane went on to outline his desire to enhance the tools local law enforcement has for combating cyber-bullying.

Though Cahillane declined to comment on his role in the Vassell case, specifically his decision to petition the court to hold Vassell without bail, he expressed his faith in the process: it was a grand jury, not the prosecutors, who ultimately decided to indict Vassell.

Cahillane also said that, despite the controversy surrounding the Vassell case, "we have an important opportunity going forward to reach out to Justice for Jason [the group supporting Vassell], to talk about how we address real or perceived injustice based on race."

Of all the issues that have come up during this race, one seemed to bother Cahillane more than any other: his decision to sign a petition in 2005 that would have put gay marriage to a vote by public referendum. Cahillane, who said he signed the petition "in the spirit of democracy," and not because he opposes gay marriage, called the ensuing flap "one of the most painful things I've been a part of. It's absolutely not the case that I'm against gay marriage." (Cahillane has since publicly apologized for signing the petition.)

For Cahillane, making his experience as a prosecutor come alive for voters has been difficult, particularly given his decision to decline comment on specific high-profile cases. The job, he said, isn't just about a few controversial cases, but about thousands of cases, thousands of victims, thousands of decisions—many of them made "at 2 a.m., when the phone rings in the middle of the night."

Cahillane described himself as a "compassionate and intelligent prosecutor," adding that he has continued to demonstrate his integrity by the way he's running his race. When he decided to run for office, he left his job as assistant DA. "That means no paycheck," he said. His opponent, meanwhile, continues to collect his salary as Register of Probate while campaigning for another office.

"Unlike my opponent, I do not see this job as a stepping stone," Cahillane said. "This is the only job I want to do."

*

The reformer versus the incumbent?

Dave Sullivan began his Aug. 19 interview on the offensive, while Carey, his spokesperson, quietly took notes.

His opponent, Sullivan said, may not be the incumbent officeholder, but Michael Cahillane surely represents "a continuation of the legacy of the office." Cahillane, Sullivan said, "was raised and reared in the DA's office. If we want to see changes, it's not coming from Mike Cahillane."

The job of DA, Sullivan said, "goes far beyond being a trial lawyer." The job requires an expert administrator and communicator, one who can "reach out to people in the 47 communities that make up the district." In the end, he said, a "DA has to have the maturity to act as a gatekeeper," focusing the office's resources wisely.

That Cahillane was "only a subordinate in the DA's office," Sullivan said, doesn't free him from criticism. If he disagreed with the decisions made by Scheibel or others, he had an obligation to make his feelings known. "In a great office, every prosecutor should be able to walk in and discuss the merits of a case," Sullivan said. "One of the reasons I'm running is to open the office up, to make it more transparent and accountable. It's important that this office be a public office."

While Sullivan declined to comment on the Prince case due to ongoing litigation, he pointed to both the Reavey case and the Vassell case as examples of the questionable use of the DA's discretion.

"The [Reavey] case is still a mystery," he said, "leaving the public with a long, expensive investigation and more questions than answers. From my point of view, the case shows that this office needs to start to focus on serious crime."

The Vassell case was similarly long and expensive, Sullivan said. "It appears they reached a reasonable disposition of the case" when prosecutors dropped the charges against Vassell, "but it took two and a half years. Clearly, there was a lack of judgment and discretion." Sullivan noted that Cahillane had been initially involved in the case, but later bowed out. "I think it's important for prosecutors to handle cases from beginning to end. [Cahillane] made the decision to hold Vassell as dangerous at the bail hearing, then he just dropped out of the case." While he stopped short of saying the case was racially biased, Sullivan said he would establish a civil rights committee "that will be very active and make sure that everyone in the community is well-represented. If there's any taint or lingering questions [about the Vassell case], the committee would pursue it."

Sullivan said that Cahillane, despite his courtroom experience, lacked other kinds of experience the job requires: "The actual role of the modern DA is to be a leader and a manager and administrator." Scheibel, he noted, has tried very few cases during her long tenure.

That said, Sullivan insisted that he has plenty enough trial experience to be qualified for DA. "I've got extensive trial experience. I know my way around a courtroom and I've worked with a lot of DAs. I'm supported by 40 former prosecutors, by people who know the system best."

Sullivan also rejected the suggestion that he was a big machine politician seeking another notch in his belt. "It is true that I bring political skills to this race," Sullivan said. But as a "progressive Democrat," Sullivan said, he'd spent his career "putting people first." His political skills would come in handy, he said, in reforming the DA's office, scrapping with the Legislature over budgets and, perhaps most important, weighing in on public policy that impacts law enforcement and criminal justice.

"When people want to size me up, they have to see where my heart has been," Sullivan said. "My heart is and always has been in public service."

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