EXETER, N.H. — Another politician might have abandoned this doorstep within a minute, maybe two.
But Maura Healey was pursuing a potential Hillary Clinton voter, and she was relentless.
When no one answered the door of the historic home, she went looking for a side entrance. She persisted when the homeowner emerged, nonplussed, to find Healey in her driveway. And she pressed on with the woman, who was not a 22-year-old likely Clinton supporter but her elderly grandmother with a deep case of Clinton fatigue.
Barbara Bohn was busy cutting and canning vegetables. And no, she wouldn’t be baking zucchini bread, as Healey warmly suggested. She doesn’t even like zucchini bread.
But she likes to talk, and Healey likes to win, so the two brought their conversation into the kitchen where they touched on topics both delicious and salacious. Healey complimented the wafting scents — “burned squash,” Bohn demurred — and recalled the hand crank she and her grandmother used to seal cans of pepper relish. Bohn said her granddaughter is the age Monica Lewinsky was when President Clinton had an affair with her. “I don’t want any more Bill Clinton stories,” Bohn said.
Still, Healey forged ahead, calling Hillary Clinton “her own woman” and praising her agenda on income inequality, college affordability, and equal pay for women.
“Doesn’t she look like a smart, determined woman, ready to take it on?” Healey said, handing over Clinton’s campaign literature.
“Well, we have lots of smart, determined women,” Bohn countered.
If Healey didn’t win a commitment that day, it wasn’t for lack of trying: She had wooed one tough customer for over a half-hour. But she’d enjoyed it, she said later. She likes listening to people, and she doesn’t give up easily.
“I’m not interested in half effort,” Healey said later, in an interview. “That wasn’t a recipe for success on the athletic field or the basketball court, and I don’t think it’s a recipe for success in many cases.”
That indefatigable drive and charisma have made Healey the Massachusetts attorney general and the one to watch in state politics in elections to come. A first-time candidate, she vaulted out of political obscurity last year and into the top tier of political viability in Massachusetts as the Democrats’ highest-ranking officeholder at the state level. Now, she’s moonlighting as a campaign surrogate for Clinton in New Hampshire, where she grew up, and she’s sharing stages with Senator Elizabeth Warren, Mayor Martin J. Walsh, and Governor Charlie Baker.
She has elbowed her way into issues from casino development to teen violence, and she has rarely met a camera she didn’t like. (When President Obama paid Boston’s union leaders a visit on Labor Day, it was Healey whose presidential greeting was captured on the Globe’s front page.)
Yet for all her apparent ambition and high marks to date, the Democrats’ next great hope insists that she is not going to run for governor in four years.
“I didn’t view this or see this as a stepping stone. I love this job,” she said in an interview, admitting she sometimes gets frustrated with people’s cynicism about political motives. “This is what I want to do. This is what I ran to do.”
‘The people’s law firm’
Whether by natural inclination or political instinct, though, Healey makes it her job to work a crowd. A trademark of her early tenure has been connecting “the people’s law firm” more directly to the people.
She created a Community Engagement Division that reaches out to churches, social service centers, teen centers, and adult learning programs, explaining how the office can help individuals with legal problems. The attorney general already had regional offices. Now, she takes her show on the road, bringing attorneys to community centers to field verbal — and potentially, legal — complaints on everything from housing discrimination to bullying.
Here’s what that looks like: In the Haitian Multi-Service Center of Catholic Charities in Dorchester last Wednesday night, her attorneys sat behind tables offering literature on victim compensation, fair housing, and fair labor. A massive TV monitor rolled through screens showing Healey’s photo and the many duties her office can perform. And Healey herself stood before the crowd of about 40 Haitian-Americans, asking whether they’d experienced problems she could help sort out: Had anyone been denied an apartment with a voucher? Dealt with crushing college debt? Faced a debt collector?
No, don’t answer that, she joked. Anyone have a friend who had faced a debt collector?
“We’re here to help with that,” Healey said. And later: “I want you to know who it is who’s working for you.”
A first-time campaigner who turned out on to be a natural, Healey credits her ease in making conversation with voters in part to her years of waitressing at Hampton Beach, N.H.
She is also savvy about using social media — for advocacy and advertising. Early this year, she asked gay couples to submit their own stories on Facebook for the brief she filed with the Supreme Court in support of gay marriage. Last week, using the hashtag #MassRecovery, she launched a social media campaign aimed at persuading people to share their stories to lessen the stigma of addiction.
“This is all about trying to make sure people understand who we are, what we do, how we can help them,” she told the attorneys and bureau chiefs assembled in her Ashburton Place conference room for a recent leadership meeting, saying that social media is now part of their jobs.
“This is the world and the age we’re in,” Healey said. “For all the print stuff we do, nobody knows what the hell we do.”
For seven years before she ran for the top spot, Healey had worked at the attorney general’s office, ultimately leading the bureaus of both Public Protection and Business and Labor. She also served as chief of the civil rights division, where she took a similar approach, encouraging public speaking and public outreach, said First Assistant Attorney General Chris Barry-Smith.
Early on as attorney general, she infused the office of 525 employees with urgency and focus by announcing the priorities she stood for and hoped to achieve, said Barry-Smith who worked for the three prior administrations.
The agenda items stray from the AG’s familiar ground as a ratepayer advocate and guardian of public integrity to ambitious areas like criminal justice reform; defending data security; addressing opiate addiction; and protecting young people from dating violence.
“The work is much more directed,” said Barry-Smith. “If you run a division in a way that is reactive to whatever hits the papers or comes in on the complaint line, you will do plenty of good work. But you won’t necessarily be able to say, at the end of four years, ‘Here’s what we stand for and here’s what we accomplished.’ ”
But Healey is careful to couch anything that sounds like criticism of her predecessor, Martha Coakley, who has shouldered heaps of Democratic disappointment for losing the US Senate seat in 2010 and the governor’s office in 2014.
Saying Coakley ran a “fantastic” office, Healey pointed to her predecessor’s groundbreaking investigations and innovative approaches, establishing divisions of health care and financial services.
“I had the privilege and the opportunity to learn from her during my time in the administration,” Healey said. “We all bring our own perspectives and experiences to bear on our jobs.”
An early leader
Healey, 44, brings experiences that make her political profile unique. She hails from a tightknit, small town, Hampton Falls, N.H., where she skipped fifth grade and became a basketball standout. The eldest of five children whose parents split when she was 10, she was a natural point guard who helped direct her four younger siblings at home and her teammates on the court. Her mother later married her basketball coach.
After graduating from Harvard College, she spent two years playing basketball professionally in Austria — a point that voters find endlessly intriguing, since she’s only 5-foot-4. She returned for law school at Northeastern University, and during that time, realized she was gay.
Later, in the attorney general’s office, Healey got to lead the fight against the federal Defense of Marriage Act for Massachusetts. Her election made her the first openly gay attorney general in the country.
Coakley, who promoted Healey several times, praised Healey’s initiative on community engagement as a natural extension of her office’s earlier efforts dealing with nonprofits and community members on home foreclosure. She said she takes pride in “seeing Maura run and focus on the issues she’s going to face and knowing she has the ability and the talent herself to face whatever challenges come ahead.”
Still, Healey turned heads immediately after taking office when she threatened an antitrust suit to block a controversial deal that Coakley had sanctioned — allowing Partners Health Care, the largest health care system in the state, to absorb three more community hospitals.
It was the kind of agitation she would become known for. Soon, her office was working behind the scenes with the mayor’s office to prod Boston 2024 — the group that had been pushing for an Olympics in Boston — to release more information on its finances.
More recently, she took a gamble on an issue further beyond her bailiwick — and was roundly ignored. Just a week after she called for the state to deny a permit to the Wynn Casino in Everett until the developer came up with a long-term traffic solution, the permit was approved.
As the state watchdog, Healey is tasked with upholding public integrity and accountability — making it a potentially tricky line to tread as she takes a stand on issues, as she did against casinos or for Planned Parenthood.
After an undercover video showed a Planned Parenthood official discussing how the group provides fetal parts to medical researchers, Healey’s office was asked to investigate Massachusetts affiliates. Her review, which involved interviewing directors, a site visit, and interviews with staff at each of the regional bureaus, concluded that Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts affiliates are not involved in tissue donation. It satisfied the antiabortion legislator who requested the probe.
“She did exactly what I asked her to do,” said Representative James J. Lyons Jr., an Andover Republican. Despite their different views on Planned Parenthood, he said, “I do find her to be very honest, hard-working attorney general.”
Afterward, however, Healey’s campaign put out a full-throated defense of the besieged agency in an e-mail message in which she crowed, “There’s simply no ‘there’ there,” and blamed Congress for attacking women’s health care.
“Standing up for women’s health care means standing with Planned Parenthood,” she concluded.
While Healey has been outspoken and out-front as attorney general, her onetime rival for the job, former senator Warren Tolman, said she was smart to rule out running for governor in 2018 – both to focus on the task at hand and to steer clear of political calculations.
“I think she wants to be a good AG, the best AG she can,” he said. “You’re a totally different attorney general if you’re doing things on a political basis from the moment you get in there.”
“She’s calling them as she sees them,” Tolman said. “You can’t ask for more than that.”