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Adrian Walker

In Baker-Rollins dispute, a clear call for change

The jaw-dropping dust-up between Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins and Governor Charlie Baker ended with a Saturday morning phone call, initiated by the governor.

Rollins wasn’t happy a top Baker aide ridiculed her plans to overhaul prosecution of some crimes, and the governor wasn’t pleased that she returned fire Friday, which included a pointed reference to the nonprosecution of his son last year after he was removed from a flight and investigated for a potential sexual assault.

But they agreed to put their differences aside, have their staffs meet in the next few days, and turn the page.


“The governor gave me a call, and we had a very productive conversation,” Rollins said Saturday. “I have deep respect for him for being the leader he is, and calling me, and I have nothing further to say about the matter. We had a incredibly productive conversation and now it’s time to get to work.”

Baker also struck a conciliatory tone in comments to reporters Saturday, stating that he agrees that the criminal justice system has flaws.

Their fight began Thursday when Public Safety Secretary Thomas A. Turco III wrote Rollins a letter taking issue with several key points of her office’s new policies for handling nonviolent offenses, outlined in a 65-page memo.

While Turco’s letter paid brief lip service to “broad agreement” that the justice system is a poor venue for addressing social issues, the bulk of it details ways in which Rollins’s new policies would supposedly make citizens unsafe, mainly by reducing pretrial incarceration for drug-possession offenses.

Rollins fired back, suggesting Turco had plenty of issues involving his own state agency on his plate without haranguing her. She also went after Baker directly, invoking his son’s legal issues, and suggesting that A.J. Baker enjoyed advantages most people don’t. “Most moms that are living in Suffolk County don’t have a one-thousand-dollar lawyer to handle a charge when it’s brought against their son or daughter or loved one,” Rollins said.


Anyone who had expected Rollins to back down or defer was officially disabused of that notion.

Certainly, there is room for debate about any district attorney’s policies. But for a governor’s office to publicly question the agenda and priorities of a district attorney is unheard of — for good reason. Beacon Hill doesn’t normally tell prosecutors how to do their jobs, so why her?

Rollins offered an explanation at her press conference Friday.

“As your new DA, and the first woman to ever have this job, it has been very apparent to me that the men that were in this position before me were treated with quite a bit more respect,” she said. “But I didn’t get into this job to make friends, I got into this job to make change.”

This high-profile spat is not how politics is normally performed in Massachusetts. Lawmakers fight behind closed doors, while carefully presenting themselves as colleagues, if not allies, in public. Few dare to say the governor and his family are the beneficiaries of privilege. Pointing out that the old system works only for the people who made it is considered highly impolitic.

Rollins upended all that, and I hope she continues to.

In fact, Rollins’s memo is mostly a distillation of the platform she ran on. Anyone who was shocked by what she actually did wasn’t paying attention. Suffolk County voters elected Rollins by a huge margin — overwhelmingly endorsing a sweeping change in the way crime is prosecuted. That fact deserves a lot more weight than Turco’s memo gave it.


Good for Baker for acting to end the fight (which Rollins was clearly winning). Baker is not some lock-’em-up reactionary when it comes to criminal justice, and I think he and Rollins might well find some common ground if they talk to each other. Emphasis on some.

Regardless, it was refreshing to see their differences play out in such an unguarded, raw, un-Beacon Hill way. As she said, Rachael Rollins isn’t here to make friends. And, clearly, she’s not here to keep quiet, either.

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. E-mail him at adrian.walker@globe.com.