Maura Healey has Beacon Hill on alert
Is she inevitable?
Not Hillary Clinton for president. Maura Healey for governor.
Governor Charlie Baker seems to think so. At Sunday’s St. Patrick’s Day breakfast, he quipped that he could get to work “if Maura Healey would stop putting her lawn chair in my parking space.”
Ever since Healey won election as the Bay State’s first openly gay attorney general, she has been touted as the Democratic party’s big new star — and its next gubernatorial candidate. Now, at least on Beacon Hill, everything she does is seen through that lens.
Healey’s overwhelming victories, first in the Democratic primary, and then in the general election, made her an instant player. That status was underscored just one week into her term, when she moved to scuttle a deal that would have allowed Partners HealthCare to acquire South Shore Hospital.
Taking on an institutional powerhouse like Partners stirred even more talk about Healey’s ambition. To that, add her recent announcement that a Suffolk County grand jury would indict Richard W. McDonough for defrauding the state pension system. McDonough is a lobbyist who is already serving a seven-year sentence in a federal corruption case that also involved former House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi. On Beacon Hill, Healey’s move against McDonough was taken as more evidence that the new AG is not just planning to run for governor, but “will use the Legislature as a political whipping boy,” as Lowell Sun columnist Peter Lucas put it.
Yet, so far, Healey has really done nothing more than keep her campaign promise to be an activist attorney general. She’s taking on the opiate addiction crisis, applying strict oversight to casino development, and seeking reinstatement of the statewide grand jury system. She and Baker are each filing a pro gay marriage brief with the Supreme Court to argue that the federal Constitution prohibits discrimination against same sex marriage.
If Healey’s path as AG does lead to a gubernatorial quest, it’s not like she’s breaking any pledge; indeed, during the campaign she refused to rule out a run for higher office.
Beacon Hill’s obsession with Healey is a testament to what makes her a different kind of attorney general. That description, by the way, has little to do with sexual orientation. It’s more about being a prosecutor who combines charm with toughness and political grace with political fearlessness. A succession of Massachusetts AGs tried, but could not make the leap from state’s top law enforcer to governor because they lacked those collective qualities.
But what made Healey an appealing candidate for AG now makes her a threat to a political world that’s always looking over its shoulder. And with Healey, what Beacon Hill sees is a young and personable prosecutor who spent two years as a starting point guard, not to mention an entire legal career fighting for equal rights and other liberal causes. In short, she’s a 5-foot-4-inch force to be reckoned with — and, for some, that also means she’s a force to be contained.
What happens next with Partners will be another test of Healey’s ability to confront power and negotiate with it. After Healey threatened to sue, the state’s largest health care network backed down from its plan to take over South Shore Hospital, and promised a less aggressive and more humble approach to future business deals. Despite that promise, Dr. David Torchiana, Partners’ new chief executive, quickly announced plans to add some 70 doctors and their 60,000 patients to the Partners physician network. In response, Healey expressed concerns that the acquisition would raise medical costs, and also fly in the face of Partners’ promise to evaluate its business strategy. Partners said it’s going ahead anyway, and Healey said she has no legal authority to stop it. The next question is whether Partners tries to move ahead with the takeover of two North Shore hospitals, and if it does so, what, if anything, Healey will do about that.
During her St. Patrick’s Day breakfast routine, she joked about staying healthy so she would not have to go to any hospital for treatment. She also held up several fake subpoenas, telling the audience, “Some of you might be familiar with these . . . So laugh.”
What is inevitable: that the powers on Beacon Hill and beyond do not find that so funny.