The two Democrats in the primary agreed Monday that the job they are seeking is secretary of state and not Burger King, but that did not stop them from accusing the other of trying to have things their way.
Tanisha Sullivan, an attorney and life sciences executive who serves as president of the Boston branch of the NAACP, is running to unseat incumbent William Galvin, who has been in office since 1995. A statewide post, the secretary of state’s office oversees a broad suite of functions, ranging from elections and voting to corporations and securities, public records, lobbyists, the decennial census, and historical commission and state archives.
Much of Sullivan’s campaign, and much of Monday’s debate hosted by WBUR, the Boston Globe and WCVB-TV, has focused on the role of the secretary of state and whether the longtime incumbent is the right person to lead the office at a time when so many of its functions — elections administration, voter registration and more — have taken on new weight in the wake of Donald Trump’s presidency and the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection.
“This office must be more proactive and engaged in really addressing the issues that matter most to the residents of Massachusetts today,” Sullivan said. “This office can and should be on the front lines in our abortion fight. The fact of the matter is this office could be doing more to help protect the privacy of women and health care providers on the front lines when it comes to accessing an abortion. This office could be doing more through the Corporations Division to hold our companies accountable for ensuring that they are providing real access to reproductive care for their workers.”
Galvin argued that he has delivered on his promises from his 2018 reelection to oversee a fair count of Massachusetts residents through the 2020 Census, to ensure that the 2020 presidential election here was conducted securely and to protect voting rights, and said that he will use his seniority and experience to promote the party’s values and policies around voting rights at the national level if he is elected once again.
“I have been a champion of voters rights, not just here in Massachusetts, but throughout the country. We have the best record in the country when it comes to expanding voting rights. We had record turnouts in 2020. At this hour, too, I am literally putting democracy in the hands of tens of thousands of Massachusetts voters with a vote-by-mail program that many of them have chosen to use. I have conducted elections honestly and accurately. The New York Times described my administration of elections as a model for the nation. We are second to none when it comes to that. And in the area of securities regulation, once again, we are a model for the nation,” Galvin said.
Signs of tension between the candidates were quick to emerge in Monday’s debate. Less than five minutes in, Sullivan said that Galvin is “anti-abortion” when she was asked how the secretary of state’s office could play a role when it comes to reproductive rights. Galvin shot back that he believes that “ultimately, an abortion is a personal decision of the woman” and pointed to the reproductive rights law just passed and signed as proof that he can be trusted to defend a woman’s right to choose. He said the bill gave “my office the authority to protect the privacy of abortion providers and others.”
“Those that drafted that bill, many of whom are supporting me, who have been very strong in the pro-choice movement, have confidence in me,” he said. “They trust me, and they know why.”
A few moments later, moderator Tiziana Dearing suggested as part of a question that Sullivan had previously “praised Secretary Galvin for his performance at times in the past.” Sullivan wanted to correct that right off the bat.
“I have not praised Secretary Galvin for his performance,” she said. “What I have acknowledged is his service.”
Then, as part of a back-and-forth over Galvin’s implementation of automatic voter registration and a related lawsuit that the NAACP filed against him, the secretary accused Sullivan of giving listeners “a total misrepresentation of the facts” and said that it “just shows my opponent’s ignorance of the office and the laws around it.”
“See, you like democracy your way, but this is not Burger King,” Sullivan responded. “This is the American democracy and that is why we need a new secretary of state.”
Galvin turned the old hamburger joint slogan around and told his opponent, “It’s definitely not Burger King. You can’t choose your facts, and that’s what you’re doing.”
After Galvin again suggested that Sullivan had a “misunderstanding of the role” of secretary of state, she responded directly.
“I want to make it clear, I am not ignorant and I am not misinformed. I am highly credentialed, a BA, a JD, MBA, I am highly experienced. Twenty years of legal practice, I am highly experienced. A civil rights leader who has driven impact in this city, across the commonwealth and in this nation. I am more qualified and credentialed today than the day you walked into that office,” Sullivan said. “I am not ignorant and I am not misinformed. What I am is centered in our communities. What I am is centered on the issues that matter most to everyday people. We have to do something to increase voter participation and sitting behind a desk at One Ashburton Place is not going to get us where we need to be.”
Galvin countered that he is far more active than simply sitting behind a desk (which is in the State House rather than the Ashburton office building across the street) and called the suggestion that he had no credentials when he was first elected “completely untrue.”
“I tried cases to the Supreme Judicial Court on election laws for many years. I’ve actually worked elections for many, many decades. I don’t believe my opponent has any of that experience,” he said.
Though the debate between Galvin and Sullivan got tense at points, the two also answered a series of lighthearted questions about their personalities. Both like to (and plan this year to) vote in person, both said their phone was an item they could not live without and both said they prefer to drink hot coffee.
Sullivan said her favorite food is fruit salad while Galvin said he likes “almost anything” Italian. When it’s time for a vacation, look for Galvin on Cape Cod but Sullivan said she likes to take a drive out to the Berkshires. If it’s TV time, Sullivan said she likes crime dramas like Law & Order while Galvin said he is partial to the BBC programs that air on GBH.
Asked to name one person from Massachusetts, dead or alive, whom they would like to sit down for a drink with, Sullivan named civil rights leader Ruth Batson from Roxbury and Galvin pointed to Calvin Coolidge, the former Massachusetts governor and president. “We probably wouldn’t agree on anything,” Galvin said.
The Democratic primary election will be held Tuesday, Sept. 6 and the winner is expected to face Republican Rayla Campbell, who has no primary challenger, on the Nov. 8 statewide ballot.
Sullivan earned a resounding victory at the Democratic Party’s convention over the incumbent Galvin in June. She took more than 2,500 delegates to Galvin’s roughly 1,500 delegates.
Galvin has lost at the party convention but then prevailed in the party primary three times previously — in 1990 when he ran for treasurer, in 1994 when he first ran for secretary of state and in 2018 when the upstart campaign of Josh Zakim won the party’s endorsement before being crushed by Galvin when the contest extended beyond the most hardcore party insiders.
In June, a University of Massachusetts Amherst/WCVB poll found that Galvin led Sullivan 35% to 21% among those polled who expressed a preference with 44% of voters still undecided in the secretary of state primary.