Boston Magazine: The Unstoppable Maura Healey


This article appeared in Boston Magazine in its August 2015 issue.

The Unstoppable Maura Healey

She’d never held political office. To become the nation’s first openly gay Attorney General, she trounced a Democratic insider. Now she’s going after casinos, the Olympics, overpaid CEOs, and the opiate epidemic. Just who does this woman think she is?

By E.J. Graff

At 8 a.m. on a foggy day in May, hundreds of well-heeled members of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce gathered at the InterContinental Boston to find out whether Massachusetts’ new attorney general, Maura Healey, was a friend or a foe. They were mostly white men and women in crisp suits and polished shoes, and among them were Jim Rooney, the outgoing executive director of the Massachusetts Convention Center and soon-to-be Chamber CEO; Bob Gallery, Massachusetts president of Bank of America; and Cathleen Finn, a regional manager at IBM and a longtime gay activist. A few African Americans, including Sylvia Ferrell-Jones, president and CEO of the YWCA Boston, were there as well, along with tables of health insurers and healthcare executives.

Healey—the first openly gay attorney general in the country—had positioned herself as a champion of the underserved. She’d campaigned on promises to help low-wage workers who couldn’t afford to take unpaid time off to care for their sick dependents, and students stuck with crushing federal loan debts for worthless degrees from for-profit schools. She’d promised to use the office to protect people from unfair wages and housing scams, jacked-up healthcare and energy costs, and the opiate crisis that is ravaging the state. Although she was a political unknown when she began her campaign only 11 months before the Democratic primary, she shocked observers by trouncing Warren Tolman, a longtime progressive Democratic insider, by nearly two to one, and then the Republican candidate by the same margin.

When she won the attorney general’s race, Healey became one of the most powerful people in the state, thanks to the broad powers Massachusetts grants the office. Her predecessors include Scott Harshbarger (1991 to 1999), one of the first attorneys general to represent a state against tobacco companies; Tom Reilly (1999 to 2007), who investigated the Catholic Church after local media outlets uncovered the pedophile-priest scandal; and Martha Coakley (2007 to 2015), who waged a historic, successful lawsuit against the federal Defense of Marriage Act.

Though Boston’s Chamber of Commerce is more socially progressive than most, its members had reason to be concerned about this new power player. Less than a week into her term, Healey whacked one of the state’s largest employers when she killed the all-but-done Partners HealthCare deal, which involved the $11 billion healthcare giant taking over three of Greater Boston’s biggest suburban hospitals. (The move was especially surprising given that Coakley, her predecessor and mentor, had approved the deal before leaving office.) She’d also threatened to investigate Eversource—whose CEO, Tom May, received a $9 million compensation package in 2014—to make “sure that any excessive compensation isn’t being passed on to ratepayers as part of any proposed rate hike.”

Of more immediate concern to the attendees that May morning was that Healey had promised to implement earned sick days for workers by July 1, as required by a voter referendum. But keeping that deadline left little time for employers to comply with the mandate. Could she balance her fiercely progressive agenda with business interests? How, exactly, would the new sheriff get things done?

Healey has always been competitive—but friends and colleagues say she’s a team player. The oldest of five siblings, all born within nine years, she came from a close-knit Irish-Catholic family. Her grandfathers had worked at the Gloucester fishing docks, the post office, and the GE factory on the North Shore. Her parents held government jobs. Healey was raised on a 40-acre former farm in Hampton Falls, New Hampshire, in a farmhouse built in 1753. Everyone “pitched in, from the time we were babies,” she says. They collected eggs every morning, and all had paying jobs by age 14.

When Healey was 10, her parents separated, and they later divorced. Her mother, a school nurse, married the coach of the local high school’s soccer and basketball teams. Sports were important to the family, and Healey would run her siblings through intense drills, hitting grounders and fly balls until they could catch to her satisfaction. “It’s amazing they even talk to me now,” she says dryly, “given how bossy I was.”

Healey remembers her mother as being an active member of the community, always helping someone through some difficulty, “taking them a meal or doing their laundry.” The community returned the favor, too: When Healey had the chance to go to Olympic basketball training camp at 16 and again at 20, she says, the town chipped in to send her and her mother. By the time she finished her career at Winnacunnet High, Healey had broken all of its girls’ basketball records, despite being only 5-foot-4.

At Harvard, where she majored in government, Healey played point guard as co-captain of the women’s basketball team, and went on to play pro basketball in Europe for two years. (That stint later became a political asset: Her first campaign ad featured her spinning and shooting a basketball and saying, “The big guys have plenty of lawyers; the attorney general’s job is to fight for the rest of us.”) Liz Resnick, her college teammate and roommate, now the director of studies at Harvard-Westlake School in Los Angeles, says that while Healey was herself a “terrific” athlete, she always focused more on what everyone could achieve together than what she could do alone.

Healey returned to Boston to attend Northeastern University School of Law, known for its social-justice bent and its co-op system, and graduated in 1998. Returning this spring to deliver the commencement address, she told the graduating class that she’d attended the program in part because she’d heard through “the gay grapevine” that it was a supportive place to come out, even back in the ’90s. That very low-key comment was the first time she’d publicly spoken about coming out—which, in Massachusetts, was just fine. For the most part, she says, voters were far more intrigued by the fact that she’d been a professional basketball player than that she was gay.

After a year of clerking for a federal judge, Healey took a commercial litigation position at Hale & Dorr (later WilmerHale), representing businesses suing other businesses, or defending finance, high-tech, and biotech officers in a variety of lawsuits and investigations. Pro bono, she helped the team that supported the OutServe–Servicemembers Legal Defense Network’s challenge to “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” the Clinton-era directive that banned LGBT people from serving openly in the military. (They lost.) She soon found a niche representing sports teams, and worked with a group that helped the Red Sox get back the 2004 curse-breaking World Series baseball from Doug Mientkiewicz, the Sox first baseman who’d caught the final out and kept the ball. At Hale & Dorr, she met Gabrielle Wolohojian, a fellow lawyer and former editor of the Columbia Law Review; they’ve been together for eight years.

Healey worked in the private sector, but her family’s dedication to public service gnawed at her. In the summer of 2006, her father died of colon cancer after being bedridden for six months. “I thought, Maura, life is too short. Get off the stick,” she told the Boston Globe in 2014. When former Governor Deval Patrick named Wolohojian a Massachusetts appeals court judge in 2007, Healey went to work for Coakley, then the new attorney general, as chief of the AG’s civil rights division. Asked how the work was different when she moved from corporate law to Martha Coakley’s office, Healey says, “I didn’t have to keep track of my time in six-minute increments anymore.”

More seriously, she explains that in private practice, the client set the goal. The work in the AG’s office, by contrast, was far more complex—because figuring out the direction was part of the job. “Your goal is to serve the public interest,” she says. But who defines the public interest when different constituencies, beliefs, laws, and principles inevitably clash? Healey found it exciting to drill down on larger questions, with “a lot more freedom to think broadly” about a solution.

When Coakley decided to take on the federal DOMA lawsuit, she put Healey in charge of the effort, partnering with Mary Bonauto, of New England’s Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders. After their historic victory, Coakley put Healey in charge of the public protection and the business and labor bureaus—which meant Healey was effectively running half of the AG’s office. She wanted to run the other half as well. As soon as Coakley stepped down to run for governor, Healey declared her own candidacy for what she calls “the best job in the world.”

On Healey’s first day in office, she faced a tangled mess: Partners HealthCare, which accounted for 31 percent of the state’s acute-care hospital revenue in 2012, had been buying up local hospitals and large physician practices. Politicians and healthcare advocates regularly criticized the corporation for effectively eliminating competition, keeping prices high, and ensuring that the most complicated (and most lucrative) cases were referred to one of its two big Boston hospitals, Brigham & Women’s and Massachusetts General. Partners claimed that continued expansion would help facilitate patient-care coordination and keep costs down. But so far, its legacy has proved otherwise: As Partners acquired new hospitals, insurance premiums and healthcare costs continued to go up. That’s why Partners’ proposed merger with Weymouth’s South Shore Hospital in 2012 triggered an antitrust investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice—the second in two years.

The AG’s office, then under Coakley, stepped in to negotiate a settlement that would address the Justice Department’s concerns. But her resulting proposal was widely criticized. The Health Policy Commission (HPC), an independent state agency designed to monitor the healthcare market, had concluded that the merger would increase total medical spending by between $23 million and $26 million each year. Partners then boldly proposed yet another merger—this time with the North Shore’s Hallmark Health System—which the HPC concluded would raise costs an additional $15.5 million to $23 million per year, not including increased insurance premiums.

Ignoring criticism, Coakley kept moving forward on the deal. In despair, four competing healthcare systems—Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Tufts Medical Center, Atrius Health, and Lahey Health—jointly filed a last-ditch objection with Suffolk Superior Court Judge Janet Sanders, who had been charged with reviewing the mergers. Economists, consumer advocates, and others filed public comments opposing the deal as well.

A week after Coakley lost the governor’s race and Healey was elected attorney general, Judge Sanders openly expressed her doubts about the Partners deal. In a hearing, the judge intimated that Coakley had been pushing it through for political reasons; Coakley immediately objected. Sanders then asked whether the deal had her successor’s support. Impatiently, Coakley said, “She is not the attorney general yet. I have a responsibility until January 20 to uphold my constitutional responsibility,” adding that she herself had enforced all of her predecessor’s decisions. But Sanders wasn’t convinced, and opted to withhold a decision until the new AG could weigh in.

Six days into her term, Healey made her objections to the Partners merger clear. She publicly announced that if Sanders rejected the deal and the organization tried to go ahead with its plans, her office would sue. That was all Sanders needed to hear. She killed the deal, and Healey became known as a giant slayer.

Asked for comment, Partners sent an anodyne statement attributed to its new president and CEO, David Torchiana, saying the attorney general and Partners “share important goals,” including “high-quality care for patients, expanded access to mental health services and a collective effort to address the commonwealth’s opioid crisis,” adding that their offices have been and will continue working closely together. In other words, the new sheriff had their respect—although whether it’s enthusiastic or begrudging remains to be seen.

Healey appears tireless. I tried to keep up with her for two days, and failed. Somewhere into the second day, a staffer asked if I was exhausted yet. (For the record: Yes, and my feet were killing me.) Healey’s workday is jammed with events and appearances; she walks briskly up and down stairs in her 2-inch pumps (she says she needs the exercise), through parking garages, around halls jammed with people who want her ear. In between, she confers with staff—and, of course, manages the top law office in the state. But her smile reveals no impatience, no indication that this or that delay will—and, inevitably, it will—jam up the rest of her day.

It was early in just such a day that Healey settled into the second row of the UMass Medical Center auditorium at the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners’ annual conference. When it was her turn to speak, she stepped out from behind the podium, ignoring her staff’s prepared statements and statistics. Nurses in cheerful spring pastels filled about half the seats in the small auditorium, leaning forward to hear. They laughed when she told them that her mother, grandmother, godmother, and great-aunt were all RNs, “and I was a sorry disappointment!”

But it wasn’t long before she was wiping away tears. “I get emotional when I think about what this group of nurses does,” she told them. “If the public only knew what goes on in our homes and our communities, they couldn’t imagine it. They couldn’t handle reading about it; they couldn’t handle living among it.” She thanked them for being on the front lines of sexual assault and domestic violence while also working with law enforcement.

Afterward, the audience swarmed Healey—holding her arm, taking selfies, coming in close for urgent conversations about their experiences and ideas and lives. They thanked her for a small but meaningful sound bite she’d skillfully worked into the previous day’s news cycle: She’d hijacked a question about Tom Brady and Deflategate to say, “I sure wish that the NFL would spend about a tenth of the time that it’s spending on this on issues of domestic violence and sexual assault.” That comment got quoted everywhere from Janet Wu’s Channel 5 news broadcast to Sports Illustrated’s websiteHealey spent another half-hour with the nurses, pressing her aide’s business cards into their hands and insisting that they come to her office with their ideas. Her state troopers and aide stood back, hands folded. Healey was running late, but no one could pull her away.

Conversations like these—close, anecdotal, personal—drove opiate abuse to the top of Healey’s agenda. When she launched her campaign, she says, she knew little about the subject. Yet everywhere she went, from blighted urban neighborhoods to fancy suburbs to rural farms, someone would take her aside and tell her a story about someone whose life had been ruined by “the disease,” as she calls it. As Healey wrote in the Patriot Ledger in November, “Today, nearly one in five young people in Massachusetts has misused a prescription drug…. These drugs are too easily accessible and have become a pathway to heroin.” Meanwhile, heroin is claiming two to three lives a day in Massachusetts. According to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, opioid-related deaths have increased 273 percent since 2000.

On the campaign trail, Healey listened, gathering names, facts, recommendations, and partners who would help her tackle the problem as broadly as possible. Now she’s launching a multi-pronged attack. She’s examining the MassHealth reimbursement database to identify doctors who may be overprescribing opiates and opioids. She’s investigating why the price of Narcan (naxolone)—a drug that reverses opiate overdoses—suddenly doubled after Governor Patrick made it available for all of the state’s emergency responders to carry.

Almost everyone agrees that the state’s opiate epidemic requires drastic action. But Healey has run afoul of her progressive base in her approach to marijuana. Although she says she supported decriminalization and medical marijuana—which are now the laws of the land—she opposes fully legalizing and regulating the drug, asking us to “wait and see” how legalization goes in other states first. Her statement comes as Massachusetts prepares for a ballot initiative that’s expected to go to a vote in 2016. (Many observers believe a statewide vote to legalize marijuana would pass easily; in 2012, Massachusetts voted to legalize medical marijuana by a 26-point margin.) Her face tightens when she’s asked to explain her position on legalization: “I think we’re going to end up with a lot of people walking around smoking a lot of pot…We all grew up with the stoners.” And besides, she adds, addicts in a Southie treatment center told her that pot was their gateway drug.

For a fresh new face like Healey, it’s a surprising argument, and one that was debunked by the Institute of Medicine in 1999. Roughly half of Americans have tried marijuana, according to the Pew Research Center, with about 7 percent saying that they used it recreationally within the past month. In contrast, the National Institute on Drug Abuse estimated in 2011 that only 1.6 percent have tried heroin—ever. “Every Hell’s Angel started with a tricycle,” says Maia Szalavitz, a Soros Justice Fellow who cowrote the first evidence-based consumer guide to addiction treatment. “That doesn’t mean tricycles lead to motorcycle gang membership. People don’t start with marijuana; they start with alcohol and tobacco. The vast majority of marijuana users do not become addicts.”

Healey is a protectionist: She believes that government should guard us against lurking dangers, from predatory landlords and lenders to exploitive employers and greedy CEOs to marijuana and opioids. However, her public stand on marijuana has caused some in the civil liberties camp to look askance at her crusader’s red cape—concerned that she’ll forget she’s the state’s chief law officer, not its moral crossing guard. And while full legalization is opposed by a number of Massachusetts’ top leaders, including Governor Charlie Baker, House Speaker Robert DeLeo, and Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, Healey’s opposition is complicated somewhat in that the AG is charged with certifying all statewide ballot initiatives. One longtime observer was dismayed by Healey’s public stance on marijuana, saying via email, “Since her office has the constitutional obligation to certify ballot questions, I think she needs to be more circumspect.”

From her time working in Coakley’s office, Healey learned that the AG doesn’t always need to lead with a fist: She can wield soft power to decisive effect. Case in point: Boston’s bid to host the Olympic games. Led by a group of private backers and former Beacon Hill insiders calling themselves Boston 2024, the city won the U.S. Olympic Committee’s blessing without giving Massachusetts citizens specifics about how the games would be financed. Through this past winter, Boston 2024 stonewalled attempts to get more information about the costs and the source of the billions of dollars in funding. In March, when Boston 2024 unexpectedly announced it had retained Patrick to lobby for the bid, Walsh pressed the organization to reveal salary information for its staff and consultants, including how much the former governor was being paid. Sticker shock hit when the public learned Patrick’s rate was $7,500 per day

Behind the scenes, Walsh’s office asked Healey for help bringing more of Boston 2024’s finances to light. Just a few weeks after her office got involved, in June, Boston 2024 suddenly agreed, after months of delay, to release quarterly reports with itemized staff salaries, contracts, expenses, and dollar ranges of contributions. Most notably, the group agreed to ban anonymous donations.

Technically, under Massachusetts statutes, Healey couldn’t demand much more than the minimum required by the IRS’s Form 990 nonprofit filings. But just by virtue of getting involved, her office raised the implicit threat of a lawsuit if she felt Boston 2024 was withholding vital information. Boston 2024 CEO Rich Davey says the organization already knew it had to begin releasing quarterly reports, and welcomed conversations with the Attorney General’s Office about “what might be appropriate to have in such a report.” Both Davey and Walsh’s chief of staff, Dan Koh, say that, over a few weeks, the conversations were collaborative as the three offices tried to agree on a satisfactory level of disclosure.

But the political skill Healey exercised in extracting concessions from Boston 2024 impressed one of her predecessors, former AG Scott Harshbarger—a man who initially supported Healey’s opponent, Warren Tolman. “She gets a lot of points from me,” says Harshbarger about the Boston 2024 negotiations, “for getting involved early instead of waiting, for trying to prevent a problem from happening.”

At City Hall, Koh notes that the Attorney General’s Office has been exceptionally collaborative— not just in bigger, public conversations like the one about Boston 2024, but in smaller details as well. As an example, Koh tells me about the time Walsh’s and Healey’s offices simultaneously decided to create bathroom policies that welcomed the transgender community. Healey delayed her announcement in order to synchronize with City Hall, Koh recalls, with Walsh and Healey each offering a quote for the other’s press release. Such generosity about sharing credit “is extraordinarily rare in politics,” Koh says. But her collaborative gestures have some political symbolism, as well: Walsh had endorsed not Healey but Tolman in the Democratic primary.

It can’t hurt that neither Walsh nor Healey is a big fan of gambling. Walsh’s office is suing the Massachusetts Gaming Commission to prevent Steve Wynn from building a casino in Everett. Healey has called for tougher casino regulation, and in July asked the state Department of Transportation to hold up a key permit for Wynn’s casino, citing environmental concerns. 

Of course, nearly all political relationships are both temporary and contingent. These are early days for Healey, and while she’s passed most tests with flying colors, there are plenty of divisive issues ahead. At the Chamber of Commerce, she faced exactly the kind of danger zone in which she might stumble: A place where her deep-seated progressive ideals could run into powerful opposition.

But the Maura Healey who stepped to the podium to address the Chamber of Commerce—the seat of so much of the city’s financial power—was not confrontational. As always, she was strategically unassuming: low-key outfit, beige pumps, scarcely any jewelry. She thanked everyone in the warm, charming manner that had won her so many enthusiastic votes. She then went straight to the point, reassuring her audience by promising “predictability, practicality, and fairness”—and an open door. “We’re problem solvers,” she said of her team, pointing to her division chiefs’ table. “We’re in this together.” Take our business cards, she urged those in attendance, and make appointments with our office. Let us learn from you, so that we can make “informed decisions that understand the impact and the consequences.”

And then, weeks after meeting with the Chamber, Healey showed exactly how canny she was: She made room for the business community’s concerns. Her office adjusted its paid sick-time regulations with a safe-­harbor clause to accommodate businesses that already offered similar policies—rewarding those that had done the right thing on their own, while offering immediate relief to the construction workers, home health aides, and burger flippers for whom the referendum had been designed. It was that most rare thing in politics: an honest compromise. Even the referendum’s biggest critic, the Associated Industries of Massachusetts (AIM), said Healey had proven herself a savvy player. “I think [Healey] did an exceptional job, and her office did an exceptional job in getting these regulations out before July 1,” said AIM executive vice president Christopher Geehern.

Verdict: The new sheriff plays well with others.

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