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Maura Healey may win in a walk — but that's not good for her or Mass. voters

Attorney General Maura Healey made her first campaign appearance for governor with her new running mate Kim Driscoll at the Worcester Public Market on September 7, 2022. (Lane Turner/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
Attorney General Maura Healey made her first campaign appearance for governor with her new running mate Kim Driscoll at the Worcester Public Market on September 7, 2022. (Lane Turner/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

The first poll to be released since the Massachusetts’ state primary last week was not a surprise: the Democrat, Attorney General Maura Healey leads the Republican nominee, Geoff Diehl, by 18%. (Some 12% of voters remain undecided.) While there are still events that could dramatically upend the race, it seems far more likely that as it was in the primary election, Healey will barely break a sweat en route to making history as the first woman to be elected to the office of governor of the commonwealth.

As the first woman to serve in that seat — and the mother of three daughters — I will cheer that glass-breaking moment. But none of us are well-served by non-competitive elections. I suspect there will come a day when even the attorney general may realize that a vigorous race would have served her well.

As a moderate in a GOP that has moved to increasing extremes, I am often asked why I stay in the party. There are a number of reasons. But near the top of that list, is my belief that we need to have competitive elections in Massachusetts and across the country. The give and take of ideas, the act of reaching out to diverse groups of individuals, the need to build support — particularly when others are attempting to undermine your authority and ideas during a campaign — is central to good governance.

I suspect there will come a day when even the attorney general may realize that a vigorous race would have served her well.

Without a competitive race, Healey will surely be counseled to avoid head-to-head debates so as not to elevate her opponent and introduce an opportunity to make a misstep. No doubt Diehl will squawk and some in the press will too. Yet, the strategy is well proven, and one Diehl himself employed successfully against his primary opponent, the more moderate but less well-known Chris Doughty.

But without the give and take of a debate and the penetrating — if sometimes silly — questions from the local press corps, the weaknesses and less popular aspects of Healey’s positions will remain shielded from public scrutiny. And, knowing that she will face less scrutiny makes it harder for her to push back against the demands by traditional Democratic constituency groups. As a result, the public simply won’t have the chance to fully understand the depth of her thinking on the most difficult and controversial issues.

We won’t get to see how she reacts and thinks under pressure, either.  I have no doubt Healey has faced high-pressure moments in her current role as Mass. attorney general, but that’s not the same as being the governor. Every governor faces crises — and it’s just not possible to predict what those will be.

Then-acting Gov. Jane Swift expresses her shock and concern for the Americans killed in the terrorist attack at the world trade center on September 11, 2001 in Framingham, Mass. Attorney General Tom Reilly is in the background. (Janet Knott/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
Then-acting Gov. Jane Swift expresses her shock and concern for the Americans killed in the terrorist attack at the world trade center on September 11, 2001 in Framingham, Mass. Attorney General Tom Reilly is in the background. (Janet Knott/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

I couldn’t have known when I raised my right hand on April 10, 2001 what would unfold on September 11th of that year. Neither Gov. Charlie Baker, nor any governor in the country, could have predicted the long and on-going crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic. Plenty of things prepare a governor to lead through crises — work experience, academic credentials, life — but the pressure of an intense campaign also serves as important preparation for what comes in office. Which individuals during your march to office were particularly level-headed and provided the best counsel during the most difficult moments? How did you maintain outward calm during times of turmoil? I am not endorsing some of the nastier aspects of today’s campaigns. But a tough, fair and rigorous campaign does help to prepare a future governor for the challenges — especially the unpredictable crises — to come.

Finally, a non-competitive election will give short shrift to some of the most important issues Healey hasn’t been required to address in the attorney general’s seat. The complexity and importance of addressing the impacts of this long pandemic on our children’s learning and mental health is one example. Those policy ideas and solutions require the input of many individuals. They deserve to be road-tested in discussions with teachers, parents, employers and thought leaders from one end of the commonwealth to the other. The same applies to efforts to address climate change, transportation, healthcare and the issues we witnessed caregivers endure during the pandemic, which will only grow as our population ages.

Just as a candidate debate is perilous and to be avoided if possible, conducting wide open discussions with people whose views may not always align with yours — or with the majority of your supporters — is a campaign activity that candidates only engage in out of necessity. But I know from experience that listening closely to those who did not agree with me improved my policy positions.

My dad was my political muse. Early on in my first campaign for state senator he told me something I’ve never forgotten: If you spend a whole day on the campaign trail and you only talk to people who are voting for you, you just wasted a whole day.

In a non-competitive election, it is too easy for the candidate with a big lead to waste a whole election.

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Related:

Jane Swift Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Jane Swift was the Republican governor of Massachusetts from 2001 to 2003 and is now president and executive director of LearnLaunch.

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