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No love lost
In the Suffolk County sheriff’s race, Murphy versus Cabral is shaping up to be a nasty and intriguing contest between candidates who genuinely dislike each other

IN A SENSE, Boston City Councilor Stephen J. Murphy has already run against current Suffolk County sheriff Andrea Cabral — and he lost. Murphy and Cabral were on the short list to fill the sheriff’s post vacated by Richard Rouse, who woefully mismanaged the department and left office a political leper. In November 2002, Governor Jane Swift appointed Cabral, a former prosecutor of Cape Verdean and African-American descent and a political independent — passing over Murphy, a conservative Irish-American Democrat from Hyde Park. The decision hinged, in part, on Cabral’s willingness to become a Republican: Murphy, who’d made unsuccessful runs for state representative and state treasurer, refused to consider switching parties. Six months later, Cabral decided to shed her new Republican affiliation, announcing in Senator Edward Kennedy’s Washington, DC, office that she was becoming a Democrat.

Now Cabral and Murphy are facing off again — this time, in front of almost 400,000 registered voters. On Saturday afternoon, Murphy stood outside the Neponset VFW Post, in Dorchester, and declared he was challenging Cabral for the Democratic nomination for sheriff. This wasn’t a surprise; Murphy’s bright-red campaign bumper stickers have been visible around town for weeks. But the announcement did mark the official start of a race that has an abundance of intriguing subplots — and the potential to get ugly fast.

THE SUFFOLK COUNTY sheriff’s office is something of a political plum. In 1993, Rouse’s predecessor, Robert Rufo — whose leadership of the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Department (SCSD) was widely applauded — used his office as a springboard for his unsuccessful campaign for mayor of Boston. Three years later, Rufo left when then-governor William Weld offered him a district-court judgeship. Weld then appointed Rouse, a former state representative from Dorchester, to the post; observers saw Rouse’s selection as a blatant attempt to woo urban Democrats to Weld’s campaign for US Senate.

Rouse, to put it kindly, did not maintain Rufo’s legacy. Under Rouse, the department — which handles pretrial detention for crimes committed in Boston, Revere, Chelsea, and Winthrop, as well as incarceration and rehabilitation for persons convicted of less-serious crimes — acquired an unsavory reputation for brutality and impropriety. During Rouse’s tenure, seven jail guards were indicted for brutality and obstruction of justice; 1500 women who were illegally strip-searched filed suit in 1999 and won a $10 million judgment from the department and the City of Boston; and a woman who became pregnant that same year after having sex with a jail guard sued and obtained a $675,000 settlement from the SCSD. The department also became known as a patronage haven where unqualified applicants landed key jobs. Rouse announced his resignation in September 2002, six weeks before a commission led by former US attorney Donald Stern issued a damning 77-page report itemizing the SCSD’s dysfunction.

Despite the mess left by Rouse, however, the Suffolk County sheriff’s post still exercised significant appeal. The SCSD is a sprawling, complex operation: some 2300 inmates are locked up there each day, mostly in the Roxbury House of Correction, and about 1100 employees staff the system’s five facilities. The entire apparatus has an annual budget approaching $90 million. Between its scope and its well-documented problems, the post-Rouse SCSD would have been alluring to anyone interested in reforming a broken system and demonstrating his or her administrative mettle. Then there’s the sheriff’s salary, which pushes $110,000 — and the possibility, Rufo’s failed mayoral bid notwithstanding, of using the post as a steppingstone to higher office.

Swift’s team weighed about 20 candidates as it considered Rouse’s replacement. But in the end, the choice came down to Cabral and Murphy. According to individuals close to the process, Murphy’s supporters included Suffolk County DA Dan Conley, House Speaker Tom Finneran, and former governor Paul Cellucci. Cabral, a former state assistant attorney general and assistant DA in Middlesex and Suffolk Counties, was backed by Essex County sheriff Frank Cousins and State Senator Dianne Wilkerson (D-Roxbury). She also had the support of former Suffolk DA Ralph Martin — an African-American who chose not to challenge Swift for the Republican gubernatorial nomination earlier that year and who, before Mitt Romney jumped in the race, was eyed as a possible running mate for Swift — whose endorsement carried particular weight.

What gave Cabral the edge? "Andrea’s biggest asset was her ability to sell herself," one former Swift-administration member says. "One of the things that hurt Murphy was the fact that he’s kind of a political insider, and also had run for treasurer [in 2002]. Andrea’s very articulate, and she’s a very good speaker. And I think what put her over the top was that she was a woman, and a woman of color." Another Swift insider ascribes even greater importance to the race and gender of Cabral, who is the first black woman to hold the position. "I think what knocked Murphy out was a decision by Jane [Swift] — and rightly so — to empower a black woman as a Republican, in a high-profile slot in Massachusetts, who was capable of doing the job," he says. "Jane really did want to see greater diversity of both racial and gender mixes across the state. And she really thought Cabral was going to be a star in this party." (Through a spokesman, Swift declined comment for this article.)

BEFORE JUMPING to the Democrats in May 2003, Cabral consulted Senator Kennedy and Massachusetts Democratic Party chair Phil Johnston, as well as other individuals she refuses to name today. She also rebuffed a last-minute overture from Governor Romney. Her switch was treated as a coup by state Democrats eager to embarrass Romney, and Johnston called her decision "enormously significant for the future of the Democratic Party."

Discussing her party switching today, Cabral notes that she was an enrolled Democrat in her 20s, and says her identification with Democratic principles of inclusiveness and faith in government made life as a Republican uncomfortable. But she also defends her initial decision to become a Republican. "I entered into this as a private citizen who was a public servant her whole career," she says. "That’s very different than a career politician who has consistently had to rely on party affiliation to go from point A to point B. I was looking at, do I turn my back on this job and possibly see someone put in there who’d be more of the same? Or do I choose to do the job?"

After Romney took office, he rebuffed her request for help in covering the SCSD’s $5.2 million debt from the strip-search lawsuit. (The City of Boston had paid half of the $10 million award; interest added about $200,000 to the SCSD’s bill.) But Cabral says that’s not what made her leave the GOP. "The conversation around that could have been, ‘I’m sorry, there is no money, we can’t help you, let’s have a conversation about what you do,’" she says. "None of that was forthcoming. If you’re going to sit there as a Republican in a heavily Democratic seat like Suffolk County — and I’m looking at this from a purely professional and political point of view — there needs to be some sort of support there." (In response to Cabral’s comments, Romney spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom says only: "Andrea has a very difficult job to do, and we wish her luck in the future.") Cabral also argues that, by remaining a Republican, she would have avoided a low-turnout Democratic primary in which Murphy’s extensive campaign organization should be a valuable asset. "The politically expedient thing would have been to remain in the Republican Party, be the only candidate, and take the benefit of a much higher vote [turnout] in the general election," she says. "Clearly, I wasn’t looking do the most politically expedient thing."

These explanations notwithstanding, Murphy has identified Cabral’s rapid-fire party switching — and his own refusal to become a Republican — as a fertile campaign issue. Nursing a Coke at Doyle’s two days before announcing his candidacy, Murphy offered a preview of how he’ll frame the subject for voters. "I kept my dignity of commitment to the Democratic Party," he said. "The incumbent decided that it was an opportunity for her, and she took the opportunistic way. She said, ‘Sure, I’ll change — give me the job, I’ll do whatever.’ And she got the job. And there the difference begins. If you don’t stand for anything, you’ll fall for anything." Murphy’s eagerness to paint Cabral as opportunistic and unprincipled has an obvious pragmatic element. But he seems genuinely irate that Cabral got the job he wanted by making a move he refused to make, and then returned unscathed to the Democratic fold — indeed, was received with open arms by party luminaries like Kennedy and Johnston. Murphy, who chaired the Boston City Council’s public-safety committee from 1997 to 2000 and was general manager and vice-president of Autobus, Inc., between 1979 and 1984, claims he’ll be a better manager than Cabral. And he suggests he’ll work more effectively with Romney, the state legislature, Boston mayor Tom Menino, and Suffolk DA Conley. But one gets the sense that for Murphy, this election is also about payback.

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Issue Date: May 7 - 13, 2004
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