Politics

After early Partners victory, what lies ahead for Maura Healey?

Attorney General Maura Healey has had a busy first week in office.

Steven Senne/Associated press

Attorney General Maura Healey has had a busy first week in office.

Attorney General Maura Healey’s swearing-in ceremony was an impressive affair: a procession of the Boston Police Gaelic Column of Pipes and Drums, a who’s who of political power brokers, and a historic setting, Faneuil Hall.

“This great hall reminds us of where we’ve been and where we must go,” Healey told a packed chamber. “I ask each of you to join me on this journey.”

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It was a grand entrance — as grand, in some respects, as the inauguration of Republican Governor Charlie Baker. And the political class, already on the lookout for a new Democratic standard-bearer, took note.

“That,” said one Republican insider, with a dollop of exasperation and a pinch of healthy regard, “was the inauguration of the governor of the Democratic Party.”

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GOP consultant Meredith Warren called her “exciting and dynamic and tough” and said she will be “a formidable candidate at some point.”

The swearing-in ceremony was just the start of a big week for the Next Big Thing in Massachusetts politics.

On her first full day in office, Healey appeared before the state Gaming Commission to talk tough about the nascent casino industry. On Monday, she moved to spike a controversial deal her predecessor Martha Coakley worked out with Partners HealthCare that would allow the big-foot hospital operator to expand. On Thursday, she got her way when a Superior Court judge rejected the settlement.

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All of the high-profile maneuvering — and the early victory — has Healey, 43, fielding a question that doesn’t usually surface one week into a new job: What’s next?

It’s heady stuff for a figure who was a virtual unknown a year ago — a first-time office-seeker squaring off against a popular opponent, former state senator Warren Tolman, for the Democratic nomination for attorney general.

Healey proved an energetic campaigner with a compelling story to tell: a 5-foot-4 professional basketball player who had ascended to one of the top positions in Coakley’s office and was poised to become the first openly gay attorney general in the country.

“It was like the Cinderella team at March Madness,” said Beth I.Z. Boland, an influential Boston lawyer and early Healey supporter. “You just root for them because they’re so plucky, they’re so talented, and going against all odds. What’s not to like?”

Boland said the drama of the race — tight in the polls until the closing days — helps explain why there is more early buzz surrounding this attorney general than, say, her predecessor.

“When Martha [Coakley] came in . . . she cleared the field,” said Boland. “Nobody would run against her.”

Maura Healey (center) acknowleged the crowd after being sworn in as Massachusetts Attorney General.

David Scharfenberg/Globe staff

Maura Healey (center) acknowleged the crowd after being sworn in as Massachusetts Attorney General.

But it is not just electoral circumstance that separates Healey and her former boss.

To supporters, Coakley was a shrewd lawyer who came to nuanced resolutions. But for critics, her nuance looked more like timidity. Focusing, in part, on the Partners agreement, those critics argued that she should have sued to block the hospital operator’s expansion plans rather than settle.

Healey’s decision to oppose the deal telegraphed what her aides say will be a more aggressive approach to the job.

The new attorney general is also engaged in an aggressive program of public outreach.

A charismatic campaigner, she seems eager to remain on the hustings — announcing, in her Faneuil Hall speech, a new Division of Community Engagement that will put her online and on the ground in a series of “Ask the AG” events.

She’s also savvy in the ways of the news media. In a proposal that appeared on the front page of the Globe before she even took office, Healey announced a plan to expand the database that monitors drug prescriptions, part of a larger effort to fight opiate abuse.

Baker has made tackling drug abuse a central focus of his young administration. But aides insist Healey’s high-profile claim on the issue did not ruffle feathers. The governor, given his broader power and responsibility, is likely to get much of the credit for a successful approach to the problem, they say — and much of the blame for a botched effort.

That analysis mirrors the Baker team’s larger take on Healey and, for that matter, any Democrat who could pose a threat. Whether the governor will face a top-tier challenger in four years, and whether he will win reelection, will largely hinge on his own performance, one Baker aide argued.

Indeed, observers note, there are limits to what any attorney general can do. And there are pitfalls to the job, too.

Tackling complex, delicate issues from Big Dig financing to health care reform to public corruption has brought criticism on a string of attorneys general who had their eyes on higher office. The last three — Coakley, Thomas F. Reilly, and Scott Harshbarger — all lost bids for governor.

Healey hinted at her own ambition during the campaign last year. Asked at a debate if she would pledge to forgo higher office and run only for re-election as attorney general after four years in office, she declined.

But aides insisted she is not looking ahead. Last week’s campaign-funded swearing-in ceremony, however grand, was simply a gesture at inclusion, they said: Faneuil Hall is a big place. (Though not big enough to hold everyone who wanted to see the speech; an overflow crowd of 200 watched the proceedings via simulcast at the nearby Omni Parker House hotel.)

“She’s entirely focused on running the best attorney general’s office in the nation and being the people’s lawyer — period,” said political adviser David Guarino, in a written statement.

GOP political consultant Todd Domke said Healey does, in fact, project a genuine dedication to the work of her office. And that is part of what makes her formidable. “She is the most intriguing political figure in Massachusetts,” he said. “Yet, much of her appeal is that she seems not political.”

The attorney general laid out a robust agenda in her speech: announcing a new division aimed at protecting young people from addiction, dating violence, and child abuse; pledging to crack down on for-profit colleges; and vowing to fight for equal pay for women.

Martin W. Healy, chief operating officer and chief legal counsel for the Massachusetts Bar Association, said she may also have an opportunity to lead on criminal justice reform, an issue Republican governors are generally hesitant to touch.

Whatever the attorney general decides to do, Healy said, her first-term performance will do as much to determine her political future as anything else.

“There’s some critical years, here,” he said, “where your reputation is made or broken.”

Democrats, though, don’t seem terribly worried about what could go wrong. “She’s the future of the Democratic Party right now,” said political consultant Jim Spencer. “Without a doubt.”

David Scharfenberg can be reached at david.scharfenberg @globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @dscharfGlobe.
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