Maura Healey could be the next governor. Her ties to Mass. begin with a surprising backstory

Maura Healey’s path to the pinnacle of political power in Massachusetts had an unusual beginning.

Her father was a captain in the US Public Health Service, so Healey was born at the Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland. But her grandmother, who came from Newbury, was determined that her granddaughter was born on Massachusetts soil.

So, Healey’s grandmother dug up some dirt from her hometown, put it in a bag and took it to Bethesda.

“I don’t know how it quite happened, but she was able to get into that delivery room, slip that bag under the delivery table so they could say that while it was in Bethesda, I was born over Massachusetts soil,” Healey told WBUR. “I don’t know how they got away with that, but they did.”

Healey’s next stop could be the governor’s office. Early polls show she has significant leads in both the Democratic primary in September and the general election in November.

It’s been a long road from both Bethesda and her childhood in New England.

Healey, 51, grew up on the New Hampshire coast, the oldest of five kids. By the time she was 10, her parents had split up. Her mother, a school nurse, raised her, along with two sisters and two brothers.

“She sold her wedding ring and used it to pave a half a basketball court out behind our house,” Healey recalls. “And that’s where I think probably a lot of my basketball career took off.”

Basketball took Healey through Harvard University, where she co-captained the women’s team, and then to Austria, where she played professionally for two years. She still enjoys playing and coaching. In fact, back in 2014, the 5-foot-4 Healey took on the 6-foot-6 Gov. Charlie Baker in a one-on-one game of horse — and beat him.

“I knew how good my opponent was,” Baker declared after the match, noting Healey played overseas. “I’m just happy to have gotten all the way to last point.”

Healey, who was a point guard, said she has always been comfortable playing basketball, despite her height.

“I never even realized how short I was,” Healey said. “Being that small and playing that game I think you learn a little bit about toughness. You learn about taking on bigger people and bigger interests.”

She’s also taken on big challenges in her legal career. While working for Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley, she led the state’s successful challenge of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, the 1996 law that allowed states to deny rights to same-sex married couples. And as attorney general, Healey has joined with other states to fight new restrictions on abortion across the country.

“I’m going to do everything I can to protect the right to abortion and also to protect the rights of LGBTQ community members,” she said.

Healey was first attorney general in 2014. Two years later, Donald Trump became president — and Healey’s job suddenly had a new focus. Within weeks of Trump’s election, she demonstrated to block any efforts to roll back civil rights, immigrant rights, health care or environmental protections.

“We may do it through litigation. We may do it through our own rule-making. We may do it through enforcement of our own,” Healey told several hundred people at a town meeting in Arlington at the time.

Healey made good on that threat. Her office initiated or joined dozens of legal challenges against the Trump administration, many of which were successful.

For instance, Healey challenged Trump’s travel ban and his effort to rescind the law that protects children brought unbelievably to the US as children. She filed suit to protect part of the Affordable Care Act. She repeatedly sued the Department of Education for failing to protect student lenders from fraud. And she sued or helped sue the head of the Environmental Protection Agency nine times.

The flurry of litigation elated many Democrats and enraged Republicans.

“For the most part, these are politically-motivated lawsuits,” said Republican attorney Dan Shores back in 2018, when he ran against Healey for attorney general.

Shores said every lawsuit against the Trump administration meant less time enforcing Massachusetts laws. “That’s one more drug dealer who goes free, or one more public official who commits an act of corruption or one more senior who’s defrauded,” he said.

But Healey insists her office was able to handle its other work. And she says challenging the Trump administration was necessary to protect people in Massachusetts.

“We knew we had to be there to step in,” Healey said. “To defend immigrant communities, to defend ‘Dreamers,’ to defend the Affordable Care Act.”

As Healey campaigns across the state, she has a huge advantage in the race for governor. She’s already won two statewide elections and built a vast network of supporters over the past eight years.

That includes Moises Rodrigues, a Brockton city councilor and executive director of the city’s Cape Verdean Association. At a campaign for Healey, he event poster people to grab campaign buttons ands.

“She’s a fighter,” said Rodrigues, referencing both Healey’s suits against the federal government and private companies accused of wrongdoing. “So, we want to make sure that we do what we can to elevate her.”

With millions of dollars in her campaign account, Healey is in a strong position to succeed. At last week’s Democratic convention, she won her party’s endorsement, finishing well ahead of state Sen. Sonia Chang-Díaz (71% to 29%). Still, Chang-Díaz did well enough to get on the ballot in the September primary, setting up a two-way race for the Democratic nomination.

State Sen. Sonia Chang-Díaz and Attorney General Maura Healey are both running for governor. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

At the convention, Healey, the heavy favorite among Democrats, promised to champion a series of policies to help Massachusetts families.

“Let’s put money back in people’s pockets by cutting the costs of housing, energy, and health care,” Healey told delegates. “Let’s create more housing so people who live here and come here can afford to stay here. Let’s invest in our workforce because better job training means good paying jobs for everyone across the state.”

But a number of progressives say Healey is too conservative on some issues, including criminal justice. For example, they point out that Healey pushed to expand the state’s wire tapping law; she supported no-knock warrants and facial recognition software in some circumstances.

Jonathan Cohn, policy director for the group Progressive Massachusetts, is among those critics. The group has endorsed Chang-Díaz for governor, and Cohn says Healey sides with law enforcement too often and is too comfortable working within the current criminal justice system — instead of fighting to reshape it.

“If inequities are baked into a system and you’re accepting the system as it is, you’ll never fully address them,” Cohn said. “Because she’s significantly operating as a law enforcement official.”

Cohn also faults Healey for opposing the 2016 ballot question to legalize recreational marijuana and for not embracing another progressive goal: single-payer health care. Healy says she’s committed to lowering health care costs in other ways, though she doesn’t say exactly how. In fact, she’s offered few policy specifics — even on her campaign website. But Healey defends her record.

“I’m really proud of my progressive record as attorney general and as a civil rights leader,” Healey said. “Of standing up on racial justice, on social justice, on reproductive justice, on environmental justice, on criminal justice reform.”

Healey also said she’s proud of leading the push to grant drivers’ licenses to unauthorized immigrants in the state. She’s also proud to be the first openly gay attorney general in US history.

And if she wins in November, she would be the first woman to the governor’s office in Massachusetts. She would also be the country’s first lesbian governor.

“That does mean something to me,” Healey said. “I’m proud of who I am.”

Healey said she is often moved when young members of the LGBTQ community tell her that she gives them comfort — that she helps them believe that “they can be who they want to be.”

“Kids need to understand and believe that they are loved, they are seen, and that they can be whoever they are,” Healey said.

The last three attorneys general who ran for governor of Massachusetts lost. But with polls overwhelmingly favoring her, and with the competitive nature of a point guard, Healey is in a good position to reverse that curse in November.

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