When Maura Healey described how she would spur more housing if elected governor, the Democrat said the solution included expanding Charlie Baker’s approach to more transit-oriented development. “Governor Baker made the right move,” she said.
She has vowed to be the most aggressive governor in combating climate change, but in a March radio interview quickly noted, “I think the administration has really done a lot in that realm.”
And when pressed on how she’d address a potential surge in COVID cases, she said she would follow the science — or “do what the Baker-Polito administration has done.”
Healey is vying to retake the governor’s office for Democrats. But in both policy and pitch, the attorney general has for months cited, echoed, and outright praised Baker, the lame-duck Republican at whom her party has for years lobbed arrows.
She has called him a friend, and a “valued partner,” particularly on efforts to fight the opioid scourge. In celebrating her gubernatorial nomination last month, Healey held Baker up as an example of governing “with respect.”
Her campaign has released a slew of plans for her would-be administration, but while some have lacked detail, they largely would build upon, not be at odds with, what Baker has done. That includes her proposal to increase available tax credits for children and other dependents, which would expand on versions of what Baker, and the Legislature, previously pushed.
“He’s leaving being the most popular governor,” said Quincy Mayor Tom Koch, a conservative former Democrat who has endorsed Healey and campaigned with her. “Why would you fool with that success?”
Healey appears intent not to. The South End Democrat all but avoided criticizing Baker directly — including for his oversight of the troubled MBTA — even as other Democrats such as Senators Elizabeth Warren and Edward Markey have laid problems at the agency directly at Baker’s feet.
Asked last week how a Healey administration would differ from Baker’s, she demurred repeatedly, saying she would leave such comparisons to others.
“I can just be myself, who I am,” Healey said, later adding: “We’ll certainly look to learn from and build on the things that worked in the Baker-Polito administration, while recognizing that we’re going to be inheriting our own sets of challenges.”
Underscoring the upside-down nature of the gubernatorial campaign, Healey’s careful embrace of Baker stands in stark contrast to Geoff Diehl, Republicans’ Donald Trump-backed nominee.
If elected, Diehl said, one of his first acts would be to undo a Baker policy requiring state workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19. He also has criticized Baker’s decision to shut businesses early in the pandemic.
And while Diehl has backed Baker’s ideas for tax relief, on other resonant issues with voters — from abortion rights to Trump — Diehl has put himself on the opposite side of the socially liberal Republican he hopes to succeed. Diehl calls himself “pro-life,” and opposes steering taxpayer funds toward abortion services. Diehl last fall trumpeted an endorsement from Trump that largely ripped into Baker as a “RINO,” or Republican in name only.
Amanda Orlando, Diehl’s campaign manager, said he believes Baker has done a “good job” promoting the need for affordable housing. But Diehl has also said he would seek to repeal the MBTA zoning regulations that Baker created and Healey has said she supports.
Diehl “believes the response to COVID was wrong and that businesses and students suffered, and he believes there needs to be better management of MBTA and certain other agencies like RMV and DCF,” Orlando said, referring to the Registry of Motor Vehicles and the Department of Children and Families.
To be sure, Healey and Baker diverge in a variety of ways, too. She supports a proposed constitutional amendment on the November ballot that would raise taxes on the state’s wealthiest residents, something Baker has repeatedly spoken out against.
Her office and his administration have clashed on the need for more natural gas pipelines, and in different political times — that is, during Baker’s 2018 reelection campaign — she accused him of retreating “to poll-tested safety rather than taking on the tough fights.”
The difference now, Healey backers say: Baker’s not actually on the ballot.
“She’s not running against Baker. She has no need to” criticize him, said Peter Enrich, chairman of Progressive Democrats of Massachusetts. “I’m going to continue to talk about how problematic he’s been and what a horrible manager he’s been. But I don’t need her to do that. I need her to get elected with a mandate.”
Healey’s warm description of Baker now reflects another political reality: He is poised to leave office in January having enjoyed stratospheric popularity throughout his nearly eight years in office. More than 70 percent of likely voters polled by Suffolk University last month approved of the job he’s done, with his highest numbers of any demographic (79 percent) coming among Democrats.
Many also believe Massachusetts is heading in the right direction. Polled last month on who was most responsible for that — with President Biden, the Legislature, and the economy among the choices — the plurality of voters (36 percent) pointed to Baker.
“I think that’s how Maura is looking at it,” said Revere Mayor Brian Arrigo, a Healey supporter who, four years ago, was among a group of Democrats to cross party lines to back Baker. “The Commonwealth is in a strong place. There are pieces we can build off of, rather than say, ‘This isn’t working, and we have to scrap the whole thing.’ ”
Healey’s regard for Baker has paired with, if not helped fuel, an air of moderation around her campaign. A self-described “proud progressive,” she has pitched her campaign on vows to cut not just housing and transportation costs, but taxes.
She has promised to pursue expanding the dependent tax credit, but she also backed, without specifics, an increase to the state’s estate tax threshold and boosting a rental tax deduction. Those are two major pieces of both a Baker tax relief plan and a similar package that remains stalled in the Legislature.
Her primary campaign message of making the state more affordable has drawn relentless attacks from Republicans, be it Diehl or Jim Lyons, the conservative chairman of the state Republican Party who cast it as an “empty promise.”
Baker, however, has steered far from the race, saying the day after the primary that he has no intent to get involved or endorse anyone. An aide declined to say at the time whether Baker would even vote for his party’s ticket in November.
Given her wide polling leads over Diehl — she led by a 2-to-1 margin in last month’s Suffolk poll — Healey “doesn’t need any [Baker] coattails,” said Tobe Berkovitz, a veteran political media consultant and professor emeritus at Boston University.
But aligning herself with the Republican, he said, “makes her seem like a reasonable Democrat, and it positions herself on issues that are popular with a relatively broad base of Massachusetts voters.”
“For her, it makes a lot of sense,” he said.
Healey supporters reject the idea that her positioning is purely political. That her policies align with, or jump off of, Baker’s is a reflection of what some described as shared pragmatism.
“It’s not just following what Charlie Baker does. It’s a matter of doing the right thing,” said Representative Chris Markey, a Dartmouth Democrat and Healey supporter who endorsed Baker in the past.
By Healey’s telling, her admiration for Baker is genuine. In an August podcast interview with comedian Jimmy Tingle, she praised Baker’s handling of the pandemic, saying he “was bringing a commitment to try to help as many people as possible and see our way through that.”
She also spoke glowingly about their working relationship, crediting his leadership on the opioid epidemic, an issue she has made a central part of her own record.
Healey highlighted her office’s lawsuit against the Sacklers, the family behind Oxycontin maker Purdue Pharma, in one of her campaign ads. Baker, too, makes a subtle appearance in the spot, clearly standing over Healey’s right shoulder in a photo from a news conference.
“I mean, we were right together, fighting manufacturers and distributors,” Healey told Tingle, a former lieutenant governor candidate.
“He made that a top priority,” she added. “I made that a top priority.”
Samantha J. Gross of the Globe staff contributed to this report.