Attorney General Maura Healey, who made herself a national figure with lawsuits against the Trump administration and big corporations, formally launched her campaign for governor on Thursday, immediately becoming the race’s presumptive front-runner.
In her first public remarks as a gubernatorial candidate, the second-term Democrat pitched herself as an experienced public servant prepared to extend her purview from legal issues to kitchen-table ones, and get the Massachusetts economy “back on track.” And though she has built a reputation as a progressive, Healey resisted such labels on Thursday, instead striking a moderate tone that avoided calls for sweeping change.
“If something’s working, then let’s keep with it. And if it’s not working, let’s figure out what we need to do,” Healey, 50, said to a small crowd of media and supporters outside an East Boston MBTA station. The South End Democrat described that approach as her “general governing philosophy” and stressed the need to target specific problems, such as the cost of living and high-priced child care.
“It’s a moment of possibility. It’s a moment of opportunity as well,” Healey said. “And I think that I’m the person that brings the right kind of skills, the right kind of perspectives, the right kind of know-how to move us forward.”
Analysts say Healey’s $3.7 million war chest and higher name recognition make her the candidate to beat. With the state’s top two Republicans, Governor Charlie Baker and Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito, out of this year’s race, Democrats like their chances of winning back the office — and many believe Healey has a good shot at doing it.
“An A-lister has entered the race,” said Erin O’Brien, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston. “She comes in with money, she comes in with name recognition in the country, she comes in with bona fides in terms of pushing back on Trumpism. And the other candidates just can’t boast that.”
There are three other major candidates: state Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz and Harvard professor Danielle Allen, both Democrats, and Republican Geoff Diehl, a former state representative who lost a US Senate bid in 2018.
Any of the three Democrats would make history as the first woman elected Massachusetts governor; Chang-Dίaz, who is Latina, and Allen, who is Black, would each be the first woman of color to hold the position. Healey was the nation’s first openly gay state attorney general and would be the first openly gay person elected Massachusetts governor. Just two openly LGBTQ people have been elected governor in the United States.
Healey’s entrance could discourage other hopefuls from entering the field, though the contours of the race remain uncertain.
US Labor Secretary and former Boston mayor Martin J. Walsh, who had been floated as a potential candidate, said in a CNN appearance Thursday that he is not running for governor. “We have plenty of work to do here in Washington,” Walsh told Wolf Blitzer. “It was an honor to be mentioned as a governor [candidate]. I love Massachusetts, I love my city of Boston, but I’m serving the people of the United States of America right now.”
The thrust of Healey’s remarks on Thursday — that the state should target glaring issues while leaving much intact — immediately set her apart from her two Democratic rivals, who have cast the race as an opportunity to transform the status quo. Healey’s narrower approach may prove popular with voters; in polling over the years, majorities of Massachusetts residents have consistently said they believe the state is headed in the right direction. Massachusetts is consistently at or near the top of national rankings for public education and access to health insurance, but it is also one of the most unequal states in the country.
In Healey’s first hours as a candidate, she sidestepped a question about whether she considers herself an “uber-progressive” Democrat, saying she’d leave it to “others to characterize my record.”
And unlike the other two Democrats, who have woven criticism of Baker into their campaigns, Healey avoided any direct critiques of the incumbent.
“There are any number of ways for people to second-guess decisions made by governors [or] mayors during this time,” Healey said in response to a question about how her approach to the pandemic would differ from Baker’s. “What I think should continue to guide us is science.”
For his part, Baker didn’t wade into the contest, telling reporters at the State House on Thursday, “I’m not much of a prognosticator, I never have been.”
“I think what voters want most of all are people who will focus on the work and not the noise,” he added.
Healey offered few policy specifics or stances, instead naming climate change and job training as top priorities, as well as the need to “modernize our schools.” Asked whether schools should be required to offer in-person instruction amid a surge in COVID-19 cases, Healey said the state needs “flexibility” in allowing remote learning but did not directly call for it.
As she develops and pitches her policy platform, Healey will have to persuade voters that her tenure as the state’s lawyer has prepared her for the broad range of issues governors must confront.
Her early focus stands in stark contrast to the message of her progressive opponents.
Chang-Díaz, for example, wants to make public transit fare-free. Allen said she wants to eliminate fares for low-income workers.
Chang-Díaz has embraced a “Green New Deal” for Massachusetts that includes stopping the construction of new fossil fuel infrastructure. Allen has pitched a “democracy agenda” to make the governor’s office subject to public records law — it currently considers itself exempt — and Massachusetts the first state to “undo the impact of Citizens United,” the 2010 Supreme Court ruling that allowed corporations and unions to spend unlimited amounts of money to influence elections.
Some analysts said Healey is wise to center her campaign on economic issues.
Doug Rubin, a veteran Democratic strategist who is not involved with any of the gubernatorial campaigns, said inflation, COVID-19, and the inequity the pandemic has exacerbated have pushed economic concerns to the “front and center in a lot of voters’ minds.”
”The candidates that don’t address that up front, it’s going to look like they’re out of touch,” Rubin said. “Maura, to her credit, has addressed that right up front.”
Healey’s campaign began to build momentum in the hours after her predawn announcement, raising over $140,000 by Thursday afternoon, an aide said. She earned early endorsements from Teamsters Local 25, the Democratic Attorneys General Association, and Barbara Lee, who heads a political operation and research foundation that advocate for women’s equality in American politics.
Her rivals were even quicker to put out statements pitching themselves as superior options, and later sought to downplay the impact Healey’s announcement will have on the race.
”I’ve always expected there would be someone standing up for business as usual,” said Allen, a Cambridge Democrat and first-time candidate who began exploring a run in December 2020. She pointed to housing as an issue that requires a larger reimagination.
”This is not about getting something back on track. This is off the rails,” Allen said. “The attorney general has been sitting on Beacon Hill for the last eight years. I think our conventional politics has given us a narrow range of solutions.”
Chang-Dίaz, who launched her campaign last June, framed the race on Thursday as one of “different styles, different priorities, and different records.”
“I think there are some clear differentiators up front about [having] the willingness to take on tough fights, even when they’re hard and they’re inconvenient,” said Chang-Dίaz, a veteran progressive lawmaker from Jamaica Plain.
Diehl, a conservative Republican, called the Democratic candidates a “trio of radical progressives” and said the choice for voters should be clear: “Live under government control of every aspect of your life, or live in a state where you’re free to choose a school, a career, and a life of self-direction and unlimited opportunity.”
Healey grew up in the small town of Hampton Falls, N.H., one of five children with a single mother. She captained Harvard’s varsity women’s basketball team, and played the sport professionally in Europe for two years.
A graduate of Harvard College and Northeastern University School of Law, Healey worked in the attorney general’s office for seven years before successfully campaigning to lead it. Her tenure included leading the agency’s bureaus of Public Protection and Business and Labor. She also worked as chief of the civil rights division, and led Massachusetts’ fight against the federal Defense of Marriage Act.
In her two terms as attorney general, Healey has used a role sometimes seen as merely functionary to vault onto the national stage. Along with Democratic attorneys general in other states, she was involved in dozens of legal actions against the Trump administration.
Healey’s campaign for governor opens up the race for attorney general, a contest that has already drawn a number of Democratic contenders.
Despite Healey’s many advantages in the gubernatorial race, history offers a cautionary tale: The last time a Massachusetts attorney general became governor was in the 1940s.
Former attorney general Martha Coakley, a Democrat who lost the 2014 governor’s race to Baker, nonetheless expressed confidence in Healey’s bid, extolling her successor’s “energy and direction.”
“Maura has been a terrific AG,” Coakley said, “and will be a terrific governor.”
Emma Platoff can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @emmaplatoff. Matt Stout can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout.