With less than a month to go before Massachusetts voters elect a new governor, Democrat Maura Healey and Republican Geoff Diehl traded jabs Wednesday night in their first debate, sparring over the economy, immigration and abortion rights.
For much of the debate, which was hosted by NBC10 Boston, Telemundo Boston and NECN, it felt like a third candidate was on the ballot: Donald Trump. From the start, Healey sought to link Diehl to the former president, who remains deeply unpopular in Massachusetts.
“My opponent has said that he backs Donald Trump 100% of the time,” Healey said of Diehl, accusing him of running his campaign “from the Trump playbook” and of wanting to bring “Trumpism” to Massachusetts.
Healey, a Democrat who lives in Boston’s South End, repeated the attack more than once, calling Diehl “extreme,” “dangerous” and “unqualified to be the next governor.”
Diehl, a former state representative from Whitman, was one of the state’s first Republicans to endorse Trump when he ran for President in 2015. He has remained loyal to him ever since, embracing the former president’s support in his run to become the state’s next governor.
By contrast, Democrat Maura Healey spent much of her tenure as the state’s attorney general suing the Trump administration.
But in Wednesday night’s debate, Diehl called the Trump references a distraction.
“It’s Halloween time and that’s her boogeyman,” he said.
Diehl presented himself as a fiscal conservative who supports parental rights and law and order, while backing stricter immigration laws. And he sought to tie Healey to high inflation, rising energy prices and President Biden.
“Joe Biden, the person that you supported, is leading us into economic disaster just two years into the job,” Diehl declared.
Diehl, who co-chaired Trump’s 2016 campaign in Massachusetts, has pushed the former president’s false claims that the 2020 presidential election was rigged. When asked last night if he still believes the election was stolen, he at first appeared to edge away from that unfounded claim.
“Obviously Joe Biden won the election,” Diehl said, before adding, “Look at how bad the economy is right now.”
Diehl went on to claim there were irregularities in 2020, and insisted that mail-in voting makes election fraud more likely, even in Massachusetts. And he said a law that gives undocumented immigrants in the state access to driver’s licenses automatically enrolls them to vote. In fact, the law doesn’t do that. (Diehl is leading an effort to repeal the law, which will be on the ballot in November.)
Healey, who backs the law, said it promotes public safety and pointed out that a number of Massachusetts’ police chiefs support it as well.
“You want to know who is actually driving on our roads,” she said. “You want to know that they’ve received instruction and training through a drivers’ ed program.”
But the sharpest clash by far came over abortion. In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to end federal abortion rights, Healey said, “Massachusetts needs a governor who will protect a woman’s freedom to make a decision for herself.”
“I will. He won’t. It’s as simple as that,” she said.
While Diehl opposes abortion, he said that as governor, he would respect Massachusetts’ Roe Act, which codifies abortion rights in state law. And then he shifted the argument to vaccine mandates, accusing Healey of turning her back on state workers, including police troopers, who lost their jobs for refusing to get vaccinated.
“That’s really shameful,” Diehl said, pledging to respect people’s freedom to decide for themselves whether to get vaccinated. “A lot of people lost jobs.”
Healey shot back that what’s shameful is “all the talk of freedom, except when it applies to women.”
Polls suggest Diehl is running well behind Healey. It’s not clear if he managed to close any of that margin Wednesday night, but he will have have another chance on Oct. 20, when the two debate again.