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Capturing the Cool Moose

A new book exams the political life of the late Robert J. Healey Jr.

"The Cool Moose" by Lawrence W. Verria.Stillwater River Publications

My collection of Rhode Island political campaign paraphernalia includes a North Providence mayor Sal Mancini bumper sticker, a Providence mayor Vincent A. “Buddy” Cianci Jr. business card, and -- oddly enough -- a Robert J. Healey Jr. campaign condom.

The wrapper on that last item is emblazoned with the words “Nothing never felt so good! Healey for Lt. Gov.” He distributed those condoms while running for lieutenant governor -- and vowing to do away with the office if he won it.

So I was amused to see a photo of a Healey condom in a new book titled “The Cool Moose: Robert J. Healey Jr., Beyond the Beard.


Lawrence W. Verria, an author and chairman of the social studies department at North Kingstown High School, wrote the book, aiming to capture the core message and meaning of the Cool Moose’s charge across Rhode Island’s political stage.

Healey, who died in 2016 at age 58, was a familiar face, with his long hair, glasses, and full beard, known for his love of cigars and knack for capturing attention. Between 1986 and 2014, he ran for governor four times and lieutenant governor three times. He served on the Warren School Committee and founded the Cool Moose Party, hatching the idea at a time when a moose was on the loose in Rhode Island.

”Looking like a hodgepodge of Grizzly Adams, Frank Zappa, John Lennon, and Jesus Christ, he stood out to a sizable number of prospective voters as either an active hippie or a 60s leftover,” Verria wrote. “Neither characterization comes close to capturing the Cool Moose’s essence.”

In an interview, Verria said that after Healey died, the news cycle quickly moved on to other topics, and attention later focused on questions about Healey’s will and business dealings. But Verria said he wanted to “go beyond the beard” to try to better define what Healey was all about.


While libertarians and Republicans claimed him as one of their own, Healey never fit neatly into any one category, Verria said, and his emphasis on self-government is often overlooked.

”His core message is that no one is in a better position to look out for ourselves than we are ourselves -- that we trust politicians too much, including himself,” Verria said. “Every person on the ballot is telling you what they are going to do for you, whereas Healey wanted people to tell the government what to do. One key part of his platform was voter initiative.”

Healey was demanding a lot of voters, and his political work remains unfinished, Verria said.

“Choosing Healey meant the voter had signed up for an active role in the governing process,” he wrote. “The common voter had no intention of taking on such a responsibility.”

Verria noted that biographies often tell the stories of winners, yet Healey lost all of his statewide races. But he said that calculus fails to reflect what Healey achieved while campaigning without many important advantages, such as cash.

In 2014, he received 21.4 percent of the vote in the governor’s race while spending just $36.29 on the campaign. And in 2010, Healey received 39.2 percent of the vote in the lieutenant governor’s race.

While he never benefited from a Super PAC, Healey always benefited from droll, eye-catching slogans, such as his 1998 gubernatorial pitch: “Healey for governor. Why not? You’ve done worse” -- or his Dunkin’ Donuts-style message regarding the lieutenant governor’s office: “I will work for the Donut.”


Verria said Healey used his appearance and his slogans to capture people’s attention, and once he had it, he surprised them with serious proposals and intellect. Healey had two bachelor’s degrees, two master’s degrees, a law degree, and he’d completed coursework for a PhD at Columbia University.

But Healey had weaknesses. For example, while he could deliver a position clearly one-on-one, he came across as nervous in key debates, Verria wrote.

In this year’s election cycle, both a Republican and a Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor cited Healey in saying the lieutenant governor’s position is a waste of taxpayer money. But neither of those candidates won, and Verria said Healey’s legacy is about more than that.

”When people talk about ‘Will there be another Bob Healey?’ we are going to be waiting a long time,” Verria said. “He was one of a kind.”

This story first appeared in Rhode Map, our free newsletter about Rhode Island that also contains information about local events, data about the coronavirus in the state, and more. If you’d like to receive it via e-mail Monday through Friday, you can sign up here.

Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.