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Healey may face 'higher bar' of scrutiny as governor, but she's eager to get to work

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Maura Healey speaks with supporters on Election Day evening at the Fairmont Copley Plaza. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Maura Healey speaks with supporters on Election Day evening at the Fairmont Copley Plaza. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Maura Healey will celebrate her inauguration Thursday evening on the home court of the Boston Celtics. For the former professional basketball player, the symbolism is intentional; she never let her small stature prevent her from making big plays.

The 5-foot-6-inch point guard said she wants to celebrate her historic election by stressing teamwork, optimism and urgency.

"I think Massachusetts should continue to lead," Healey said. "We're a state that punches above its weight. And in this time, particularly nationally, I want us to be out there to be leading."

Healey will start her term as governor with a lot of advantages. Democrats united behind her after state Sen. Sonia Chang-Díaz dropped out of last summer's primary race, and Healey easily defeated Republican Geoff Diehl in November.

She's popular across Massachusetts, having now won three statewide elections — including two as attorney general. Some political strategists, including Susan Tracy, think that means Healey can get to work quickly.

“Maura has been in a position running one of the constitutional offices for the last eight years," Tracy said. "So, I think her ability to come in without a lot of learning curve and without a need to build relationships with people is really helpful to her.”

Healey also will take over a state government flush with money, thanks in part to billions in federal stimulus money. Tracy said that represents both a fortunate circumstance and a test of her priorities, because "the issue is really how do you spend it?"

"You’re almost under more pressure when you have resources than when you don't," Tracy said.

Tracy said Healey's first proposed budget, which could be released as early as this month, will receive scrutiny, as she seeks to clarify her top priorities. The future governor might also have to navigate some economically choppy waters, depending upon how the national economy fares in the coming months.

Under Healey, Democrats control state government, with super-majorities in the House and Senate. While that represents a tremendous opportunity for Healey, Republican state Sen. Patrick O’Connor said it also reflects a real challenge. O’Connor said outgoing Republican Gov. Charlie Baker provided balance to Beacon Hill Democrats and was receptive to moderate voices across the state. O'Connor, who represents several South Shore municipalities, said he's hopeful Healey will continue to do that.

“It's just more challenging having a Democratic leader of the House, the Democratic leader of the Senate, and then the Democratic leader of our executive to accomplish that," O'Connor said.

Massachusetts Democratic Attorney General Maura Healey, right, speaks to reporters as Republican Mass. Gov. Charlie Baker, behind, looks on during a news conference on Nov. 9, 2022, at the State House in Boston. (Steven Senne/AP)
Massachusetts Democratic Attorney General Maura Healey, right, speaks to reporters as Republican Mass. Gov. Charlie Baker, behind, looks on during a news conference on Nov. 9, 2022, at the State House in Boston. (Steven Senne/AP)

Healey is well aware she will be succeeding one of the most popular governors in the country.

"Governor Baker was a great governor," Healey told WBUR, adding that there are aspects of his approach she will seek to embrace.

"One thing I always appreciated about his leadership was his ability to listen to a range of folks and then ultimately have to make a decision," she said.

During her campaign, Healey promised a lot: more housing, a green technology corridor and lower taxes, while making life more affordable in Massachusetts. Delivering on all that would be difficult for any new governor, and Healey will also feel pressure from progressives in her own party to do more.

"We're always going to be pushing for more change — and I expect that'll happen," said Jamie Eldridge, a state senator from Acton and a leading progressive in the Legislature.

He added that the most pressing issue before Healey is widespread income and racial inequality across Massachusetts. (One recent study found that almost a quarter of Latinos in the state suffer from food insecurity.)

"Despite all the progress we make in so many other areas, that gap is continuing to grow," Eldridge said.

Eldridge said he has confidence Healey will rise to the challenge, given her progressive record as attorney general. For her part, Healey said that as governor, she'll be committed to addressing racial disparities across the board: in education, health care, transportation and especially housing. According to Healey, housing is one of the keys to help families build wealth.

"It's one of the many reasons I want to drive up housing around the state, supporting programs for first-time buyers, supporting programs to help Black and Latino families with down payments," she said.

Another problem awaiting Healey is one that bedeviled Baker: the MBTA. A scathing federal report found the T, which has been plagued by chronic delays and deadly accidents, falls badly short on safety, staffing, planning and maintenance. Healey said her top priority will be to address a shortage of workers at the T. But she won't make any promises about when the T will run smoothly.

"What I can promise you is that we will do everything we can to make sure that we are supporting [the MBTA] with the investments and with the leadership to get it done as quickly as possible," she said.

"... When you are a first, what people look for is your mistakes. ..."

Susan Tracy

Beyond the nuts and bolts of everyday governing, Healey will also make history. She'll be the state's first elected female governor leading its first all-female governing ticket with Lt. Gov. Kim Driscoll. Healey will also be the state's first openly gay governor. Healey embraces the significance of her election and talks often about the importance of diversity in government.

"With diversity of leadership, we're going to have better laws and policies because more voices, more lived experiences will be at the table," Healey said. "It will make us that much stronger as a society."

Tracy agreed with that sentiment, but she also cautioned that Healey's historic election might subject the new governor to unrealistic expectations.

"There is a higher bar for being first," Tracy said. "Because when you are a first, what people look for is your mistakes: 'See, they can't do it. They're not ready for it.' "

Tracy said the job of governor is hard enough without that added pressure.

But as she prepares to take office, Healey says she's ready for the challenges ahead.

"I'm really looking forward to starting," she said, sounding a lot like a point guard eager to get on the court. "I wouldn't have run for this if I didn't believe in this great state and the opportunity that we have."

This segment aired on January 5, 2023.

Related:

Anthony Brooks Twitter Senior Political Reporter
Anthony Brooks is WBUR's senior political reporter.

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