So far, the contest is between two Democrats, Michael A. Cahillane, assistant Northwestern district attorney, and David E. Sullivan, register of probate.
Granted, it's early in the election season, but let's hope as the race picks up steam, voters will snap to attention. The position of Northwestern district attorney is a big job and it should not be filled without the residents of Hampshire and Franklin counties having an informed say.
As chief law enforcement officer for the Northwestern district, the DA oversees two full-time offices in Northampton and Greenfield that encompass 47 towns; there are satellite bureaus in the district courts in Orange, Northampton, Belchertown and the juvenile court in Hadley. The DA is in charge of a staff of about 70 and an annual budget - not counting grants - of $4,746,396.
The district comprises every community in Franklin and Hampshire counties, in addition to the Worcester County town of Athol. It is the only one of 11 district attorney offices across the state that operates two full-time offices.
Scheibel has been the DA since 1993, when she was appointed to replace former DA Judd Carhart, who was named to a judgeship.
Set by the state Legislature, all 11 DAs earn a salary of $148,000.
Cahillane has the support of his boss, Scheibel, a South Hadley Republican, who, he said, "is reaching across the aisle to endorse me."
Sullivan has been endorsed by, among others, former DA and now-retired Judge W. Michael Ryan.
Both candidates say they will campaign by going door to door, meeting people in the far-flung district, and educating people about the role of the office. "A lot of people don't know what the DA does," said Cahillane.
And given the pattern that once elected to the post, the incumbent can pretty much take re-election every four years for granted, this race is one worth watching. What follows are thumbnail sketches of the two announced candidates for the seat so far.
Cahillane, a Northampton native, earned a bachelor's degree in political science from St. Anselm College in New Hampshire and a law degree from Suffolk University Law School in Boston in 1999.
Since 2000 he's served as assistant Northwestern district attorney, starting off in the DA's Greenfield office taking cases in Orange District Court. He has handled all manner of criminal matters, now working in the DA's main office in Northampton and responsible for major felony cases that run the gamut from home invasion, child abuse and child pornography to domestic violence, animal abuse and homicide.
Cahillane, 39, says from the early days in law school, he decided where he wanted his career to head.
"I knew that my heart was to be a prosecutor," he said.
He first got a taste of the DA's office while a senior at Northampton High School, when he was an intern there. He did another internship in the office the summer after his freshman year of college.
After college, he spent several years working in the health care field doing customer service and provider relations before deciding to go to law school. He worked full-time while attending Suffolk Law at night, an experience that likely prepared him well for the 24/7 pace of being a prosecutor.
"It was a grind," he said cheerfully. "Basically, you have no life for four years."
Cahillane said he decided to run for DA in June, as soon as he heard Scheibel wasn't seeking re-election.
"It's an opportunity that doesn't come along very often," he said. "It's a dream for me, so I wanted to continue my dream."
He said he sees the DA's office both as an agency that prosecutes crime, and works in partnership with communities and a variety of social service programs and schools to do outreach and education to prevent crime.
If elected DA, he vows to be available and accessible, and notes that he has fostered good relationships with police departments across the region as well as criminal lawyers.
"My success with the defense bar and the community is because I'm willing to listen to people," he said.
He says his relationships with police officers in the region are equally positive.
"I'm one of the people in the office who gets the early-morning phone calls," said Cahillane. "Most police departments in Hampshire and Franklin counties have my cell phone."
In terms of skills, Cahillane notes his experience on a wide variety of cases, his track record in court, and his work "with victims and families, being able to bring justice for them, and to be their voice in the courtroom."
He is married to Christine Capers Cahillane. They live on Bridge Street with their two rescued greyhounds, Gracie and Blue.
If elected, Cahillane said he will remain in the job for a long time.
"My heart and soul is into doing the job of a prosecutor. I have no intention to go anywhere else," he said. "I'm not using it as a stepping stone to any other office."
Sullivan, 50, register of probate since 2003, also vows the DA's office is no stepping stone. He says he sees the post as that of a public servant.
"I think it's a great way to make a difference in the community," said Sullivan. "It's part of my record in community service to really help the public. The public needs a DA who's involved not only in prosecuting crime but preventing crime."
As register of probate, Sullivan oversees a staff of 11 and a budget of $910,760, managing the entire caseload for the county's family court - adoption, paternity, divorce, custody, guardianship cases, estates and other such matters - "in a fair and efficient way."
As register of probate, he said, he's made the office more accessible to the public, in part by improving its Web site and fostering a more visitor-friendly and welcoming environment. He noted in particular innovative programs to support families going through divorce, including a training program for never-married parents, mediation programs, and helping people who come to court without lawyers.
"What I'm really most proud of is making a responsive and accessible court," said Sullivan.
But Sullivan said his "first love" in law is as a trial attorney, one reason he decided to run for DA more than a year ago.
After graduating from Northeastern University School of Law in Boston in 1986, Sullivan spent two years as a civilian lawyer representing members of the armed services facing court martial and administrative hearings in West Germany.
He and his family moved to Easthampton in 1989, where he and his wife, attorney Catherine M. Hancock, operated a general law practice for 10 years. About 90 percent of that practice, he said, was handling criminal cases. In 1999, he was appointed Easthampton's town counsel, a post he held until being elected register of probate.
He said he sees similarities in the jobs as register and DA in that both are "unique public service jobs." He decided to run for DA in January 2009, before Scheibel announced she wasn't seeking re-election, saying the office needed improvement.
"A district attorney has a real impact on the quality of life in a community," he said. "It's more than being a trial attorney, it's about being a leader for the criminal justice system and the community. It's about being a good manager. It's a unique skill set."
Sullivan said the DA must foster relationships with police in all communities to be successful.
"I think you need those relationships built and strengthened on a daily basis," he said. "And I think you need to have those relationships developed prior to any particular crisis."
Sullivan is active in Democratic Party politics, serving last year as the Hampshire County coordinator for the Obama campaign, and this year working on behalf of Martha Coakley's failed bid for U.S. Senate.
But Sullivan says his work as a lawyer is what's most important to him, which is why he's running for DA.
"It's the best attorney's job in western Massachusetts, really," he said. "This is the people's law office."
Sullivan and Hancock have three children, Marie, 19, Anne, 17, and Minh, 11.
DA candidates have until April 27 to collect and certify 1,000 signatures with the registrar of voters and until May 25 to get those signatures to the state's elections division to see their names on the Sept. 14 primary ballot. The general election is Nov. 2.
The race is on. Do your civic duty. Pay attention.
Laurie Loisel, the Gazette's cities editor, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.