Down to the Wire

Just by the count of political campaign lawn signs, the race for Northwestern District Attorney appears to be running neck and neck; both candidates, former Assistant D.A. Michael Cahillane and Register of Probate Dave Sullivan, have stretches of road in various neighborhoods where it seems that blocks of supporters have congealed.

A number of factors have contributed to the unusual visibility of this campaign, not the least of which is the fact that the real race here is the Democratic primary (there is no Republican running in the general election in November). This fact has seen traditional allies forced to split up into different camps, and as a result it’s difficult to see who the inside man in the race is.

In what is clearly a supercharged atmosphere of anti-establishment sentiment this year (which got its start with the shocker election of Scott Brown to Ted Kennedy’s U.S. Senate seat), each side has attempted to paint the other as “the incumbent.” Sullivan’s campaign points out that Cahillane has worked under current District Attorney Elizabeth Scheibel for many years, and hence was party to what many have perceived as more than a few legal and political gaffes by that office in recent years. These include the racially charged arrest and detention of UMass student Jason Vassell and the now-infamous “Pottygate,” which involved what many considered a massive waste of public time and resources to pursue an internal agenda of personal retribution and/or territorial pissing. Read: Cahillane is the insider.

Cahillane’s camp likes to point out that Sullivan’s endorsements by institutional players like defense attorneys are indicative of his being part of a larger political machine that appears to have a history of creating or preserving “patronage” jobs. They’ve also asserted that Cahillane’s announced candidacy took Sullivan’s campaign by surprise, forcing them to work harder for a win that had been thought of by many in regional Democratic Party circles as a Sullivan shoo-in for the job when it seemed he would be running against Republican Scheibel; on the other hand, Sullivan states that he was always aware of rumors of Cahillane’s planned run for the office.

Other established political players, however, have continued to hang their names onto Sullivan’s run, including Easthampton mayor Michael Tautznik and Northampton mayor Mary Clare Higgins, state senators Stephen Brewer and Stan Rosenberg, and state reps Christopher Donelan, Stephen Kulik, Ellen Story and John Scibak. Read: Sullivan is the insider.

Cahillane’s endorsements come largely from police unions and associations, including the State Police Association, as well as from Scheibel and a few local politicos, such as current and former Northampton city councilors Angela Plassman and Jim Dostal and recent Northampton mayoral candidate Michael Bardsley. There are also endorsements by Humane USA (the political arm of the Humane Society) and GREY2K USA, probably as a result of Cahillane’s personal involvement with programs for rescuing former racing greyhounds—though the more cynical might point to their inclusions as a way to put a warmer, more human face to a candidate who, despite a decade as assistant D.A., didn’t have a very public profile before this race.

“I have found Mike Cahillane to be a person of integrity, one who is governed by his own moral compass,” Bardsley told the Advocate. “He is not the type of person who will tell me what I want to hear. However, he is someone who will genuinely listen to what I have to say and will take my perspective into consideration when making decisions in the future. He is obviously the most experienced and most qualified candidate.”

Tautznik explained his endorsement of Sullivan by saying he knew the candidate personally and “hired him as the city attorney when Richard Carey stepped down to become a judge. Having worked closely with Dave in that role for nearly four years, I am confident that he is a capable attorney who possesses the legal judgment, character, integrity and personal presence necessary to be a successful D.A. He has also proven himself to be a talented administrator in his service as Hampshire County Register of Probate.”

Both candidates are, when it comes down to it, warm and approachable in person. On most core issues like the death penalty, gay marriage and slight tweaks to the marijuana decriminalization laws, their views are similar if not identical. Both are well spoken of (even by each other), and both seem to truly want the job, too. Even in fundraising, Sullivan’s early lead—partly by virtue of his earlier entry into the race—has been somewhat narrowed and neutralized recently. Overall, Cahillane has raised only a little more than half of what Sullivan has to maintain his candidacy ($80,576.08 to Sullivan’s $145,953.37), but in the last reporting period his fundraising efforts kicked into an overdrive that’s substantially outpaced his opponent’s ($17,462.50 to $5,000 from Aug. 1 to 15).

The primary will be held on Sept. 14, and at least three more debates between the candidates will be held before then. For more information on these upcoming debates, the candidates, their positions on issues and their general law enforcement platforms, visit their campaign websites at and

Author: Tom Sturm

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