fb-pixel Skip to main content

Healey and Republican opponent clash over virtually every issue in their first debate

WGBH hosted a debate between Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey and Republican candidate Jay McMahon on Wednesday, moderated by Jim Braude (center left) and Margery Eagan (center right).Sam Brewer/WGBH News

He’s a supporter of President Trump, staunch gun rights advocate, and social conservative. She’s made her name as an implacable foe of the president and crusader for tougher gun measures and broader LGBTQ rights.

So when Maura Healey, the Democratic attorney general, and Jay McMahon, her little-known Republican opponent, met for their first debate on Wednesday, it was hardly surprising that the two disagreed on just about every issue.

Perhaps the sharpest clash came when they were asked about racism in the criminal justice system.

Healey said she would not characterize the system, as Senator Elizabeth Warren recently did, as “racist” from “front to back.” But Healey said she would acknowledge that “real disparities” exist along racial and socioeconomic lines.


McMahon vehemently disagreed.

“I have not seen any examples of racism, and I have represented hundreds of minorities,” as a criminal defense attorney, he said. He accused Healey of sending a bad message.

“Law enforcement needs to know we’ve got their back and I can tell you for a fact there is no racism in the law enforcement system,” he said.

The two also clashed over how to address the opioid epidemic.

McMahon, a Bourne resident, who lost a son to opioid addiction in 2008, accused Healey of being “soft on crime” and said he supports “extreme prosecution” of drug dealers.

“We’ve got to start putting these pushers in jail or put them out of state,” by making sentences tougher in Massachusetts, he said. “We’re fighting a war here.”

Healey did not respond directly to McMahon’s barb, but said her office sued Purdue Pharma for allegedly misleading doctors about the risks of OxyContin, worked with doctors and pharmacists to change prescribing laws, and helped to make prevention education available in middle schools.

Combating opioid addiction “is and remains my top priority,” Healey said during the 30-minute debate on WGBH, moderated by Jim Braude and Margery Eagan.


For many voters, the debate was their first glimpse of McMahon, who is running a shoestring campaign against the first-term attorney general, considered a likely future candidate for higher office. He has just $4,185 in his campaign account, compared to Healey’s $2.2 million, according to state records.

On civil rights, Healey said she supports Question 3, to preserve the 2016 state law that bans discrimination against transgender people in public places, such as hotels and restaurants, and allows transgender individuals to use bathrooms that match their gender identity.

McMahon said he opposes the ballot question because the transgender rights law could allow men to prey on women and girls in bathrooms. “It doesn’t protect women from sexual predators,” McMahon said. “And that is a public safety issue.”

Healey called that a “gross mischaracterization” of the law.

“The people who are actually beat up, harassed, and assaulted are the people who are transgender,” she said, adding there is “no record” of anyone using the law to commit a crime.

McMahon also disagreed with Healey on guns. In particular, he criticized an order she issued after the 2016 Orlando nightclub massacre that cracked down on the sale of semiautomatic rifles that had been altered slightly to evade the state’s assault weapons ban. McMahon accused Healey of overstepping her legal authority by issuing the enforcement order. Healey said she was merely enforcing the state’s existing assault weapons ban.


Questioned about the nomination fight over Judge Brett Kavanaugh, President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Healey said he should withdraw after his angry testimony refuting sexual assault allegations before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“What we saw last week, in a really stark display, was a lack of decorum, the lack of temperament that really is required for the highest justice in the land,” she said. She added that she found Christine Blasey Ford, who has accused Kavanaugh of sexual assaulting her when they were in high school, “credible, powerful, and inspiring.”

McMahon said he found both Ford and Kavanaugh “compelling” and is waiting for the FBI report on the judge before deciding whether he is fit for the court.

“I think we have to wait and see where the facts take us,” McMahon said.

The two are scheduled to meet again on Oct. 24 in a debate sponsored by the Globe, WBUR, and the University of Massachusetts Boston’s McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies.

Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.