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Maura Healey faces new challenge: saying how she’ll govern

Governor-elect Maura Healey and Lieutenant Governor-elect Kim Driscoll spoke to children in an after-school program at Girls Inc. in Lynn.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

When asked recently whether she would revive a stalled package of tax breaks next year, Maura Healey was coy. “We’re going to be taking a look at any number of executive orders, potential filings and the like.”

What would the governor-elect do differently than her predecessor to address homelessness and addiction in Boston? “What is absolutely imperative right now is that we work in partnership,” she said.

And does she believe the capital city should get a seat on the board of the MBTA? “I’m not going to get into the specifics of this right now.”

In the weeks since she decisively won the governor’s race, Healey has danced around specific questions and has yet to give any extended interviews to the media, leaving Democrats to guess — and hope — about how their standard-bearer will govern.

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“She hasn’t really said much. . . . It wasn’t really much of a campaign at all,” said Jacquetta Van Zandt, a Democratic political strategist. Once Healey is governor, “she is going to have to be more open. She is going to have to talk to the press. She is going to have to have clear, direct answers.”

During her eight years as attorney general, Healey took firm, public stances through the lawsuits she filed, bringing cases against opioid manufacturers, the Trump administration, and others to build a national reputation as an aggressive, and progressive, litigator. As a candidate for governor, on a glide path to the office without major competition, she had little incentive to make specific commitments or promise sweeping changes.

Now, with little more than a month before she takes over as governor, Healey has still not dropped her campaign guard, declining to offer much about how she would realize her priorities.

Earlier this month, on her first day as governor-elect, Healey skirted questions on everything from her transition plans to her political ideology. At a news conference at the State House after a meeting with Governor Charlie Baker, she declined to describe what they had discussed or say whether she learned anything that surprised her.

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“You think I’m gonna answer that?” Healey cracked, laughing. “We had a good conversation.”

Healey has articulated several early priorities — housing, transportation, education — and said in a CNN interview this month that tax reform “will be my first act, day one, as governor.” In response to Globe questions this week, Healey’s team said tax reform will be part of her first budget proposal, slated to be filed by March.

Healey’s aides also pointed to plans she has put out on issues including transportation, where she’s vowed to electrify all modes of public transportation by 2040, and housing, with promises to expand assistance programs for down payments and closing costs. She has also voiced support for expanding the child tax credit and raising the estate tax threshold.

“Since January, Maura has been laying out her vision to the people of Massachusetts — through community events, forums, debates, press interviews, and policy proposals,” said Karissa Hand, press secretary for Healey’s transition team. “For eight years, the people of Massachusetts have seen Maura’s leadership and the results she delivers.”

Since being elected Nov. 8, Healey has tapped incoming lieutenant governor Kim Driscoll as chair of her transition team, and announced 15 transition team cochairs who will guide the new administration’s policy making.

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But Healey has yet to name any top officials for her administration, be it Cabinet members or a chief of staff — appointments that could help signal what approach she intends to take. Hand said Healey has launched a search for a new general manager of the MBTA.

Fleshing out her early priorities will also be a part of what has so far been a quiet transition process, according to those involved. JD Chesloff, executive director of the Massachusetts Business Roundtable and a member of Healey’s transition team, said the group aims to generate “ideas of what to do to hit the ground running in the first 100 days.” Democrats are eagerly awaiting what they hope will be an ambitious agenda.

“I hope to see Maura, as governor, behave in ways I’ve never seen her behave before. That means taking on things that are very hard, beyond low-hanging fruit,” said Representative Nika Elugardo, a Jamaica Plain Democrat who hopes Healey pursues systemic changes in housing, corrections, and policing.

“That’s going to require leadership that not only I’ve never seen from Maura Healey, I have never seen it from our state government,” Elugardo added.

For now, though, there are potential political advantages to keeping quiet.

“I tell people not to talk to the dang press before they get sworn in,” said Jay Nixon, a former attorney general and governor of Missouri who has advised other leaders on transitions. “The government is what happens when she takes her hand off the Bible.”

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Some allies said Healey will be able to respond more nimbly to future challenges because she hasn’t yet committed herself to precise approaches.

During the governor’s race, “there wasn’t a lot of requirement that she put great specificity out there,” said Warren Tolman, a former state senator and Healey supporter who lost to her in the 2014 Democratic primary for attorney general. But, he added, “that will allow her to govern more effectively, because she will be able to respond to challenges as they emerge.”

“Did Maura fill in all the blanks on every component of her affordable housing program? No. But I think I know Maura Healey well enough to know that she’s very concerned about the cost of housing in Massachusetts, and I also know that she’ll address it and confront it in a very progressive manner,” Tolman said.

The current governor-elect is a more measured, moderate version of the Healey who entered politics in the 2014 race for attorney general as a spunky, progressive underdog. She was an outsider then; she hadn’t worked on campaigns or frequented local Democratic meetings.

Many who knew her were surprised she was seeking public office at all. She won the primary, overcoming Tolman’s myriad political advantages, with an energetic, personable campaign.

By the time she was elected governor, Healey’s win had seemed inevitable for the better part of a year. The party’s unlikely outsider had become its consummate insider.

The Healey of 2022 had far more to lose than she did eight years ago. She campaigned as a pragmatic centrist, the inheritor of Baker’s noncontroversial, middle-of-the-road approach, in a bid that ultimately earned her almost two-thirds of the vote against Republican Geoff Diehl, a Donald Trump-backed conservative.

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“Healey posed the question to the voters: Do you want Diehl’s Trump-style division and chaos? Or her Biden-Baker-style competence and progress?” said Mark Horan, a Democratic strategist who was not involved in Healey’s campaign. “They chose the latter.”

Still, some Democrats, particularly in the party’s progressive wing, miss the earlier candidate, and wish Healey would use her powerful perch to take more aggressive stances. Having her election all but guaranteed gave her tremendous license to take risks, they argue.

“Maura could have come out in February and said the sky is purple, and 80 percent plus of the Democratic establishment would have issued press releases saying, ‘Yes, I’m so glad someone finally said the sky is purple,’ and ‘I have filed a bill to declare the sky purple,’ ” said one Democratic former elected official, who requested anonymity to speak candidly and without fear of reprisal.

If Healey isn’t going to use that influence to tackle the state’s biggest problems, the person added, “I don’t really know what we’re doing here.”


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