GOP candidate struggles to find voice

08/01/2007
By By Joanna Weiss, Globe Staff, 5/5/2002 Used with permission from the Boston Globe Online

LOWELL - Talk about a tough audience: a roomful of college juniors in the spring, slouching as low as possible, looking intimidatingly bored. Kerry Healey, Republican candidate for lieutenant governor, stands before the University of Massachusetts-Lowell class in a perfectly tailored peach suit, smiling hopefully. She asks for questions. An awkward pause. A question. An answer. An awkward pause.

''Do you get to go home after I stop talking?'' she asked.

But it was Healey, students later said, who looked most relieved at the end of the political science class. ''I kind of thought she wanted to get out of here,'' one 20-year-old said.

Some politicians are clearly in the game for the attention; they get a palpable buzz from sharing themselves with a crowd, and send that energy zooming back. But Kerry Healey talks in measured words and measured tones. For her, stumping can look like uncomfortable work, a jarring change from the world of criminal justice research where she spent most of her career.

Ask her about the specifics of a witness-protection program, and Healey answers easily, quick with facts and fluid with details. But when the Lowell students asked about her primary opponent, Jim Rappaport, she deferred to gubernatorial candidate Mitt Romney, sounding strangely remote from her own campaign.

''We are the ticket that Mitt thinks can win in November and which he thinks can govern most effectively,'' she said. Another short answer. Awkward pause.

It has been a month since the sudden start of her campaign, and Healey is working hard to gain her footing. She spent several days last week far from Boston and big crowds, zigzagging across Western Massachusetts and the North Shore. She had sit-downs with local politicians and talked to small groups and smiled for the local press. The woman whose highest political stint was a four-month tenure as state party chairwoman is learning how to be a public figure.

And while she got into politics as a policy specialist, eager to put research into action, Healey now seems resigned to the fact that she has to connect with people first.

''How to speak publicly, be concise with your ideas, was a big change for me,'' she told the UMass class, recalling her two unsuccessful bids for state representative from Beverly. ''You have to get elected, and then you have to govern. And you have to be able to do both things well.''

Healey's former colleagues say she's a quick study - it's what helped make her successful in her research career. But some observers say Healey's academic skills might have hindered her legislative campaigns in 1998 and 2002, when she seemed more at ease outlining complicated policy than talking to voters.

But Healey's perseverance has won her some respect. Shaun McNiff, the provost of Endicott College in Beverly, said Healey filled in as the college's baccalaureate speaker in 2000, and talked about running for office. She described herself standing by the side of the road, waving to voters in the cold, and said it was a worthwhile price for being engaged in her community.

''I was mesmerized,'' said McNiff, who called the speech ''inspirational,'' hired her to teach a class, and became a friend.

Now, some - Healey included - hope a statewide race will be better suited for her personality, precisely because it's more about issues than hand-grabbing, face time, and local ties. If Romney is all smiles and handshakes and glow-in-the-dark charisma, Healey is the sort of candidate who truly doesn't think it's about her.

Politics is new business for Healey, 42, who says she didn't grow up in a political household, or a wealthy one. Her mother was a schoolteacher, her father a real estate broker, World War II veteran, and Army reservist. Raised in Daytona Beach, Fla., she said she worked through high school, taking jobs at a souvenir shop and a local newspaper. With financial aid, she went to Harvard, where she joined the 12-member Harvard Republican Club.

''I was membership secretary,'' she said, ''and I don't think I was very successful in increasing membership.''

She graduated in 1982 and went to Trinity College in Dublin on a Rotary scholarship. There, she met her husband, Sean Healey, a fellow Rotary scholar and the son of a Marine. They returned home to get married in 1985; Kerry Healey eventually got a doctorate in political science and law from Trinity.

While Sean Healey was building a lucrative career in money management, Kerry Healey delved into research and charity work. She landed at Cambridge-based Abt Associates, an international firm that does policy studies, largely for the federal government.

Of the dozen papers Healey wrote on criminal justice issues, her best-known was a 1996 study about court witnesses who were intimdated by gangs and drug dealers. It recommended that cities and states develop witness- protection programs. Healey also spent two years studying domestic violence cases, and recommended treatment programs for batterers, with intensive monitoring.

Abt's work, in some ways, is the opposite of politics - deliberative, patient, prone to long conclusions that defy sound-bite summaries. Research can be frustrating, said Joan Mullin, a vice president of Abt who hired Healey in the 1980s. Tangible results often take many studies and many years, and sometimes the best ideas aren't put into practice because of politics, she said.

Healey said that after a 1997 conference on child abuse, she felt deflated: She was doing important work, and no one seemed to be paying attention. ''At the very least, what I wanted to do was to have a platform to talk about those issues.''

The following year, she ran for office.

Healey had lived in Beverly for three years when she took on state Representative Mike Cahill, a Democrat and lifelong city resident whose father had been in politics. She went to the state party's candidate training classes and ''tried to follow instructions,'' knocking on doors, standing at train stations and outside grocery stores, attending civic meetings and trying to get herself known.

Cahill, who is now running for state treasurer, said Healey ran an aboveboard race, criticizing his record but never getting personal. She spent $19,737 to his $21,830 in the 1998 campaign, and the Boston Herald gave her a glowing endorsement, calling her ''the kind of person we always talk about wanting in politics but rarely find.''

She lost badly, winning only about 33 percent of the vote, and immediately announced she would run again.

In 2000, Healey spent $52,016 - more than half of it her own money - to Cahill's $39,582, and made greater efforts to get her name out, running an ad on the local cable channel, and putting up the billboards with her face on them. Beverly political activists say it was the first time they recall seeing billboards in a local race, and some speculated there might have been a backlash from voters. She lost again, with 35 percent of the vote.

Healey blames her defeats on Cahill's strong roots in the community, but local political observers say her campaign was also part of her problem.

There ''seemed to be quite a bit of fund-raising and money involved,'' said Judy Gillespie, the city Republican Committee chairwoman, instead of ''the kind of grass-roots campaigning we're kind of used to in Beverly.''

And Duane Anderson, the city Democratic Committee chairman, said Healey isn't the kind of politician who lights up with enthusiasm when she meets a voter.

''I don't think people really warm up to her,'' Anderson said. ''She's very sort of professional and, I think, a little aloof.''

Healey found faster success in her work with the state Republican Party. Elected to the Republican State Committee in 1999, she ran for the unpaid position of chairman last fall and won easily. Some insiders grumble that in her short tenure, Healey produced few candidates for prominent offices. But after a tumultuous few days in April, when Acting Governor Jane Swift withdrew from the race, Romney entered and plucked her to be a candidate herself.

It's not clear whether Healey, whose husband has become a multimillionaire as head of Boston-based Affiliated Managers Group, will tap her own wealth in her current bid for office. And she seems intent on downplaying her affluence, stressing her modest upbringing in Daytona Beach, rather than her current life in exclusive Beverly Farms.

Now Healey is part of the Romney machine - the campaign Web site and signs sport both names - but she still faces a primary battle. And in the coming months, she'll have to forge an identity for herself and learn to articulate a platform.

When a student at the UMass-Lowell class asked for an overview of Healey's agenda, she went through a list of issues, but offered no positions.

''I'm going to be looking into bilingual education,'' she said. ''I also want to look at the relationship between higher education and higher education funding ... The other thing that really interests me is the provision of social services.''

The students were hardly electrified, said their professor, Jeffrey Gerson. They later complained she was evasive and lacked the passion and personality they had come to expect from politicians.

''She reminded me of some students that I've had,'' Gerson said, ''who get up to do public speaking, and they can't wait to get back to their seats.''

But some of Healey's supporters are convinced that, with time, she'll grow comfortable on the campaign trail and impress voters with her knowledge.

''I think people are going to be really surprised at how well she does, how nicely she complements Mitt Romney,'' said Republican Patrick Guerriero, the former Melrose mayor and lieutenant governor candidate, who encouraged Healey to run after he realized he wouldn't get Romney's endorsement. ''I think they're going to grow to respect her.''