The day after Maura Healey won her election, headlines highlighted one thing: Voters elect the nation’s first openly gay attorney general.
And campaign staffers couldn’t help but joke, “Oh, you’re gay?”
Healey’s sexuality wasn’t an issue on the Massachusetts campaign trail but simply a part of who she is. It is as much a part of her story as being the oldest of five children, being a woman, being a former professional basketball player, and being a civil rights attorney.
“It’s a sign of progress here in the state that [being gay] wasn’t the first thing every time, because there’s a whole lot of me,” Healey said in a recent interview, still sleep deprived from her historic victory on election night. “You don’t like to get just put into a particular box.”
That said, Healey adds: “I’m proud of who I am. I’m proud of the fact that for the first time in our country’s history we will have a gay attorney general. I am certainly proud that this barrier has been broken.”
Healey went from being the underdog in the attorney general’s race to being a candidate who drew rock-star-status screams on the campaign trail when her name was mentioned.
Working on Healey’s campaign “was the most meaningful experience I had in my short life,” said Allie Owen, 20, a senior at Lesley University. “I loved working for a candidate who stood for things that were independent of the political establishment.”
Healey, 43, had never run for political office before last year when she quit her job in the office of the attorney general to seek the top job.
“I didn’t realize how much of an underdog we were,” she said.
During the Democratic primary, her opponent Warren Tolman, a former state senator, had the support of labor, Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh, Governor Deval Patrick, and the state’s Democratic Party, after he won the party convention in June.
“He was raising money in ways that I just couldn’t keep up with,” she said. “Nobody was really paying attention. A week out, we were down in a poll by like 7 or 8 points, then he had two big political endorsements — Marty Walsh and Governor Patrick. And I thought, ‘Seriously, like, what else can go against us at this point?’ Then you had to get your head together because I had to go on TV for my one and only televised debate.”
That, she said, was the hardest day of the campaign.
But she rallied, and with the help of women’s and gay rights groups, she beat Tolman handily in the primary, winning 62 percent of the vote. In the general election, she beat Republican John B. Miller by a similar margin, again earning about 62 percent of the vote.
“It was an emotional day,” Healey said.
Her friend, mentor, and former boss Martha Coakley didn’t capture the corner office. And while she mourns that loss, Healey said she is confident that she will be able to forge a cooperative working relationship with Republican Governor-elect Charlie Baker.
“To get done what we need to get done in government, we need to work collaboratively. We need to work in partnership,” Healey said. “I imagine we will have our time and our conversations. At the same time, I’ll be working on the transition with Martha Coakley and making sure that we are ready to go and hit the ground running come January.”
Two days after Election Day, Healey appeared at one of her first public events as attorney general-elect, addressing PowerOptions, a regional energy-buying consortium at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston.
She talked about energy costs and the importance of creating a clean energy economy but also outlined her other priorities for the office: tackling opioid addictions, addressing mental and behavior health as criminal justice reform, protecting housing rights and seniors who fall victim to financial abuse, and breaking cycles of violence.
“This is an office that not everybody understands how important [it] is in protecting the civil rights of all people,” said KC Coredini, executive director of MassEquality, a statewide gay rights advocacy group.
The political action arm of MassEquality was an early and ardent supporter of Healey’s campaign for attorney general. “Everybody was familiar with her work. But everybody didn’t know she was behind it,” Coredini said in an interview.
Healey began her seven-year tenure at the attorney general’s office as chief of the civil rights division. She was the attorney of record in the state’s fight against the federal Defense of Marriage Act. She won a national settlement against Apple to make devices more accessible for people with disabilities, and she led the fight to help victims of predatory lending stay in their homes.
Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights advocacy group, said in a statement, “As the nation’s first openly gay attorney general, she is an inspirational trailblazer and will fight to guarantee civil rights and legal equality for all people in Massachusetts.”
Coredini said Healey makes history not only because of what she’s going to do, “but because of who she is. For LGBTQ youth everywhere, she will really be a symbol of where they can go.”
In Massachusetts, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning youth — LGBTQ youth — are disproportionately represented in homeless populations, suicide attempts, and dating violence, according to a recent report from the state.
“Her election is an example to young people like them. . . that it’s OK that you are an LGBTQ person. It’s going to be fine,” Coredini said.
That, Healey said, is a mantle she wears proudly and humbly.
So, she walks into office as an inspirational figure to some, with a ready to-do list that includes creating a child and youth protection division and establishing a gaming division to enforce the laws surrounding the state’s proposed casinos.
“We’ve got gaming; repeal failed,” she said. “That is going to be a really significant issue for the next attorney general.”
“Oh,” she said. “That’s me.”
Akilah Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @akjohnson1922.