Maura Healey’s election Tuesday made history in myriad ways, but it also marked a shift in Beacon Hill’s all-important leadership triangle, and for the second time in three decades placed the levers of power firmly in the hands of the Democrats in the state House, Senate, and now, the governor’s corner office.
While some might assume that Healey’s inauguration will usher in a new era of progressive policies and accomplishments unachievable with a Republican governor, lawmakers and longtime Beacon Hill observers say the reality is that across-the-board power invested in one party may lead to more friction and horse-trading than harmony among the ranks.
“If anything, the relationship between a Democratic executive branch and a Democratic Legislature actually leads to more conflict,” said Senator Jamie Eldridge, an Acton Democrat who has served in his chamber since 2009. “There is the natural battle for who is the most powerful Democrat on Beacon Hill.”
Just ask Deval Patrick. The intraparty tussles during his two terms as governor from 2007-2015 — the last time Democrats wielded total control of Beacon Hill — stand as a cautionary tale for what can happen when the one party has all the power.
Patrick, who ran for governor as a lawyer and business executive with no previous political experience, had rocky relationships with lawmakers, and, as a political neophyte, sometimes stumbled. His first attempt to legalize casinos in 2007 was swiftly rejected by the House speaker at the time; it was only resurrected when the new speaker, Robert A. DeLeo, eventually got behind the bill. When Patrick unveiled his plan to raise taxes at his 2013 State of the Commonwealth address without informing lawmakers first, many members took it as an affront. At the time, even fellow liberals said he was extremely hard to work with.
But Healey, a two-term attorney general with deep support in the Democratic Party, is a very different politician than Patrick, who was a true Beacon Hill outsider. And there are competing views on how much the future will reflect the past.
“Deval Patrick was a complete and total newbie,” said Jesse Mermell, who served as Patrick’s communications director in his second term. “There were no longstanding relationships. That isn’t the case here.”
On one hand, Healey’s win opens new possibilities for progressive lawmakers who aspire to pass legislation that had no chance with Governor Charlie Baker. On the other, her down-the-middle campaign promises and warmth toward Baker signal that perhaps the Legislature should expect the new boss to be much like the old one.
Since his first campaign, Baker has fashioned himself as a check on Democrats, forcing changes in major pieces of legislation even as Democrats enjoyed supermajorities in both chambers. He successfully forced Democrats to accept a compromise on a limit to facial recognition technology instead of a total ban on the practice in the 2020 police reform law, for instance, and pushed lawmakers in 2020 to make changes to an ambitious climate bill to make it friendlier to builders and prospective homeowners.
And Baker’s moderate tone has proven popular with Massachusetts voters. An October University of Massachusetts Amherst poll found that nearly half of voters were in some way concerned about Democratic Party control of both the Legislature and the governor’s office. Divided government has been more the rule than exception in recent decades; voters have seemed to like it that way.
For years, Baker has also provided a useful scapegoat for legislative leaders when they were pressed by activists or more liberal members to pass more progressive policy. With the moderate Baker in office, legislative leaders could hold progressive legislation at arm’s length when they wanted, unless the policy at hand enjoyed enough support that it would survive Baker’s veto. When it came to proposals to lift a ban on rent control, create same-day voter registration, or even allow cities and towns to resurrect happy hour drink specials, Democrats faced the shadow of a veto pen and backed down.
With Healey in the top post, “we don’t have that cover anymore,” said Representative Erika Uyterhoeven, a Somerville Democrat.
Progressive lawmakers say they’re optimistic that legislation that couldn’t get support before — rent stabilization, fossil fuel restrictions, and supervised drug consumption sites where people can use drugs under the care of medical professionals, for example — now have a fighting chance.
Healey, a South End Democrat, does have a record of promoting certain progressive priorities, having advocated for a police reform bill passed in 2020 that banned chokeholds, limited use of force, and increased accountability for police misconduct.
She did, however, take issue with a ban on the use of facial recognition software by the government and had concerns with restrictions proposed on no-knock warrants — suggesting that she may not always see eye-to-eye with the her Democratic partners in the State House.
Still, she supported the proposed constitutional amendment on the November ballot that, having narrowly passed, will raise taxes on the state’s wealthiest residents, a measure Baker opposed. She has also clashed with Baker on his push for more natural gas pipelines.
“With the election of a Healey-Driscoll ticket, it opens up possibilities in terms of what we can do,” Representative Mike Connolly, a Cambridge Democrat, said.
To be sure, progressive Democrats are not the majority in the State House, and leadership has shown itself to be less progressive on certain issues than the party’s left flank. Healey’s moderate stances may also play a role in what can get done, though the contours of her agenda for her first term remain largely unknown. She made few commitments during her campaign.
Analysts and lawmakers alike acknowledge that while forcing Baker to veto a bill has allowed Democrats on Beacon Hill to make a bold political statement at times, such as when both chambers successfully overrode his veto of a bill to allow driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants, it can be politically dicey for Democrats to force a member of their own party to consider bills she doesn’t support.
“The strategic considerations don’t disappear,” said Alexander Theodoridis, a political science professor at UMass Amherst. “The leadership isn’t going to want to put things out there that will look bad for her to sign or suggest division within the party.”
In statements, neither the House speaker nor the Senate president — both early supporters of Healey — indicated there would be a dramatic shift in how they operate from one administration to the next.
House Speaker Ronald J. Mariano said his chamber plans to take up legislation that can achieve consensus among members, “just as we have done during the Baker-Polito administration.”
Senate President Karen E. Spilka said legislating is “not about labels,” and that her chamber plans to take the same approach it always has. She said, however, that she’s known Healey “for a long time” and knows that many of their values and priorities are aligned, such as providing permanent tax relief to residents.
“I believe anyone who seeks that role, regardless of party, wants to get things done on behalf of Massachusetts,” Spilka said in a statement. “While it’s inevitable that we may not always see eye to eye on every exact policy, we share the common belief that government exists to improve the lives of Massachusetts residents.”
Healey has embraced much of Baker’s policy agenda and has long made it clear that she and the current governor often sing the same tune. She credits Baker for his work on combating climate change and addressing the COVID-19 pandemic, and has adopted some of his tax relief proposals as her own. And at their first appearance together since Tuesday’s election, the governor and the governor-elect cracked jokes, shook hands, and even literally embraced.
In her acceptance speech Tuesday, she promised voters a mix of progressive and moderate actions, pledging abortion protections and clean energy, while touting her assurance to lower taxes.
Healey thanked Baker Wednesday for his partnership, and, when pressed by reporters, demurred when asked to name any ways in which her administration would diverge from the Republican’s.
“When you look at the history, she wants to keep the job,” said Tatishe Nteta, a UMass Amherst political scientist and pollster, who pointed out the success moderate Republican governors here have found in winning reelection to the corner office. To win a second term, “she has to be a check on the progressive inclinations of the Massachusetts Legislature.”
Nteta said Healey’s moderation on the campaign trail and now, in transition, should signal to the Legislature that “she may not be the progressive dream that people assumed that she would be.”
“In her acceptance speech, she didn’t talk about working with leaders in state Legislature. She talked about working with Charlie Baker,” Nteta said.
Rob Gray, a longtime Republican operative who advised several Republican governors, noted that Healey has been strategic as she’s issued moderate signals in her campaign and since becoming governor-elect.
Massachusetts voters “support governing between the 40-yard lines,” he said. “The test will be when she assumes power and has to deal with a Democratic Legislature that has their own agenda.”
Emma Platoff of the Globe staff contributed to this report.