Five key things to know about Rachael Rollins, Massachusetts' new U.S. Attorney (2024)

For people who pay close attention to Massachusetts politics, or to the way the state's criminal-justice system operates, Rachael Rollins needs no introduction. But not everyone does — and even if you do, the COVID pandemic and other news may have nudged some important details out of your mind. Here’s a modest refresher that may offer some clues about how the Suffolk DA-turned-U.S. Attorney will approach her new role.

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She's a political trailblazer.

While much was made of Mayor Michelle Wu's historic victory in November, Rollins' victory in the 2018 Suffolk DA's race probably didn't get the attention it deserved when she became the first woman to hold that seat.

The favorite in the five-person Democratic primary was Greg Henning, who'd been an assistant DA under outgoing Suffolk DA Dan Conley and was running with Conley's endorsem*nt. Before the primary election, my former colleague David Bernstein conducted a straw pollof political insiders in which 60% predicted Henning would prevail. Just 16% picked Rollins, good for third place. Come Election Day, though, Rollins cruised, beating Henning by 16 percentage points.

In the general election, Rollins' independent opponent attacked her for identifying 15 crimes she'd generally decline to prosecute. It didn't matter: Rollins won in a 4-to-1 landslide. Like now-Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley's blowout win in that same year's Democratic primary, Rollins' victory sent a strong signal that traditional assumptions about Boston and Boston-area politics — including who votes, and who they vote for — were falling by the wayside.

She's incredibly open — usually.

On her first day as DA, Rollins opened the executive floor to every employee. "I want all SCDAO staff to be able to drop in, visit, have a snack, bring their children by to say hello, without an appointment," she explained in a much-discussed 2019 policy memo, which also outlined her approach to criminal justice in detail.

During her tenure as Suffolk DA, that same ethos was reflected in her dealings with the media. She'd go pretty much anywhere to get her message out, from GBH's Greater Boston to the hard-right Howie Carr Show. One important caveat applies, though: as a Boston 25 news crew discovered earlier this year, if Rollins feels she's been unfairly ambushed, that openness may not be on offer.

She's a fierce political fighter.

When Thomas Turco, then Gov. Charlie Baker's public safety secretary, released a letter he'd written to Rollins claiming that her restrained approach to minor crimes could hurt efforts to fight the opioid epidemic, Rollins pushed back. Hard.

At a press conference, she said Turco was wrong on substance and invoked a sexual assault allegation against Baker's son A.J., saying — to paraphrase — that many families in Suffolk County don't enjoy the same advantages as the Bakers when they find themselves on the wrong side of the law. That presser was followed by a public rally at which Rollins said she and the governor had moved past the incident — but also claimed victory in no uncertain terms. "I won with a mandate, and I am the first woman to ever have this position, so let me make something very clear to you," Rollins said. "There is no way in hell that a secretary that reports to a governor sent a letter without the governor knowing. I can tell you that's true, because the governor called me to apologize."

It remains, to this day, one of the most forceful public rebukes directed at Baker during his tenure. And it got the message across.

She's not the soft-on-crime radical her critics claim she is.

Prior to Rollins' confirmation, her detractors cast as a leader in a purported war on law enforcement and criminal justice. But that characterization is patently absurd.

For one thing, Rollins' reformist approach builds on (while also going significantly beyond) efforts by Conley, her predecessor, to rethink the way the criminal-justice system operates — and Conley is no one's idea of a wild-eyed iconoclast. Note, too, the way Rollins described a serial rapist who was convicted and sentenced in August: "Rape is a horrible crime. ... To take such a sacred part of someone requires the most severe of punishments." And finally, consider Rollins' comments in November, after a state trooper was arraigned on domestic violence, kidnapping, and strangulation charges: "Members of law enforcement have a vital, highly regarded role in society and overwhelmingly, these officers serve with distinction, courage and compassion. ... Unfortunately, as with any profession, there are a small number whose actions are shocking [and] unacceptable."

Those aren’t the words of someone who wants to abolish the police, as Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) claimed. They're the words of someone who wants the police to do their job right.

Personally, she's hard to pigeonhole.

You may know that Rollins grew up Cambridge as a child of an interracial marriage. But did you know that she attended Buckingham Browne & Nichols, the tony Cambridge private school that also counts former Congressman Joe Kennedy III as an alum? Or that she received a lacrosse scholarship to UMass Amherst after winning a national club championship in high school?

UMass, by the way, is where Rollins whetted her appetite for a legal career, when she helped organize a Title IX lawsuit after the university moved to cut women's lacrosse and two other teams. (The university backed down, and Rollins spent her final two years as captain.) Now her daughter is headed to Syracuse to run track.

Rollins is also a breast-cancer survivor who says, as many cancer survivors do, that making it through that harrowing experience transformed the way she sees the world.

Five key things to know about Rachael Rollins, Massachusetts' new U.S. Attorney (2024)
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