Healey speaks on student debt, American values at UMass Amherst

Graphic by Carrie Clowers ’18

Graphic by Carrie Clowers ’18

BY  KATE TURNER ’21

Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey addressed an assembly full of college students and community members alike at her town hall meeting on Monday night, located on the University of Massachusetts, Amherst campus and hosted by the student Democrats Association and political science department.

Following a week of political victories for Democrats in states like Virginia and New Jersey, the mood in the room was optimistic. “We saw such diversity of candidates last week,” said Healey in her opening remarks. “I am here with a very optimistic spirit. And I am so happy that we have young people on hand to restore faith in our democracy.”

Attorney General Healey has branded herself “the people’s lawyer,” calling herself “a voice for the vulnerable” and promising to “stand up to protect the people’s rights.” She also frequently alluded to her beginnings as chief of the Civil Rights Division in the previous attorney general’s office; she was responsible for leading the Massachusetts challenge to the Federal Defense of Marriage Act. Upon her election to office in 2015, Healey also became America’s first openly gay state attorney general.

Sonia Guglani, a student at UMass Amherst and the president of the UMass Democrats, said she got the idea to reach out to the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office while interning with Eric Schneiderman, the Attorney General of New York, over the summer. 

“I really wanted Maura Healey to come because she isn’t a typical politician,” Guglani explained. “Her office has the ability to take direct action against the federal government, which is very unique. She also isn’t afraid to answer controversial questions. I reached out to see if she could speak to students as to resources the offices could provide.”

“I think it’s really valuable to be engaged in the community where we go to school, even if we’re not residents,” Mathilda Scott ’20 of Mount Holyoke said. “We’re all going to be living here for the next couple of years.”

Scott is president of the Mount Holyoke Democrats and worked with Guglani to coordinate the attendance of Mount Holyoke students at the UMass event. “The Five Colleges give us a great mutual opportunity where we can all participate in each other’s events,” she said. “That way we all benefit from bigger speakers like Maura Healey.”

In her opening speech, Healey emphasized the various divisions of her office that were open as public resources, especially her student loan assistance unit, which is one of the only such institutions of its kind. She also spoke at length about some in-state issues her office is dealing with, such as the opioid crisis, wage theft, protections for student recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy (DACA) and predatory lending practices.

Healey is particularly concerned with challenging predatory student loans and debts incurred from illegitimate and for-profit schools. “In Hampshire County alone, we relieved 450 students of $1.5 million altogether in student loan debt,” she said.

“I am going to turn to talk about some of the federal lawsuits we have going on,” she said. “Unfortunately, we have a president who has chosen to make good on any number of illegal and unconstitutional campaign promises.”

Healey said when dealing with issues on a federal level, her focus was on a single question. “What does this mean for Massachusetts?” she asked. “That is what informs the work that we do.” She spoke briefly on Massachusetts’s participation in federal lawsuits -- concerning the repeal of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), various clean energy legislation and Executive Order 13769 (more commonly known as President Trump’s “travel ban”) — before opening the floor to questions.

Although the purpose of the town hall was ostensibly to shed light on the resources the Attorney General’s office has to offer the state of Massachusetts, the overwhelming theme that drove the questions of students and community members alike was “What can we do?”

According to Healey, the best way to be an activist — regardless of your political affiliation — is to start by getting involved in local politics. “People tend to forget about those local races,” she said. “But they’re crucial, so make sure your loved ones are registered to vote. And share information with one another; people listen to their neighbors.” 

“You need to continue to tell your story,” she said in response to a question later in the night. “That is the most powerful thing you can do.”

Other questions ranged from the topic of Healey’s findings on the federal assault weapons ban and her response to recent mass shootings to a recent increase in homelessness in Massachusetts. She also discussed legislation protecting the victims of sexual assault, the rights of women to information about abortion and the position of Massachusetts on political gerrymandering.

The theme of the night, however, remained focused on activism in what one community member called in a question “the era of Trump.” Healey remained open and focused on what she described as important and universal American values. 

When asked what she thought the greatest threat to American democracy was, her response was almost immediate. “Bad information,” she said. “Misinformation, and undermining of the press — we need a free press, a free press is essential.”

“There is truth and there is fiction,” she told an applauding audience. “And there is a difference between right and wrong.”

“We don’t know about the rest of the country,” said Healey. “But let’s take care of everything that we can take care of in Massachusetts.”

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