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Lovefest on Issues, Slugfest on Resumes among Hampden DA Candidates…

Springfield NAACP President Rev. Talbert Swan, center, with candidates, from left Gulluni, Vottero, Etkin & Allyn. (WMassP&I)

SPRINGFIELD—On a certain level you can tell that the Hampden District Attorney’s race exists only in a Democratic primary. While some of race so far is due to a shift in law enforcement philosophy, that fact is amplified by the fact that only Democrats and Independents who play Dem-for-a-day will be voting.

Despite being four white men, the four individuals running for DA do have diverse professional backgrounds that appear, on some level, to inform how they prosecute their campaigns. However, beneath the surface there is a lot of similarity on the issues from drug treatment over jail time to juvenile intervention to the emphasis on Springfield itself.

The four Democrats running are Defense Attorney Shawn Allyn of Agawam, former assistant district attorney Hal Etkin, current assistant district attorney (on leave) Anthony Gulluni of Springfield and former assistant district attorney Brett Vottero also of Springfield.

Laura Hutchinson of WWLP moderated the debate sponsored by the Springfield NAACP. (WMassP&I)

Laura Hutchinson of WWLP moderated the debate sponsored by the Springfield NAACP. (WMassP&I)

At the Springfield NAACP DA debate at Springfield Technical Community College’s Scibelli Hall with the city and county unfurled in big windows behind the candidates, agreement was the order of the day.

A noted exception was a question on diversity that, in front of this audience, led to a scramble among the monochromatic candidates to highlight their own bona fides on the subject. Gulluni pointed to his experience with diversity as a Springfield resident. Etkin, who grew up in the North End, did the same.

Allyn and Vottero seemed a bit more prepared for the answer. Vottero described his involvement, both as a youth and an adult, with a program that brings people from different backgrounds together. That informed the fair approach he says he had as an ADA. Allyn, who arguably had the only diverse box to check, mentioned he identifies as gay and, as a result, said, “I know what it is like to be different.” He reiterated his intention, to have a DA’s office reflect Hampden County’s own diverse complexion.

Shawn Allyn (via Twitter/@shawnallynforda)

None of the candidates want imprison non-violent drug offenders. Some variation among the candidates existed on how to handle marijuana policy. None seemed in favor of rigorous enforcement outside the decriminalization of less than an ounce of the plant.

Gulluni offered the sharpest difference here, in rhetoric, at least, noting that marijuana remained illegal, but that enforcement under him would focus on the sale and traffic of it. Vottero took the opportunity to reemphasize his support for treatment. “We should be addressing the demand side,” he said arguing that this would undercut the drug trade more than going after the supply side. Allyn made a fairly categorical pledge to not use the various other laws against pot to shirk the 2008 decriminalization.

Hal Etkin (via Facebook/Etkin campaign)

The subject of police accountability, whether brutality or discharge of firearms, displayed another area of difference, but again within a fairly narrow spectrum. Vottero, who received the endorsement of the Springfield patrolmen union, said that incidents of police misconduct harm all parties, including the police. But in relation to police-related deaths, to which the question originally alluded, Vottero said the district attorney, not local police control a homicide scene per state statute.

Gulluni, who earlier said nobody should rush to judgment in police misconduct cases, seemed to agree that involvement by the DA from the beginning was a net positive. Allyn and Etkin went further, calling for the return of a civilian review board for police in cities like Springfield. Allyn, whose representation of figures at the center of police brutality cases like Melvin Jones has by his own admission cost him support, was far more adamant saying that protection of civil rights would be paramount in his office.

Anthony Gulluni (via Facebook/Gulluni campaign)

However, those major differences aside, there was a lot of agreement. Even on issues like police misconduct, the difference appeared more one of tone than substance. It is impossible to know how any of the candidates will actually execute once in office. This is complicated by the fact that there are really few comparisons in recent history to how DA races have gone. Excluding interim DA Jim Orenstein, Hampden County has only had three DA’s over the last forty years.

There have been only three competitive elections in the last twenty four years before now, counting primaries separately from generals. That goes up to four if one counts William Bennett’s 1990 general election blowout. Before Bennett, Matthew Ryan, whose tenure is viewed with suspicion, rarely had opposition after first election which was sometime around William Pynchon’s return to England.

Brett Vottero (via Facebook/Vottero campaign)

It may appear that a combination of qualification and messaging—under which politicking falls—will decide the outcome of the race. The candidates tried to do that throughout the debate. Vottero highlighted his longtime experience as a prosecutor under Ryan, Bennettand former attorney general Scott Harshbarger and his prosecution of Anthony Baye. Vottero slipped references to his career into questions about community cooperation, specifically his experience countering individuals who want to stymie the police. “Some of them are quite bright,” he said, of the need to know how to crack them.

Gulluni had the easiest card to play as the only current ADA running. That point belies his being the youngest of the candidates by about ten years, but he spun it as, “I have current experience.” In other words, he is familiar with prosecutorial strategies currently in vogue. Etkin highlighted his various jobs in the DA’s office and the Southwick police academy, but also his seeming rough and tumble upbringing.

Allyn, on the other hand, has no prosecutorial experience, but he said neither did William Bennett, whose tenure is generally remembered in a positive light (Allyn said it was one of the best). Instead, Allyn argued being outside the DA’s orbit was a plus. That line, fortified by his mentioning his experience as a criminal defense attorney, plays to a certain audience perhaps both suspicious of insiders generally and/or law enforcement culture.

Vottero appeared aware of this as well, insisting his experience was not his sole pitch. He all but asked the audience to hold him to account to implement the progressive policies he advocated.

Many of the candidates also had somewhat modest, but in the aggregate, pricey proposals for the DA’s office. However, the budget is controlled by the legislature. For much of the debate this point was glossed over. Allyn alluded to it when he said he would lobby Beacon Hill for more funds. Gulluni, too, alluded to this when he said the DA’s office sometimes simply has to use the resources available to it. Vottero and Etkin each made oblique references to the same.

There is still time for differentiation to happen, but the onset of summer may limit voters attention. Hampden County has developed a tendency to choose a professional, but that leaves no easy choices in this race. It would seem Vottero’s pitch fits that preference best, but Allyn’s comparative ubiquity during this campaign serves to highlight how messaging and voter contact on the trail still matter a great deal. Gulluni seemingly has picked up on that and could surge. Etkin is not out of the game yet, but has some work to do. September 9 may seem close, but it is an eternity in politics.