Massachusetts Gubernatorial Debate pits two conflicting ideologies against each other

Eli Curwin, news staff

On Wednesday, the two candidates for the Massachusetts Governor’s race, Maura Healey and Geoff Diehl, faced off in the first of two debates. Healey and Diehl spent the fast-paced debate answering questions on topics ranging from transportation to abortion, and laying out their visions for the future of the Bay State. 

Healey and Diehl both attempted to frame themselves as more moderate than their progressive and far-right allies, with Diehl attempting to appear as a more centrist member of the GOP and Healey presenting herself closer to current moderate Republican Gov. Charlie Baker. 

While the discussion remained cordial, the debate was not without its verbal digs. Healey spent the hour painting Diehl as a Trump-equivalent — someone who emboldened lies about the 2020 presidential election, pushed against vaccine mandates and fought to remove women’s reproductive rights. 

“My opponent has said, recently, that he backs Donald Trump 100% of the time. He has said he wants Donald Trump to be president in 2024. He chaired his presidential campaign. He continues to play from the Trump playbook and wants to bring Trumpism to Massachusetts,” Healey said.

Diehl, while often adopting the former president’s question-dodging and reframing debate strategy, spent significant time distancing himself from former President Donald Trump. Through condemning the Jan. 6 insurrection and admitting President Joe Biden won the election, Diehl spent the debate appealing to the moderate conservative base in Massachusetts. 

“You’re going to hear about Donald Trump because it’s Halloween time, and that’s her boogieman,” Diehl said early in the debate. “It is a distraction from what’s important for this race … we are going to make sure that this debate is about Massachusetts tonight, and not about national politics.”

Diehl characterized Healey as a radical progressive, who often puts her left-leaning ideology ahead of practical fiscal decisions, continually citing Healey’s lofty renewable climate agenda as a source of economic strife for the people of Massachusetts. Diehl argued that Healey’s challenges against oil and fossil fuels will skyrocket the price of electricity in the state, provoking thousands to move.

The accessibility, safety and affordability of housing, infrastructure and transportation was something both candidates were eager to cover. Healey discussed her plan to develop housing for residents at varying income levels and increase safety measures and accessibility to transportation. Emphasizing the use of federal funding and middle-class tax cuts, Healey explained how she would pay for her plan without raising prices on the people who can least afford it.

“We need to get the money out to our cities and towns, so that they can do this work,” Healey said. “It is really important … to focus on the fact that our bridges and roads need the support, need the investment.”

Diehl echoed this sentiment, outlining his goal to expand transportation across Massachusetts, opening up areas of the state to build more affordable housing. The former state legislator also spent time arguing that the laying off of MBTA staff due to vaccine mandates and Biden’s poor handling of the economy has led to an increased cost of living in Massachusetts. 

In a series of questions from NBC10 reporters and Diehl himself, Healey addressed criticisms for inciting Black Lives Matter protests, prioritizing attacking Trump with lawsuits over taking actions to help Massachusetts and failing to prosecute intergovernmental corruption.

Healey rebutted, stating that in these lawsuits, she protected the state’s climate regulations and healthcare. She justified her controversial remarks regarding Black Lives Matter protests by adamantly expressing her continued support for law enforcement and her history of fighting for racial equality. However, Healey was unable to directly respond to Diehl’s criticism of her inability to prosecute corruption.

With 45 to 60 seconds to answer each question, the debate quickly turned to the issue of immigration. Diehl considered Massachusetts’ sanctuary policies insufficient to deal with the “humanitarian crisis at the border,” and argued that the arrival of immigrants in Martha’s Vineyard was an outcry to solve the immigration crisis. Diehl also incorrectly said continuing to grant undocumented immigrants driver’s licenses would enable criminals to vote and stated that the ballot initiative would encourage many to cross the border illegally.

“We have a immigration crisis at our southern border,” Diehl said. “When you add driver’s licenses to people who are here illegally, you are now incentivizing, additionally, people who have broken the law, and now are going to come to Massachusetts and think they can just get [driver’s licenses] with no problem.”

Healey rebutted this response, citing the fact that several police stations support the ballot initiative and 17 states have already implemented similar policies because they have been proven to make roads safer. She applauded Baker and the people of Martha’s Vineyard for their empathetic handling of the situation, and pushed national immigration reform to help people cross the border more effectively and efficiently.

Tensions between the two candidates reached its peak when discussing abortion. For many women, the topic of abortion is at the heart of the midterms. While Massachusetts has taken steps to protect abortion in the state, the candidates specifically discussed protecting access for people living outside of Massachusetts and ensuring a women’s right to make decisions regarding their own healthcare.

During the debate, Diehl argued that abortion should be a state’s rights issue and moved on to discussing the hypocritical nature of enforcing vaccine mandates and pushing for pro-choice abortion policies.

“I appreciated that the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade with the Dobbs decision,” Diehl said. “Just so we are clear again, my body, my choice in Massachusetts, also in my opinion stands for vaccine mandates. You never stood up for people who were fired because they were forced to get a vaccine … and that’s really shameful.”

Healey answered with strong support for protecting abortion and providing access to people who live in states where the procedure is illegal. 

“Massachusetts needs a governor who will protect women’s freedom to make decisions for herself. It is as simple as that. I will, he won’t,” Healey said. “You know what’s shameful, is all of the talk about freedom, except when it applies to women.”

After a brief discussion on the opioid crisis, where both candidates expressed their support for increased mental health and prevention resources, the candidates were asked how they would tackle the various staffing and testing issues plaguing the state’s education system.

With 80% of “low income elementary and middle schoolers … not meeting grade level expectations for math” based on MCAS results, according to a debate moderator, Healey described her plan to boost school funding, increase accessible mental health resources for students and train and recruit more diverse faculty.

“The studies show that for students of color, they will perform better if there is an educator of color in their classroom, in their school,” Healey said. “We need to recruit and train more educators of color in our state for the sake of our children and our young people.”

Taking a strategy out of Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s playbook, Diehl focused on criticizing the inclusion of race in many school’s curriculum. 

“Right now I think a lot of parents are upset about some of the curriculum they’re presented with kids at early ages,” Diehl said. “This is about allowing parents to have a say in what is in the schools, whether it is the curriculum or whether it is in the public libraries.”

Diehl discussed his support for school choice, where parents decide what type of school their children should attend, whether it be a public school, a private school, a charter school or homeschooling. However, many parents take issue with school choice because it often develops racial and economic divides in funding and staffing.

The candidates also discussed climate change. Healey touched on her plans to create a clean economy, create jobs, coordinate environmental policies throughout bureaucratic agencies and a need to diversify energy sources. 

Diehl did not speak much on his climate plan, although he did spend most of his 60 seconds criticizing Healey for hers. 

“We are really racing towards a solution that isn’t even going to be able to produce the energy we need in the time frame she wants,” Diehl said. “We are going to go broke trying to get there.”

The last topic the candidates discussed was an anticipated spike in COVID-19 cases over the winter. Diehl continued to push against vaccine mandates and drastic measures to combat the virus. Healey simply stated that she would follow the science and act according to expert recommendations.

The candidates finished the debate each with a 60 second closing statement. 

Diehl highlighted his desire for individual, economic and educational freedom.

Healey ended with an analogy to basketball, which she played professionally, and compared the teamwork needed in basketball to how she will govern in cooperation with all levels of government. She concluded her statement with a resonant, scathing line:

“My opponent is Donald Trump’s choice for governor. I would be honored to be yours.”

The next gubernatorial debate will be held Oct. 20, at 7 p.m and will be aired on WCVB.