Massachusetts Gov. Maura Healey takes on role electing female Democrats nationally

PHOENIX — Massachusetts Gov. Maura Healey became the first elected female governor of her state last year, and one of the first two openly lesbian women elected governor anywhere in the U.S.

Now, she’s set to take over as the new chair of the Democratic Party’s Women Governors Fund, an initiative started by the Democratic Governors Association in 2018 that seeks to put more women in statewide executive office.

It’s a national platform for one of the party’s rising stars in state office — one that Healey can use to seek out and boost more future governors who may one day draw attention as national party leaders.

“When I was attorney general, I looked at the women who were governors and had been governors. I came to know many of them over the years, and I just had so much respect and admiration for them,” Healey told NBC News in an interview at the DGA’s annual holiday gathering in Phoenix.

“I saw what they did in their states. I saw the actions that they took that made a huge impact on the lives of their residents. And they really showed the way for somebody like me in terms of thinking about what it means to be a governor, what it means to have executive power,” Healey added.

In the five years since the Women Governors Fund began, the DGA has spent over $80 million supporting female candidates for governor, including each of the current female Democratic governors: Healey, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek, Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs, Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, Maine Gov. Janet Mills and New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

And 2023 set a record for the number of female governors serving at once, with eight Democrats and four Republicans all in office.

Multiple female Democratic governors told NBC News that electing women isn’t just about diversifying executive leadership, but it’s also about bringing issues to the forefront that have historically been labeled as “women’s issues.”

“We’ve also seen that the issues that people tend to think of as ‘women’s issues,’ they’re not women’s issues. You know, education is not a ‘women’s issue,’” Kelly told NBC News.

The Kansas governor added, “We’ve been able to show that those issues that people have always sort of dismissed as ‘women’s issues,’ whether it was education, whether it’s child care, whether it’s having a roof over your head — that’s exactly what our business community cares about.”

Healey echoed Kelly, adding that women are elected to bring attention to priorities that matter to other women.

“People understand it’s all the more important to have women as governors in this country to make sure that health care is protected, to make sure that education is protected, to make sure that women have access to the reproductive health care that they need, and medication abortion,” she said.

“We’ve been able to elevate those issues and take them out of the woman’s world to give them the status that they should have, and it is absolutely essential to the function of states,” Kelly said.

Healey hopes to elevate even more women to executive office in her new position.

“We’re now eight, and it’s just, you know, it’s exponentially greater, but there’s more work to do, and we want to see more women join the ranks. But that’s a sizable number. And when we get together, you know, we’re like a team,” Healey said.

A desire to elect women

Beyond driving policy that’s beneficial to women and Democrats, the Women Governors Fund has tapped into a political desire for more women politicians and executives.

“People really see governors as the stars of the Democratic Party,” the DGA’s executive director, Meghan Meehan-Draper, told NBC News.

That’s evident in the group’s ever-increasing fundraising numbers.

In 2015, the DGA raised just over $30 million. This year, the group is on track to raise $70 million by the end of 2023, according to New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, who chaired the committee in 2023.

And donating to support female candidates is especially popular, Meehan-Draper said, with not only abortion rights but also other policy issues motivating a subset of the Democratic donor community right now.

“There is a class of donors that only want to give to women,” she said, adding: “The most efficient investment you could make is to governors [and gubernatorial candidates].”

The bond between the female Democratic governors already in office has grown strong, Healey and other governors say.

“Some of it is just the moments that you have in sharing your experiences, talking about what happened in your day or what’s going on right now in your state,” Healey said.

She added, “I also think it’s, you know, these roles, these jobs are hard. They can be lonely. … It’s really nice to have a network there that you can tap into. And there are also things unique to serving as a woman, some of the way that society or media will focus on certain aspects of you that they may not for our male counterparts.”

Arizona’s Hobbs echoed Healey, telling NBC News, “These jobs are hard, and they can be lonely. It’s nice to have a network there to tap into.”

The group hopes to strengthen their connections in the next few years and to grow the number of women in the fold.

“We have really formed a bond. It’s just reassuring that on a day in and day out basis, we know somebody’s got our back. We know somebody’s watching out for us. We know we can make a call. We know that the support system is in place,” Kelly said.

“In that vein I will do everything I can to ensure that we increase the ranks … not only because of the internal support that that provides for us, but also as I look at what women governors have accomplished over the time that I’ve been in office, it’s pretty amazing,” she added.