BOSTON -- Democratic attorney general candidate Warren Tolman apologized on Wednesday if anyone was offended by his use of the word "unbecoming" to describe his opponent Maura Healey's criticism of his private sector record, as female Healey supporters blasted the comment as "sexist."
Tolman used the word during a Boston Globe Opinion debate Tuesday as Healey criticized him for not being forthcoming about his registration as a federal lobbyist while working as an attorney at Holland & Knight.
The episode conjured memories of a 2002 debate when former candidate for governor Mitt Romney drew the ire of prominent women like Teresa Heinz Kerry and Hillary Clinton for describing then Treasurer Shannon O'Brien's attacks on his abortion position as "unbecoming."
"If anyone listened to the debate or watched the debate they know that was not my intention, but I'm always sorry if something I say offends someone," Tolman told the News Service on Wednesday. "The point I was trying to make is that she continues to make accusations that are just not backed up by the facts and she knows it."
O'Brien, who in May endorsed Tolman for attorney general, called his use of the term a "non-issue."
"In 2002, when Mitt Romney said that, I said it was not a big deal. That it was sort of a distraction. There were a lot of groups, because Mitt Romney had a questionable background supporting women's rights, a number of women's groups saw this as problematic.
In the final moments of the debate on Tuesday between the two Democrats running for attorney general, Healey accused Tolman of not being upfront with voters about his lobbying activity. Tolman denies doing any lobbying work despite being registered as a federal lobbyist, which he said was standard practice at his law firm for anyone working on a project regardless of their duties.
"You go down this path. Maura, it's just unbecoming," Tolman said.
While neither Healey nor her campaign reacted to the comment in the moment or immediately after the debate when the candidate and her team chatted with reporters, Healey's campaign blasted out a fundraising appeal Tuesday evening signed by former state representative and Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts CEO Marty Walz.
"Calling a woman 'unbecoming' just because she's asking tough questions is demeaning, sexist, and certainly no way to celebrate Women's Equality Day. I, for one, won't stand for that. I hope you won't either," Walz wrote.
On Wednesday, Healey followed up by reiterating her concerns about Tolman being upfront with voters about his activity as a registered lobbyist as well as his involvement with an online gaming company and a hedge fund.
"While I'm certainly offended Warren Tolman tried to diminish my questions about his lobbying work as 'unbecoming,' I'm even more disturbed that someone would diminish the importance of the office by misleading voters. This race is a clear choice between someone who has advocated and led as the people's lawyer and someone who, more and more, looks, acts and sounds like just another overbearing Beacon Hill politician," Healey said in a statement.
Merriam Webster defines unbecoming as "not attractive" or "not according with the standards appropriate to one's position or condition of life." The Uniform Code of Military Justice defines as punishable by court-martial "conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman."
Asked whether he considered the word to be sexist, Tolman said, "I'm always sorry if something I say offends anyone."
O'Brien said it's important to consider the context in which the word is used. "I don't think on its face it's sexist. I think you have to look deeper into the person who is making the comment...I think it would be pretty hard to say Warren Tolman has been anything other than a champion for women. I think he was simply trying to deflect what was apparently some pretty pointed criticism during the debate."
She continued, "Mitt Romney is not and was not a feminist. Warren Tolman is."
While the prominent national fundraising group Emily's List seized on the dust-up, Tolman said he hoped to move past the controversy to focus on issues like gun violence and campus sexual violence against women. The primary between the two Democrats is less than two weeks away, on Sept. 9, and the winner will face Republican John Miller.
"What I hope we can do is that we can focus on the substantive differences of the different visions that Warren Tolman will bring and Maura Healey will bring. At the end of the day, I think that's a healthy comparison," Tolman said.
O'Brien also said she thought it would be a mistake for Healey to pick a fight over this term.
Emily's List accused Tolman of employing "retro sexism" instead of answering Healey's questions about lobbying.
"Apparently it's 'unbecoming' for a woman candidate to ask legitimate questions about her opponent's record during a campaign," read an email from the Washington-based group that raises money for female candidates. Emily's List deputy press secretary Priyanka Mantha circulated the email to reporters Wednesday with the subject line "Unbecoming?"
Romney during an Oct. 29, 2002 debate against O'Brien pushed back against her persistent criticism of his position on abortion and her contention that he had accepted an endorsement from Massachusetts Citizens for Life.
"Your effort to continue to try to create fear and deception here is unbecoming," Romney said, sitting across from O'Brien during the roundtable debate moderated by the late Tim Russert.
Days after that debate, then-Sen. John Kerry's wife Teresa Heinz and New York Sen. Hillary Clinton blasted Romney for using a term they said would never be spoken toward a male candidate, while Romney advisor Mike Murphy rebutted the notion that "unbecoming" is a gender-specific term.
In an Associated Press story from 2002, Romney advisors pointed out how former New York congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro had said in 1998 that it was "unbecoming to see grown men whine" when Republicans tried to have her removed from the CNN program Crossfire.
More recently, the head of the Texas Democratic Party - Gilberto Hinojosa - described this month as "unbecoming of our governor" the alleged behavior of Texas Gov. Rick Perry that led to his indictment for abuse of power.
Romney would tell the New York Times in 2002 that "unbecoming" could be used to refer to the behavior of either a man or a woman, and referenced the military code as well as the disciplinary policies at his alma mater Harvard University.
Leland Cheung, a Cambridge city councilor and candidate for lieutenant governor, also jumped into the fray Wednesday morning describing himself as "alarmed" by Tolman's use of the word.
"For too long, Massachusetts politics has been unwelcome territory for women and people of color and comments like this don't help," Cheung said in a statement. He continued, "Intentional or not, Warren's use of that term comes too close to a kind of dog whistle politics that has no place in today's Commonwealth and he should apologize."