Midterm Madness: Healey and Diehl square off in first gubernatorial debate

Candidates for Massachusetts governor Maura Healey and Geoff Diehl battled it out for voters’ support Oct. 12 at the first televised gubernatorial debate.

Healey, former Mass. attorney general, and Diehl, former state representative, debated on hot-topic issues ranging from Donald Trump to abortion and immigration.

Diehl praised the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the long-standing Roe v. Wade, although he was careful not to throw his weight behind Sen. Lindsey Graham’s proposed national 15-week abortion ban.

“I appreciated that the Supreme Court overturning of Roe v. Wade with the Dobbs decision because I always felt, like Ruth Bader Ginsberg felt, that abortion should be a states issue,” Diehl said.

Healey fired back, criticizing the Republican candidate’s stance.

“He wants to defund Planned Parenthood. He wants to jail doctors who provide abortion care. That’s a real difference in this race,” Healey said.

Diehl said, if elected, he would support the state’s abortion protection legislation.

On education, the topic of banning books and addressing disparities fell under a spotlight. Recent MCAS scores released showed the pandemic has had a substantial effect on students’ reading and math levels, particularly amongst low-income communities.

“Education is foundational. You know, Massachusetts is home to the first public school in the country, and we need to do everything we can to support our young people who, frankly, have experienced tremendous loss during COVID,” Healey said. “We need to make sure that we are there as a state, as a commonwealth, doing everything we can to support students and their families.”

Rather than focusing on COVID-related educational inequities, Diehl shifted to curriculum, arguing that parents have a right to know and influence what their child is being taught in school. Healey has repeatedly accused her opponent of supporting legislation that would make it easier to ban books.

“It’s not about removing books from libraries or banning anything,” he said. “This is about allowing parents to have a say in what is in the schools, whether it’s the curriculum, or whether it’s within the public school’s libraries.”

As with many gubernatorial races this year, Donald Trump has been a repeated talking point, and Healey’s primary tool has been to paint Diehl as too extreme for Massachusetts. This debate was no exception.

Healey alleged Diehl will bring “Trumpism” into the state, adding that the former president’s rhetoric is not something that belongs in the state.

“Those are values, those are principles, those are ways that we rejected time and time again,” she said.

Diehl, however, brushed off his opponent’s criticism, claiming it was a distraction from the issues that voters are truly concerned about.

You’re going to hear about Donald Trump because it’s Halloween time, and that’s her boogeyman,” he said. “It’s a distraction from what’s important for this race. What’s important for this race is making sure that our households are able to afford to live that American dream right here in Massachusetts. And so we’re going to make sure that this debate is about Massachusetts tonight and not about national politics.”

Diehl has been endorsed by Trump, and has alleged that the 2020 election was “rigged.”

The two also sparred off on energy prices, in which Healey’s work to block two major gas pipeline projects in Massachusetts became a heated topic of debate.

“She’s going to bankrupt our state,” said Diehl, following the pattern of ads tying the blockage to expected energy price increases this winter.

The two candidates also touched on the controversial Question 4, which is set to appear on November’s ballot. Question 4 is asking voters “to decide whether a controversial new law opening access to driver’s licenses for all residents regardless of legal status will remain on the books,” according to WCVB Boston. The bill passed despite a veto from Gov. Charlie Baker, but has continued to spark debate.

“We have an immigration crisis at our southern border,” Diehl, who is working to overturn the law, said. Diehl argued that providing undocumented immigrants with drivers licenses would incentivize people to flock to Massachusetts, putting a further strain on resources.

Healey countered, saying that it was not a matter of politics, but a matter of safety.

“As a fundamental matter, you want to know who is actually driving on our roads. You want to know that they’ve received instruction and training through a driver’s ed program. And importantly, you want to make sure that they’re insured,” she said.

Towards the end of the debate, both candidates were asked to give a letter grade to Baker for his time as governor.

Diehl gave the retiring governor a “B,” while Healey declined to give a letter.

“Governor Baker’s done a really good job,” Healey said instead.

Follow Shea on Twitter @ShealaghS.