At first blush, the odds appeared stacked against attorney general candidate Maura Healey, especially in Dorchester. She was a political newcomer, running her first campaign against a well-known fellow Democrat, Warren Tolman, whose backers included Gov. Deval Patrick, Mayor Martin Walsh, state Sen. Linda Dorcena Forry, and his older brother, union head Steven Tolman.
All of which didn’t matter much when voters made their endorsements on primary day. Citywide, the former assistant attorney general beat Tolman by ten points, 55 percent to 45 percent, thanks in part to strong support in Charlestown, Jamaica Plain, and Roslindale. Statewide, her margin was much greater, 62.4 percent to 37.6 percent.
In Dorchester, she was edged by Tolman in a majority of the precincts, but in the neighborhood where many believed the well-connected former state lawmaker could count on a sturdy base of support, his win was anything but a landslide.
Political observers suggest that the results in Dorchester reflected not so much Tolman’s failure to organize but rather Healey’s success as a candidate, with some venturing to say that she is cut from the same cloth as Patrick and Elizabeth Warren, who were also relative newcomers in their successful runs for office.
“People have said [Healey] was like Deval Patrick. But he had a grassroots organization of progressives; she didn’t even have that,” said Judy Meredith, former chair of Ward 15’s Democratic Committee, former policy advisor to Attorney General Frank Bellotti, and longtime human services lobbyist. “With Maura, you’ve got a charismatic candidate that just clicks with the times and people notice that.”
Added Mike Firestone, Healey’s campaign manager and an alum of Warren’s 2012 senate campaign: “You cannot attribute how we did in the city to direct voter contact and ‘get out the vote.’ It’s the messaging that people heard about Maura Healey. Whether it was a phone call or a newspaper endorsement, it was all articulating a pretty clear message: ‘I’m running for attorney general because I will be the people’s lawyer.’ And we just said that over and over and over.”
“She’s a star-power candidate,” said Joyce Ferriabough-Bolling, a director at the Massachusetts Women’s Political Caucus, which endorsed Healey ahead of the June convention and contributed volunteers and PAC money. “They’ve got it all to start with; all you have to do is hitch the campaign wagon on them and they take off.”
Healey won 12 of the 14 precincts in Ward 17, which takes in Codman Square and Lower Mills. Almost all of the Dorchester precincts were won or lost within 20-point margins, with numerous ties throughout the four wards. “We had to cut around the elected leadership’s endorsements in the neighborhood,” said Firestone. “We did not have, early-on, much of a base of support in Dorchester.”
In Ward 13, which includes Mayor Marty Walsh’s home precinct, 13-10, Healey won five of the ten precincts and tied one. Tolman edged Healey in 13-10, earning 266 votes to Healey’s 181.
Paul Nutting was the only Healey volunteer distributing fliers outside the mayor’s polling location, which saw a relatively high turnout of 495 voters, or 30 percent, compared to the citywide average of 16.7 percent. Nutting, a Savin Hill resident and veteran Democratic activist, joined up with the campaign after DotOUT endorsed Healey, who is gay, in late August. Still, he said, he didn’t do much other than stand out at the polling location.
“I assumed there was a certain reliable liberal vote in the neighborhood and I hoped they would turn out,” Nutting said. “I also didn’t want to piss off the mayor’s people by not supporting their guy.”
Tolman bested Healey in every Ward 16 precinct, which saw turnout in the 30 percent range, among the highest in the city. All 12 precincts’ margins were within 20 percentage points, with 6 of the 12 within 10 percent.
“I was pretty surprised she won by a landslide. I thought it’d be closer,” Ferriabough-Bolling said, pointing to Tolman’s backing from the political power brokers and organized labor.” Added Meredith: “They’re all scratching their heads at this.”
The candidates had few significant policy differences, suggesting to some observers that it was their backgrounds that influenced voters. The largely unknown Healey, a former pro basketball player and decorated civil rights advocate who worked to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act, against the well-connected insider Tolman, who had served stints in the House and Senate in the ‘90s.
After making it through the February caucuses, Healey’s camp aggressively pursued delegates ahead of the June convention, conducting phonathons in the Sullivan Square campaign headquarters with 45 volunteers and the candidate herself.
“As long as they believed she had a chance to win, that she wasn’t a flash in the pan, people were convinced. Over time, that got easier and easier,” Firestone said.
The convention proved to be a turning point. First-time candidate Healey secured 48.2 percent of the vote as Tolman won the nomination. People had begun noticed the charismatic woman from Charlestown. “After the convention, people stopped saying she can’t win,” Firestone said. “They were still saying she’s going to be outspent, but weren’t saying ‘you can’t win.’ That was huge for us.”
At-Large Boston City Councillor Ayanna Pressley was one of the handful of elected officials who endorsed Healey over Tolman. Pressley’s campaign manager, Jessica Taubner, said the Dorchester-based councillor did not have to work hard to help Healey. “The fact of the matter is, Maura Healey sells herself,” Taubner said. “Councillor Pressley and the other electeds that endorsed her just helped her reach more people to share her story.”
Pressley’s support may have lent more help than many people recognize. “I don’t know who all Healey had working for her in Dorchester, but having the highest vote getter in the city [in the 2013 City Council race] and a woman of color in Ayanna Pressley was major for her success,” Ferriabough-Bolling said.
For all that has gone on, Healey still has a general election on her hands against the relatively unknown Republican challenger John B. Miller. The prospects are that this “star-power candidate” will be back in the attorney general’s office in the new year, and in charge.