Kerry M. Healey ’82 was finishing the spring semester of her senior year of high school when she received an invitation from the head of the Harvard men’s crew team to try out for a selective spot as varsity coxswain. At 5’9” and with a (self-acknowledged) androgenous name, she found herself the lone woman amid some 80 men at the tryout.
While her coxswain career didn’t quite take off, Healey—her surname was Murphy then—was allowed to attend several practices. But it wasn’t easy. “During the review of a practice that took place in the men’s locker room, the coach saw I had my hands on my face the whole time.”
Two decades later, Healey had won a reputation as a hard-charging woman in another field long dominated by men—Massachusetts politics. With roots in Harvard’s government department and a prominent figure on the Harvard theater scene, Healey rose through the ranks of the state Republican Party to become its chairwoman and then, from 2003 to 2007, the lieutenant governor under Gov. Mitt Romney—whose national presidential campaign she now co-chairs.
Following her 21-percentage-point defeat, Healey returned to Harvard as a fellow at the Kennedy School of Government’s Institute of Politics, where, in a wide-ranging interview, she described a path from a humble upbringing to a brief life in academia to a rocky entrance into politics.
‘I THINK IT’S IN CONNECTICUT’
A native of Omaha, Neb., Healey moved to Daytona Beach, Fla., for high school, where she came to realize that “there was something beyond what I was seeing at that time,” and chose to apply to Harvard and Duke.
Coming from a high school where no one had made it into Harvard in more than 10 years, Healey turned to her guidance counselor for help through the college admissions process. But not much help was to be had. “Well, I don’t know, I think it’s in Connecticut,” Healey says her counselor told her when she asked about Harvard, imitating the counselor’s Florida panhandle drawl.
Instead, Healey read about Harvard, and eventually chose to come here both because of the reputation and because it offered the better financial aid package. Healey learned she would need to brace herself for a different lifestyle—especially for the weather, she says, not having seen snow since her childhood days in Nebraska. “I didn’t even own a hair dryer,” she recalls. “I would go out and my hair would freeze to my head.”
‘ALADDIN’ AND JONI MITCHELL
Healey’s political acumen was reflected early in her time as a freshman in Canaday D entryway as she took on a diverse plate of extracurricular activities and developed a wide social network. “She had a broad circle of friends very quickly, was someone a lot of people knew in our class,” recalls senior-year roommate in South House (now Cabot House) Maria O. Hylton ’82.
“She was one of the funniest, liveliest, avant-garde people,” Hylton says, pointing to Healey’s appreciation for the folk singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell.
Healey became “membership secretary” of the Harvard Republican Club—which, at the time, counted 12 members. She also produced six plays, two on the main stage of the American Repertory Theatre and one that re-opened the Agassiz Theatre after renovations.
Myra A. Mayman, director of the Radcliffe Institute for the Arts at the time, remembers Healey as a quiet and efficient producer when she was working on “Aladdin” at the Agassiz. “She worked hard at that job and wanted it to succeed,” Mayman says. (A Crimson review said the show had “the clumsy charm of an exemplary school production.”)
“She dealt with theatrical people,” Mayman says. “Maybe that prepared her for politics.”
‘REPATRIATED’ TO IRELAND
Her mother a teacher and her father a real estate salesman, Healey eventually found a niche in political science.
Healey says the government department was known at the time for challenging grading and for a gender bias that allegedly pervaded the concentration. She recalls the female teaching presence in the department being limited to one associate professor and “a few women TAs [teaching assistants].”
With the bulk of her courses on theory and economics, “I was not as focused on grades as I was on getting the knowledge before I left,” she says. She decided not to write a thesis her senior year in order to be able to pack in five or six classes per semester into an already-full schedule—a choice she regrets. “I now realize you have a longer time to learn things than four years at Harvard.”
The overloaded semesters did not pay off for Healey right away. “I guess I am still interested in government, but I did not make use of that degree until I was in office, and then I had flashbacks to Michael Sandel’s maiden lectures,” she says, referring to the Bass professor of government.
After graduating, she won a Rotary International Scholarship to study political science and law at Trinity College in Dublin, where she wrote a dissertation on the Irish interpretation of the human rights clauses of the country’s constitution. “I know a great deal about Irish constitutional law,” she says. “But again, no one has ever asked me a thing about Irish constitutional law.”
Healey thinks she was chosen by the Rotary Scholarship to be “repatriated” to Ireland because of her Irish-sounding last name, even though the country was near the bottom of her list of places where she wanted to study.
But the attempted repatriation was fortuitous. In Ireland, she met fellow Rotary Scholar Sean M. Healey ’83, whom she married in 1985. He is now the president and CEO of Affiliated Managers Group, Inc., a firm that managed $250 billion in assets as of this March.
From the end of her doctoral program at Trinity to her first bid for state representative in 1998, Healey did policy research for a Cambridge-based firm, focusing on drug policy and child abuse. During those years, she put her husband through Harvard Law School while her own interest in politics grew further.
“I became very frustrated that we here in Massachusetts were not doing everything we could, especially to improve the environment for children,” she says. This prompted her to enter politics, “to discuss these issues and raise awareness about child abuse and neglect.”
In 1998, she ran for state representative in Beverly, her hometown on Boston’s North Shore. This first campaign was a “disaster,” she recalls. “You cannot go from being an academic to a politician overnight.”
Her worst memory is a fundraiser “where I submitted a group of little old ladies who came out to eat fried chicken and listen to jazz under a tent to a 10-page academic speech on policy issues.”
Insisting on the importance of a hands-on approach to learning electoral politics, Healey says that her failed campaigns in 1998 and 2000—both of which she lost to State Rep. Michael Cahill, a Democrat, without getting more than 36 percent of the vote—gave her the experience necessary to go on to rise in the party ranks. “If you want to get involved in electoral politics there is no substitute for getting out there and running,” she says.
In 2001, Healey became chair of the Massachusetts Republican Party. “My ability to look at the political environment and assess it had improved,” she says. That same year she represented the party in trying to make a gubernatorial candidate out of Mitt Romney, then the head of the organizing committee for the 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City.
Healey then ran for lieutenant governor, soundly defeating her challenger in the Republican primary and winning the state-wide election in November 2002 with Romney on her ticket.
Healey says the fondest memory of her time in office was the signing of Melanie’s Law—a bill that sharply raised the penalties for drunken driving infractions. “I don’t know if I realized at that moment how significant the legislation would be but it was hard fought.” She claims the bill has saved the lives of more than 40 people, based on the decrease in the number of drunken-driving-related deaths since the law took effect.
Romney—now a leading Republican presidential candidate—was “supremely articulate, a good showman, and had enormous talent in virtually everything,” she says. “He even sings well in church.”
After Romney’s decision not to run for reelection in 2006, Healey was left as the main Republican candidate. Patrick, her opponent, went on to a landslide victory at the polls.
Healey’s campaign drew criticism for attacking Patrick’s integrity. In one instance, a television advertisement portrayed Patrick, a former NAACP lawyer, as being soft on crime for helping overturn a death sentence for a convicted murderer of a policeman.
In an October poll, 61 percent of respondents criticized the negative tone of Healey’s campaign.
But Healey says she has no regrets. “Negative campaigning is a sad reality,” she says. “I don’t believe there was a difference between my campaign and that of Deval Patrick and his supporters.”
Hylton, Healey’s senior-year roommate, recalls watching the ads and thinking “Wow, this is not who Kerry is.”
Friends from her time at Harvard felt that she had more to give to Massachusetts than what emerged from the nine-month campaign.
“I think she is a terrific person, and would have loved to see her show what she can do for the state,” says Martha A. Mazzone ’82, her roommate of four years.
Now co-chair of Romney’s presidential campaign, Healey is trying to use her own energy and campaigning skills to get his message out “fast enough.” She insists that the vitality to remain on the campaign trail for months at a time is “something you either have or you don’t.”
Healey says her current tenure as a fellow at the Institute of Politics gave her the chance to reflect on last year’s election and her time in government. The conclusion: “Things would have to change here if I were ever to run for office again, but I know better than to say it’s impossible.”
—Staff writer Noah S. Bloom can be reached at email@example.com.