Lady in Waiting

It's a slower-than-slow news day, and an increasingly desperate TV reporter is prowling City Hall Plaza, trying to wring a feature out of an ice cream-sampling charity event. It isn't going well. Probing questions like what's your favorite flavor? and with jimmies or without? haven't extracted much color. But suddenly, in a serendipitous gift from the saint who watches over journalists, potential salvation arrives in the form of Lieutenant Governor Kerry Healey.  

Chances are you know as little about Healey as you knew about Paul Cellucci or Jane Swift before they became household political names by inheriting the corner office. (Obscurity comes with the job, as Senator John McCain noted when he joked about his disinterest in becoming John Kerry's running mate. “I spent several years in a North Vietnam prison camp, in the dark, fed with scraps,” McCain said. “Do you think I want to do that all over again as vice president?”) If you recognize Healey at all, it's likely from TV news cutaways of her prim-and-proper presence at Governor Mitt Romney's side during news conferences, a seen-but-not-heard ritual required of lieutenant governors. But all the reporter on City Hall Plaza needs to know about her is that Healey is the latest in a string of cautious, colorless second bananas whose primary job requirement — for God's sake, don't make any news — makes them easy chains to pull on. Factor in Healey's ritzy Prides Crossing address and demure, immaculately groomed persona — which earned her the nickname “Little Bo Prep” from derogatory sobriquet king Howie Carr — and she seems an especially choice target for an innuendo-laden question about ice cream-cone-eating technique.

Q: “Are you a licker, a biter, or someone who bites off the bottom and sucks it out?”

Don't attempt to adjust the color on your set. That's a deep crimson blush invading Healey's complexion, reminiscent of the technicolor irritation Swift displayed when hassled by reporters. Swift could almost always be counted on to take the bait and impersonate a deer caught in the headlights before stalking off in a huff. But Healey smiles.

“No comment,” she says.

“No comment?” her torturer persists. “That's not an acceptable answer.”

“That's not an acceptable question!” she retorts with a laugh.

When the piece runs on the news that night, viewers are laughing with Healey, not at her. Score some precious points for Romney's 44-year-old understudy, who may need all the public goodwill and media savvy she can muster sooner rather than later. With Romney heading to New York this month for a national political coming-out of sorts at the Republican National Convention — amid mounting speculation that he may run for president in 2008 — it seems likelier than ever that Healey will get a shot at the lead role in the fairly near future.

That's heady stuff for a two-time landslide loser for state representative from Beverly, and, briefly, chair of the state Republican Party, who rode Romney's coattails through a bitter 2002 GOP primary and general election. And with memories still fresh of the arguably disastrous administrations of Swift and Cellucci (who took office when Bill Weld quit to pursue an ambassadorship), it's none too soon to raise the question no one — least of all Healey herself — can afford to laugh off: Would a Healey ascension play like A Star Is Born or The Deer Hunter ?

“I would be very happy to have that opportunity,” says Healey. “When people get to know me, they'll know that I'm extremely honest and sincere in what I'm trying to do.”

Actually, no one really questioned Jane Swift's honesty and sincerity. Doubts about Healey's readiness to take charge have more to do with the flaws Swift manifested: inexperience and the incompetence that flows from it. “Nobody's seen her do anything,” says Jim Rappaport, the real estate developer and former GOP nominee for U.S. Senate who Healey whipped in the 2002 primary. “I haven't heard about her having this great input into things, the way Paul Cellucci did. When you don't have significant training in leadership, it's hard to show leadership.” Adds a Democratic legislative source: “Here's somebody who couldn't get more than a third of the vote in a state rep's race. I haven't heard anybody say she's doing a great job.”

Fine whine, or sour grapes? Consider Healey's handling of the major assignments she has taken on since Romney — apparently desperate to avoid running on a ticket with Rappaport — took her under his wing in March of 2002.

First came the campaign itself, which began with this withering welcome from columnist Howie Carr. “You say you're a 'social policy researcher,'” he wrote. “Is that anything like being a housewife?” Added another pundit, in a piece arguing that Rappaport was a better choice for lieutenant governor: “Romney needs a pit bull at his side, not a poodle.”

Healey remained unfazed. “You deal with it by knowing who your friends and family are,” she says. In her case, that would include the mom who taught school to support both Healey and her disabled ex-Army Reserve officer father during an austere middle-class upbringing in Daytona Beach. Healey's bookworm tendencies got her into Harvard, where she earned a degree in government and a scholarship to pursue a Ph.D. in law and political science at Trinity College in Dublin. (It was in Ireland that she met her husband, Sean Healey, president of the North Shore asset-management firm Affiliated Managers Group.)

Healey spent most of the late 1980s and 1990s writing research papers about gang violence and domestic abuse for Abt Associates in Cambridge. Useful training, in hindsight, for dealing with the battered state Republican Party, which she took over in late 2001. Healey found a party that, after years of brutal beatings by Democrats, had more red ink than viable candidates. At a time when the Swift administration was engaging in bitter public fights with leading fellow Republicans like Rappaport and Massachusetts Turnpike Authority board member Christy Mihos, Healey — dismissed as “eye candy” on a popular Republican weblog when she took the job — sorted out the mess well enough to catch Romney's attention. “She is indefatigable,” the governor says of a running mate campaign aides concede was originally chosen in part for gender balance. “She's smart, she's hard-working, she gets along with different people. I didn't realize what an extraordinary asset she was.”

That's an assessment echoed by Democratic State Representative Jim Vallee of Franklin, chair of the House Committee on Criminal Justice, who deals extensively with Healey in her role as the administration's point person on crime. “I find her very intelligent, extremely knowledgeable about the issues — impressively knowledgeable,” says Vallee, who credits Healey with effective, bipartisan quarterbacking of a raft of major crime-related bills in the past year or so, including the so-called Ally Zapp Bill, named for a woman slain by a convicted sex offender. He says she is “the exact opposite [of] what people thought of her during the campaign.”

Healey also draws good reviews for her handling of a highly toxic bit of Romney-era business: smoothing over relations with city and town officials infuriated by deep cuts in state aid. Sent barnstorming across the state to deal with the locals last year, Healey was often met with unconcealed anger from these mostly Democratic officials who saw her presence as insult added to injury. “The meetings with mayors at times were a public scream fest,” she recalls. Eighteen months and scores of follow-up meetings later, many fiscally strapped communities are still anti-Romney. But recent local-aid increases, along with executive-branch efforts to help ease local budget woes, have earned the administration — and especially Healey — significant credit. “She is seen as absolutely committed to schooling herself about what's happening on the local level,” reports Geoffrey Beckwith, director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, the lobbying arm of local governments. “People who dismiss the lieutenant governor's intellect do so at their own peril.”

Of course, intelligence and her work ethic, it should be recalled, were never widely seen as Jane Swift's major shortcomings, either. Trust was a different story. Too often, Swift couldn't take a joke or a punch, and the sight of it on TV failed to nurture public confidence.

Healey is preparing for all contingencies. Her foray into John Kerry bashing — a litany of his missed Senate votes and a public call for his resignation — was just a preview of coming attractions. And Healey assiduously logs the face-to-face schmoozing Swift rarely found time for. She regularly invites members of the local print and broadcast media to her office for casual, off-the-record lunches, pumping at least one female TV personality for makeup and hairstyling tips.

Maybe the best indication of whether Kerry Healey will lick the low expectations some have of her as a potential governor comes from a blunt distinction she offers between herself and her notably unsuccessful predecessor. “There are only three things Jane Swift and I have in common,” she says. “We're both female. We're both Republicans. And we're both lieutenant governors.”