From the Campaign Trail to the Governor’s Office: a Q&A with Sarah Sabshon (SPH ’15).
From the Campaign Trail to the Governor’s Office: A Q&A with Sarah Sabshon (SPH ’15)
As the new associate chief of staff for policy & cabinet affairs for Massachusetts Governor Maura Healey, alum Sarah Sabshon discusses her passion for policy and her journey to the governor’s office.
After celebrating the inauguration of Massachusetts Governor Maura Healey, Sarah Sabshon (SPH ’15) transitioned roles from policy director on the former attorney general’s campaign to associate chief of staff for policy & cabinet affairs in the governor’s office.
As reflected in her new title, Sabshon now has two distinct responsibilities, serving as a policy advisor to Governor Healey and Lieutenant Governor Kim Driscoll and as a liaison between the governor’s office and ten secretariats. Sabshon says she aims to operationalize what they promised on the campaign trail and make it a reality.
Sabshon has a leg up on many of her colleagues—she already knows her way around the State House. While studying health policy and management at SPH, she served as a legislative intern on the Joint Committee on Public Health, and was soon hired full-time as a research analyst for the committee and then as the chief of staff for former Massachusetts State Representative Jeffrey Sánchez, who has been a frequent guest speaker at SPH events and classes. Sabshon went on to serve as a healthcare policy analyst for former Massachusetts House Speaker Robert DeLeo and most recently, in the same position for current Massachusetts House Speaker Ronald Mariano.
After nine-and-a-half years in the legislature, the transition to the governor’s office from the 24/7 grind of the campaign trail is a return to both an environment and a pace she is used to, Sabshon says. “It’s not quite a sprint, it’s more of a marathon.”
Her new role is also rarely 9-to-5. In the past, Sabshon focused primarily on health care issues. Now, she says, her portfolio is much broader. She anticipates her biggest challenge will be balancing the need to be proactive in executing the governor’s ideas and policy priorities with reacting to emerging issues that could affect residents of the commonwealth. For example, she is concerned about the implications of national policy changes and court cases for reproductive health in Massachusetts. She cites an ongoing case in Texas regarding access to mifepristone, a pill approved by the FDA for use in abortions.
“Despite what is happening nationally,” Sabshon says, “we have a very firm commitment from our governor that reproductive rights are going to be protected no matter what. We can breathe a sigh of relief, but there’s a lot more to do.” To be proactive, she represents the governor in the Reproductive Freedom Alliance, an alliance of governors’ offices from all over the country that meets once a month to discuss best practices on how to protect reproductive rights.
“I’m looking forward to getting back to that meat-and-potatoes work of health care policy,” says Sabshon.
Sabshon spoke with us about her passion for policy and her journey to the governor’s office.
with Sarah Sabshon
What first sparked your interest in government and policy?
I studied public health in undergrad and came from a journalism background, so I started in health communications because that felt like a natural transition. My first jobs out of college were working in private companies, but we contracted with the federal government on health policy evaluations and demonstrations. That showed me what policy could do and gave me an introduction to how government operates. One of my frustrations with working in the private sector was that being a junior employee, I didn’t have a lot of influence. Private companies, private organizations, and nonprofits do influence policy, but at the end of the day policymaking is done by government and one of the great things about working in government is that it’s all hands on deck. If you are interested in making an impact at a grand scale, government policymaking—that’s where it is.
How did your time at SPH and your experience in the MPH program prepare you for what you do now?
I started my MPH right before the Obama/Romney election. I had always been interested in doing policy work, but I was paying closer attention to that election than previous elections. I realized that if I was going to do policy work, I needed to understand the political landscape—and I didn’t. My advisor, Professor Alan Sager, encouraged me to intern in the Committee on Public Health. He used his connections to help me get in the door. I spent a lot of time there and eventually joined the office full-time while finishing my master’s degree. My MPH planted the seed in me: policy doesn’t happen in a vacuum. I love how SPH is focused on reality, which I don’t think all public health programs are.
You mentioned Professor Alan Sager, could you share another mentor who had a meaningful impact on you and your career?
I have been very lucky to work for some incredible people in my time in Massachusetts politics and in public health. The person that I look to most is my first boss in the legislature, former Representative Jeffrey Sánchez. I happened to land in his office as an intern when I was a student and he was the chair of the Committee on Public Health. I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into, but from the moment I started, I just fell in love with this work. A lot of it had to do with how he ran his office. He followed his passions and values. We worked hard—he had very high standards—but he also made you feel like you were part of a family and that we were all working towards shared goals to make Massachusetts better. He inspired me to continue down this path, and he supported me in moving on to new roles—from starting as an intern to eventually becoming his chief of staff. Joining his office right out of the gate is why I’m here doing this work today.
How has the political climate and your understanding of politics changed since you were a legislative intern in 2013?
National politics has gotten a lot uglier since then. I’m grateful to be here in Massachusetts, because, overall, we have a very collaborative, warm environment for policy work. For the most part, Massachusetts residents are on the same page about the values that we stand for. We’re not always going to great agree on everything, but I think the tenor of the conversation here is a lot more pleasant and respectful than it is in Washington, DC, for example. We’re able to collaborate and partner with stakeholders from all over the spectrum. It means that you’re able to get a lot more done here.
Could you share a memorable moment from your career?
I’m very grateful that I’ve had a few big policy wins over the years, but probably one of my most proud moments was when we banned all flavored tobacco here in Massachusetts. The former House Speaker, Robert DeLeo, my boss at the time, was on board and traditional tobacco products were already banned. I felt we had a unique opportunity, given the momentum, to also ban menthol tobacco products which had not been done at the federal level. I’m so grateful for Speaker DeLeo who put a lot of faith in me and—despite real opposition from some stakeholders—got the legislation across the finish line so we could be the first state in the entire country to ban all flavored tobacco products, including menthol. That was huge. Because we view tobacco work as so core public health, I remember feeling emotional. It was like, this is why I’m here.
What are you looking forward to in the coming years?
I look forward to helping to further the policy priorities of Governor Healey. I’m really excited about her governorship. She’s an incredible leader and her values are in the right place. I think we’re at a pivotal moment here in Massachusetts for us to accomplish a lot and I’m excited to be a part of that. Also, something that has become increasingly part of my identity is that I’m a mom, and being a working parent is hard. I think it’s important to talk about. You have to make a lot of sacrifices. I’m constantly looking for the balance. Students and alums should know that there are other people out there who are just trying to figure it out. We don’t have all the answers, but we’re making it work.
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