It’s Politics 101: The underdog demands debates. The front-runner resists them.
Attorney General Maura Healey is following that classic play-it-safe, don’t- give-your-opponent-any-oxygen political strategy. State Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz — Healey’s opponent in the Democratic primary race for governor — challenged Healey to three live televised debates before the Democratic party convention in June. In response, Healey proposed two live televised debates, which would take place after the convention but before the September primary.
Healey should be brave enough to debate Chang-Díaz before the convention.
Healey’s counter-offer keeps Democratic activists from comparison shopping before they decide on a possible endorsement at their convention and decide who will be on the ballot. It also makes Healey look tentative and afraid to tell voters what she stands for. In the long run, a play-it-safe strategy may not be as safe as Healey thinks it is. Massachusetts voters know her agenda as attorney general. But her priorities beyond that role and her vision for governing remain a mystery. She seems determined to keep it that way, perhaps out of fear of being labeled “too far left” by the Republican opponent whom the winner of the Democratic primary will ultimately face. But all voters — Democrats, Republicans, and unenrolled — should know where Healey stands on issues Chang-Díaz has already staked out, such as support for single-payer health care, fare-free public transit, and tuition-free public college.
There’s no question Healey is the front-runner on the Democratic side. She has $4.7 million in her campaign war chest compared with $368,117 reported by Chang-Díaz. In a January poll, Healey held a commanding 36 point lead among likely primary voters. After the abortion rights group NARAL Pro-Choice America recently endorsed Healey, Chang-Díaz said she wasn’t even given a hearing.
Healey’s political dominance is understandable. Chang-Díaz is a first-time statewide candidate. Healey is serving her second term as attorney general. Her tenure has been filled with headlines about the high-profile lawsuits she and other attorneys general filed against the Trump administration, as well as other causes she has championed and deserves credit for, such as holding drug companies accountable for opioid abuse.
Her current job gives Healey a big megaphone, and she’s using it. For example, Healey recently presided over a press conference at Boston City Hall during which she announced that Massachusetts will get $525 million out of a $26 billion settlement with the nation’s largest drug distributors. Basking in that good news, she happily stood alongside Mayor Michelle Wu of Boston, along with mayors from cities including Newton, Everett, Salem, and Quincy.
But Healey is reluctant to stand next to Chang-Díaz during a pre-convention debate, a strategy that seems primarily designed to keep her from embracing positions that would help her with progressives in a Democratic primary but potentially hurt her with more centrist voters in November. As reported by Politico, Healey has declined to seek endorsements from two major progressive groups — Our Revolution Massachusetts and Progressive Massachusetts. The Healey campaign told Politico that Healey is running “on her strong progressive record and her vision to make Massachusetts a fairer, more equitable place for all.” If so, she shouldn’t be afraid to talk about it, before or after the convention.
If you’re the front-runner, agreeing to more debates goes against conventional political wisdom. But nationally, these are unconventional times. And Massachusetts is at a real pivot point. Republican Governor Charlie Baker enjoyed broad support from Democrats and unenrolled voters. He chose not to seek reelection. Meanwhile, Democrats control the state Legislature, and only Democrats represent Massachusetts in Washington. What does the next governor believe, and what will their priorities be? That should be discussed and debated as frequently and energetically as possible — and before party activists meet in June.
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