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With political and policy differences, relationship between Wu and Healey may be more complicated than it seems

Boston Mayor Michelle Wu (center) and Massachusetts Governor-elect Maura Healey (right), along with volunteers and other leaders, helped prepare turkeys for delivery to families at a Greater Boston Food Bank event earlier this month.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

It was less than 48 hours after Election Day, and the Boston mayor and Massachusetts governor-to-be already appeared to be moving in unison.

Frozen turkeys in hand, Michelle Wu and Maura Healey marched side by side earlier this month through the Greater Boston Food Bank’s warehouse as lines of volunteers cheered. If the point of the annual event was to help promote food security, it also sent another message: Here were Healey and Wu, Democrats delivering together.

Indeed, from the outside, it looks like the perfect partnership: Come January, the two most powerful political leaders in the state will be liberal, barrier-breaking Harvard women, attorneys who grew up outside Massachusetts but built their public service careers here. Both Wu and Healey are vocal advocates for abortion rights, environmental justice, and affordable housing. They apparently even have the same taste in late-night pizza, running into each other at Pinocchio’s during Harvard’s reunion weekend this year.

But the relationship between the state and the capital city’s top executives may prove much more complicated than their post-election photo op suggests.

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One factor playing out behind the scenes: Wu and Healey backed competing candidates in this year’s Democratic primary, a political disagreement that sparked a heated phone call at the time. They’ve remained cordial publicly, but come January, policy differences could emerge more prominently: Though both women have been branded as progressives, those close to Healey believe she intends to govern as more of the centrist she campaigned as, an approach that could put a gulf between her and Wu on any number of key issues.

Their ability to cooperate could shape the future of the city that serves as New England’s economic engine. Thanks to the striking consolidation of power at the state level in Massachusetts — in part the century-old relic of ethnic warfare between the Brahmins running Beacon Hill and the Irish coming to power in Boston — the capital city relies on state approval for big and small policy shifts. But Healey has so far been noncommittal about several of Wu’s top priorities that require state assent.

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Even geography may not be the connection many thought it would be. Healey, once a resident of Charlestown and then the South End, quietly moved out of Boston months ago, and is still determining “where it makes most sense to reside” once she takes office, her campaign said.

Wu told reporters last week that she will “lean into” the issues Healey stressed on the campaign trail, including combating climate change and improving public transportation. But she did not directly respond when asked whether she felt she now had a clear ally in the governor’s office.

“We need a partner up at the state to affirmatively, proactively lift up when Boston submits our ideas that will need state approval,” Wu said.

Both women say they are optimistic about their partnership, and Democrats are hopeful that closer alignment between the governor and Boston mayor will translate into economic success for the whole state — and political dividends for both.

During most of Healey’s two terms as attorney general, Wu served on the Boston City Council, so the two had some limited interactions in professional circles. Wu, 37, and Healey, 51, don’t yet know each other very well, according to people close to both, but they’ve often crossed paths and are now in regular touch by phone or text. They have not formally met since Healey’s election but are scheduling a discussion, Wu said.

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But having a Democrat back in the governor’s office doesn’t guarantee policy outcomes for progressive leaders in Boston.

“There’s going to be a closeness and returned phone calls,” a Democrat close to Healey said of her relationship with Wu. “But I don’t think it’s a given that the mayor’s agenda is suddenly going to have an easier time on Beacon Hill.”

Boston mayors and Massachusetts governors have to collaborate on everything from the mundane to the major. The famed “bromance” between Governor Charlie Baker and former mayor Martin J. Walsh proved crucial when the COVID-19 pandemic struck, and the two spoke on the phone nearly every day. Baker once joked that his wife, Lauren, would resort to “taking my phone away from me on a Saturday night at 10 o’clock and telling Marty Walsh that you know it’s time for the boys to stop talking.” Still, that closeness didn’t always translate into policy wins for Boston: Walsh lamented that Beacon Hill hadn’t given the city enough support on housing and pre-kindergarten.

Democrats by and large expect the relationship between Wu and Healey to be a marked improvement over the one between Wu and Baker. The Democratic mayor and Republican governor have publicly clashed over the direction of the MBTA and control of Boston Public Schools. More recently, the two engaged in a public spat over Boston’s so-called Mass. and Cass area, where crises of homelessness and addiction have persisted.

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But Wu and Healey have disagreed before, too, including in this year’s Democratic primary for attorney general, when Wu endorsed Shannon Liss-Riordan weeks after Healey publicly backed rival Andrea Campbell. Wu’s endorsement angered the sitting attorney general, who felt Campbell was the best candidate to succeed her and campaigned hard for her.

Both have said the heated disagreement that ensued wouldn’t affect their working relationship and have downplayed the rift. While endorsements may seem trivial, in politics they can be deeply personal. Healey did not endorse Wu in last year’s contested mayor’s race; Wu did not endorse Healey in this year’s contest for governor until all her Democratic rivals had dropped out.

While Healey seems more sympathetic than Baker to Wu’s progressive ideas on transit, housing, and the environment, the governor-elect also has not committed to giving Boston’s plans the support they would need to become reality. Wu, meanwhile, has earned a reputation for being unafraid to call out even fellow Democrats when they stand in the way of her policy priorities, suggesting any disagreements could become public.

Healey hasn’t said, for example, whether she supports Boston getting a long-sought seat on the governing board of the MBTA, or being included in a 10-municipality pilot to ban new fossil fuel hookups. Wu has sought a new tax on high-dollar real estate transactions in Boston in order to fund affordable housing. Healey, meanwhile, explicitly campaigned on cutting taxes.

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Asked recently about the T board seat, a measure even Baker has supported, Healey said only that “there are a lot of ideas on the table.”

Wu campaigned on imposing rent control to quell Boston’s skyrocketing housing costs. Healey, meanwhile, has said, “I don’t think that’s the solution” for the state, though she indicated she may be open to allowing cities and towns to pursue it independently.

Wu has called on Baker to “step up as a partner” at Mass. and Cass. Healey said, “I think that there has been partnership and collaboration.”

Healey’s administration may feel more like a continuation of Baker’s than a sea change favoring Democrats, political observers said.

“A number of progressives and Democrats assume that Maura Healey is going to be a progressive governor,” said Tatishe Nteta, a pollster and political science professor at UMass Amherst. But her agenda “doesn’t sound like a progressive to me.”

The capital city will need state sign-off for policies as major as reshuffling the local housing market and as modest as granting new liquor licenses. But Boston’s requests for such approvals, called home rule petitions, more often than not languish or die on Beacon Hill, particularly when they would impose substantive policy shifts. It remains to be seen whether that will change under Healey.

State Senator Lydia Edwards, a Democrat from Boston who knows both women well, said Wu and Healey “have way more in common than not.”

“Now is the time, in this transition period, where deep connections are formed,” Edwards said. “And I think they will.”

Plus, having a good relationship benefits both Healey and Wu, said state Representative Michael J. Moran, a powerful Democrat who represents Brighton.

“Boston drives the economy of New England. It would be mutually beneficial for Healey to have a relationship with the capital city — and likewise the mayor to have a relationship with the governor. I don’t see that being an issue at all,” Moran said.

“Now stylistically, what does that mean? That’s going to be interesting.”

Samantha J. Gross of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


Emma Platoff can be reached at emma.platoff@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @emmaplatoff. Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout.