BOSTON — Rachael Rollins shocked observers when she beat the candidate backed by the longtime incumbent and police groups to become the Democratic nominee for Boston's top prosecutor.
Should she win again next month, Rollins, a black woman who vows to fight mass incarceration and racial disparities in the justice system, would be the first woman of color to become a district attorney in Massachusetts. And for the first time, along with the black sheriff and police commissioner , the top law enforcement officials in Boston would all be people of color, marking a new era for a city long dominated by white men and roiled by a racist past.
"There's only ever been men looking at these issues and running this office. ... There's only ever been overwhelmingly one race or nationality," Rollins, a 47-year-old former federal prosecutor, said in an interview. "I'm excited about bringing a new lens to this role."
Rollins hopes to follow in the footsteps of candidates like Larry Krasner in Philadelphia to be elected on the promise of criminal justice reform. She has pledged to push for ending cash bail, to hire a more diverse slate of prosecutors and to collect data to find potential biases among her staff.
After defeating four Democratic opponents in the first contested race for Suffolk County district attorney in 16 years, Rollins is now seen as the favorite to win Nov. 6 with the backing of popular Democrats like U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley, who upset longtime U.S. Rep. Michael Capuano in a primary last month. In addition to Boston, Suffolk County includes the communities of Chelsea, Revere and Winthrop.
But Rollins faces a challenge from independent defense attorney Michael Maloney, who has called her plan not to prosecute certain crimes "crazy" and accused her of playing the "race card" to distract from what he says is a lack of qualifications.
"I think we're really coming to a point where she is running a campaign on identity politics," said Maloney, 38, who is white. "Her play right now is to play the race card, not to focus on her experience," he said.
Rollins' biggest test is convincing police that her plan to not prosecute more than a dozen offenses — including drug possession, trespassing and shoplifting — wouldn't give offenders a free pass to commit crimes.
"I'm afraid if there are no consequences offenders will figure, why not resist?" Boston Police Patrolmen's Association President Michael Leary told WBZ-TV last month.
Rollins says those charges would be outright dismissed or treated as civil infractions, although prosecutions could be brought in "exceptional circumstances." She says she wants to focus her resources on prosecuting killings, clear the courts of lower-level crimes committed overwhelmingly by the mentally ill, the poor and those struggling with addiction, and connect them with services.
"We're sending them to jail, they're not getting any services for the root cause of whatever the problem is, and they're getting out, going back and doing the same thing," she said.
Maloney has tried to capitalize on backlash to her plan, painting himself as the "responsible" reform candidate and filming a video with a store owner decrying shoplifting.
But Maloney has also been under fire after The Boston Globe revealed that his then-wife in 2014 accused him of verbal abuse, pushing her and threatening to cut her father's throat. Maloney has apologized and said he never hit her.
If Rollins wins, the optics of having people of color in charge of Boston's criminal justice system will be significant, black leaders say.
Boston's racial tensions were thrown into national spotlight in the late 1970s when court-ordered desegregation of the public schools led to protests and riots. Decades later, many still view the city as unwelcoming to people of color.
The new leadership will matter only if they implement policies that begin to dismantle longstanding injustices, said Rahsaan Hall, director of the racial justice program for the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts.
"If the policies and practices of the institutions don't do anything to minimize the impacts of racism, systemic and institutional racism, then we are no better off than we were before," Hall said.
Follow Alanna Durkin Richer on Twitter at http://twitter.com/aedurkinricher .