BOSTON – Attorney General Maura Healey challenged business leaders on Wednesday to withhold money and support from politicians around the country engaged in efforts to strip certain groups of voting rights, encouraging companies to “create consequences” for state and federal legislators who would seek to make it harder to vote.
Healey spoke to the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday for the first time since the 2020 election, touching on the work her office has been engaged in over the past year, including health care, rental assistance, housing discrimination, economic and food safety, and climate change.
The Democrat spoke about ways employers can help address problems in Massachusetts like the high cost and availability of child care and wage gaps between white workers and employees of color.
And she made a forceful case for business leaders to speak out about voting rights around the country.
“I think what has been made clear in the last year is there are two forces in this country. Those who are fighting to protect our democracy and those who are trying to undermine it. And I think there’s a business case to be made for involvement in this space,” Healey said.
The Democrat urged business leaders to publicly support the John Lewis Voting Rights Act and the For the People Act and to encourage their employees to participate through paid time off to vote or workplace voter registration drives. Healey’s office described the For the People Act as a package of reforms “to expand access to the ballot, protect elections from foreign interference, force disclosure of dark money in federal elections, and raise ethical standards for federal officials.”
Congress so far has been unable to pass voting rights legislation since President Joe Biden took office, and Healey said she was “disappointed” that West Virginia Democrat Sen. Joe Manchin said he would not support the For the People Act.
But she suggested that the business community could play a powerful role in changing minds and momentum surrounding the issue.
“The lengths that people seem willing to go to for purposes of holding on to power is unbelievable to me. It’s corrosive. It’s a cancer on our democracy and I don’t ultimately think it’s very good for business,” Healey said. “We’re America. We’re the United States of America. We shouldn’t be headed toward some kind of totalitarian, authoritarian regime. I don’t mean to be hyperbolic with those comments, but you got to see what’s going on right now.”
Healey, whose own political future is up in the air, said she understood the temptation for business leaders to play both sides and spread political contributions to Democrats and Republicans, but she urged them to think twice about who they’re donating to before giving money.
“Know that there are some really bad actors out there who don’t have America’s interests in mind,” she said.
According to the attorney general, more than 300 pieces of legislation have been filed in 47 states that would take steps to suppress voter participation, particularly Black voters. Her office joined roughly 50 multi-state litigation efforts to protect voting rights last cycle, she said.
In the wake of the 2020 elections, Healey’s office says “state legislators have seized upon baseless voter-fraud allegations to curtail mail-in voting options, impose stringent voter ID requirements, limit voter registration opportunities, and allow even more aggressive purging of voter rolls.”
And Healey said the problem isn’t confined to southern states like Texas and Florida, pointing to New Hampshire where multiple bills have been filed that would make it harder for college students not from New Hampshire to vote there.
“I hope you will join me in this because the powerful voice of the business community really makes a difference,” Healey said.
More than two years into her second term, Healey’s next move remains uncertain as she has danced around speculation that she might run for governor in 2022.
GBCC President Jim Rooney hinted at the interest in her political future when he wrapped up the hour-long virtual event by telling Healey it was a great platform to make an announcement. In fact, then-Attorney General Thomas Reilly gave a speech to the chamber in January of 2005 that was widely seen as the unofficial kickoff to his unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign in 2006.
But Healey didn’t take the bait.
“I will tell you that I am really grateful to be doing this job,” Healey said to Rooney.
In her prepared speech, Healey talked about now being a moment for Massachusetts as it comes out of the pandemic to think about how to rebuild the economy and workforce support systems like child care to be more accessible and equitable.
“We are capable of so many great things in this state,” she said.
Healey spoke at length about the toll the COVID-19 pandemic took on women in the workplace, suggesting participation had fallen back to 1988 levels, costing the state decades of progress.
The lack of available and affordable child care, she said, played a big part in that decline as she said Massachusetts went from 12,000 child care providers to 4,200, making the slots that are available costly to families even though early educators struggle to make ends meet for their own families.
Healey said universal access to early education would be good for both families and employers, allowing them to recruit from a broader and more diverse pool of talent, and she said the federal government should step up with resources to support states like Massachusetts.
“I urge you to engage on this issue,” Healey said.
The attorney general also challenged businesses to access their own wage structures and identify racial and gender pay gaps that continue to exist so that public policy leaders and businesses can fully understand the scope of the problem as they search for solutions.
“I believe it’s time for us to take the next step toward racial and gender equity in our workplaces,” she said, adding, “You can’t fix what you don’t measure.”
On transportation, Healey called the condition of the state’s infrastructure “lousy” and said it had an effect on worker productivity. “Over the last year, what I saw was increased productivity in my office, simply because people were not on the road, or getting up at five to get a bus, to get a train … ,” she said.
She said the attorney general’s office was working on a more flexible work plan for employees that would be rolled out in the next month with a full physical reopening of her office planned for September.
Healey also declined to weigh in on whether Gov. Baker or the Legislature should have a stronger hand in deciding how to spend $5.3 billion in federal relief money, but she said she’d like to see some go to support behavioral health services for school-aged children and young adults who are coping with feelings of depression, anxiety and isolation after a year of COVID-19.