Governor Maura Healey has assuaged business leaders on tax policy. She’s urged lawmakers to embrace ways to make Massachusetts more attractive. She’s gone on national television, touting the state as a “great place” to live and work — amid a conversation, ostensibly, about abortion rights.
“And by the way,” Healey said during the MSNBC appearance, “we’re going to protect your freedom.”
As she passes 100 days in office, Healey has at virtually every turn played the role of booster-in-chief as regularly as chief executive, operating as pitchwoman for a state that, she and others acknowledge, is still in need of tangible solutions to its broken transportation and housing systems.
It’s through that lens that Healey has focused her administration’s early goals. In an interview with the Globe last week, she used some iteration of the word “compete” nearly 10 times, for residents or federal money. A former professional basketball player, she regularly peppers her speeches and interviews with sports metaphors, emphasizing her desire to “win.” Too many states, she warned lawmakers last month, “are passing us by” because Massachusetts is becoming unaffordable to too many.
“I say that,” Healey told a legislative committee, “as Massachusetts’ proudest champion and cheerleader.”
Her administration is staring down the long-running crises in transportation and housing. Yet, Healey’s first months — her 100th full day as governor was Saturday — have passed largely without attention-consuming emergencies. Unlike her predecessor, whose early months were sidetracked by record-breaking blizzards and budget holes, Healey has had more time to focus on her early agenda.
She has repeatedly pitched a wide-ranging, if familiar, tax package, many elements of which the House has already passed. She is filling her Cabinet with newly created positions on climate change and veterans affairs, and moved quickly to stockpile the abortion drug mifepristone, following a federal court ruling suspending its approval. The move won a mention on Saturday Night Live.
A former attorney general long known as a Donald Trump combatant, Healey has governed as something else: a business-friendly Democrat seemingly more keen on wooing people to the state than political progressives to a particular cause.
“It’s really important right now, and I talk a lot about the need for Massachusetts to compete and to play to win,” Healey said in the interview. “I want us to.”
There are still more questions than answers as to how Healey will accomplish many of her ambitious goals.
She’s hired a new leader at the MBTA, but when, or if, regular service will return remains unclear. She’s on the verge of creating a new secretary of housing to oversee what she calls her “top priority,” but she hasn’t yet identified where the state could, or should, build more housing, a goal she set as a path to soothing the housing crisis.
If a slate of tax proposals reaches her desk, it could be years until it is clear whether one of her primary goals — convincing more people to stay or come here — has been accomplished. Some, such as the Libertarian-leaning Pioneer Institute, have already questioned whether the tax breaks are enough, while progressive advocates have cast them as handouts to the wealthy.
“If we want to attract businesses . . . there are a million important things to do to make this an attractive place to be in. But lowering taxes on very, very rich people and multinational corporations is not the thing she needs to be worrying about,” said Peter Enrich an emeritus professor of tax law at Northeastern University and chairman of Progressive Democrats of Massachusetts.
“It’s a mixed bag still,” he said of Healey’s first months. “I am not as happy as I had hoped I would be.”
Jacquetta Van Zandt, a political strategist and host of the “Politics and Prosecco” videocast program, said that if she were grading Healey on the first 100 days, “I would give her a B+.”
She said that Healey has been strategic in her hiring and the rollout of policies, but that local governments need to work with her to accomplish some of her biggest goals.
“[Healey] can say a great line about people coming here to live,” Van Zandt said. “But if the city mayors aren’t doing anything about rent stabilization or making the city accessible past 9 p.m. . . . why would I stay?”
Most residents, it appears, are still trying to get a read on Healey. While a recent UMass Amherst/WCVB poll found she has a nearly 60 percent approval rating, a plurality of voters responded “don’t know” when asked how well Healey has handled an array of issues from the economy to transportation. When asked to describe the new governor in one word, respondents opted for “new” as much as any other.
What’s ailing the state is, to some, more clear. Nearly 40 percent of those surveyed in the same poll, for example, have contemplated moving to another state, a byproduct of Massachusetts’ high cost of living.
Concrete plans remain a work in progress. Healey’s hand-picked new general manager, Phillip Eng, started only last week, and Healey has yet to tap a transportation safety chief despite vowing to do so within 60 days of taking office. The T remains hundreds, if not thousands, of workers short of what it needs, and its efforts so far to attract more applicants are a work in progress and out of step with other major transit agencies.
“I know [Eng] is going to give me the very best information — real time — and recommendations,” Healey said. “So we just need to give him some time.”
Healey mentioned the possibility of eliminating split shifts, which require drivers to work both the morning and evening peak hours, in a bid to incentivize applicants. The T currently does not allow new drivers to work full time until three to six months after they’re hired, though Healey could not say whether she considers that to be a real barrier. She said “it’s something I’ll look at.”
“I want to get to a first-class T and public transit system as quickly as possible,” she added. ”It’s important for our competitiveness.”
Healey was also emphatic about addressing the lack of accessible and affordable housing.
“Housing, housing, housing, housing,” she said. “We need more housing.”
Preliminary analyses say the state is down as many as 200,000 units, Healey said, and her administration will eventually make moves to address the production and affordability crisis.
One concrete win was an $85 million ask to shore up the emergency shelter program, a legislative request that went unanswered by the Legislature when Baker proposed it last year. Her campaign promise to create a Cabinet-level housing secretary is also moving through the legislative process.
The work ahead, she said, will involve building denser housing, making changes to local zoning codes, and surveying state-owned property for areas where more housing could be built. She couldn’t say how many parcels have been identified as potential areas for the construction — she delegated the survey to the state’s finance department — but has said housing remains a crucial benchmark for attracting businesses to employ people in the state as well as keeping existing residents.
“I certainly am focused on how many people are coming to the state versus leaving the state,” Healey said of judging the early results. “What decisions are employers making or businesses making? What can we do [to attract] new business?”
Healey’s competitive spirit has filtered down to more symbolic items as well.
For example, she hasn’t yet chosen a portrait of a former Massachusetts governor to hang in her office, as is tradition. Baker chose John Volpe, for whom his father worked when Volpe served as President Richard Nixon’s transportation secretary. Deval Patrick chose John Andrew, a prominent leader in the abolitionist movement who helped organize the first Black regiment in the Civil War.
Healey instead asked Massachusetts students to submit an essay about a former governor they believe should hang in the governor’s ceremonial office. A competition, if you will.
As Healey reflected on her first 100 days and the challenges ahead, she leaned back on a sofa in the office, directly below a vacant spot on the green wall where the portrait will eventually hang.
When a Globe reporter asked about the still unannounced decision, Healey looked up.
“I know,” she said, “it looks pretty empty, huh?”