LOWELL — For potential opponents, Martha Coakley and Charlie Baker sure have a lot in common. They’re both highly competent wonks, rather than warm, fuzzy, emotional types. And they’ve both lost statewide elections many believed could have been won by turnips.
Baker, a Republican running for governor, may face off against Coakley, the Democratic attorney general, in 2014. But right now — twins again! — they’re all about 2010.
I understand why Baker, who announced his candidacy a few weeks ago, and Coakley, who launched hers Monday, would want to banish the ghosts of elections past. Coakley was supposed to be unbeatable in the race for the US Senate seat left open by Ted Kennedy’s death, but she, and the entire Democratic Party, were caught napping by Scott Brown. Coakley under-campaigned, and the man in the barn jacket cruised to a victory that had local Dems ripping out what was left of their hair.
Likewise, Baker was a real threat to incumbent Deval Patrick in the race for governor that same year. A lot of people figured a socially liberal, fiscally conservative success story like Baker could easily slay Patrick, especially in a moribund economy. But then Baker got all negative, even as Patrick morphed into a sunnier Mr Rogers. A gay marriage supporter with a gay brother and a gay running mate, Baker refused to separate himself from the homophobic hysteria over the so-called “bathroom bill.” And his campaign printed up EBT cards with Patrick’s name on them. Ick.
For the gubernatorial hopefuls eager to rewrite those narratives, warmth is the word of the hour. In their first appearances, loving spouses have been on display way more prominently than before. And Coakley is channeling her inner gladhander. This week, she raced between restaurants all over the state to introduce herself to breakfasters and chat about Cobb salad and job training.
“Happy Birthday!” she said to Shirley Marcucci, at the J&M Diner in Framingham Tuesday. “Sixty is the new 40. I just turned 60 this summer.” (Let the record show that J&M offers a double bacon cheeseburger where the “bun” is a grilled Danish. My kind of place). At Café NU, in Worcester, she handled a cranky, domino-playing man with grace, putting her hands on his shoulders apologetically after he rudely told her to move on. For the candidate who famously dismissed the idea of shaking hands outside a freezing Fenway a few years ago, this week has been all about listening to voters.
Snap! That’s exactly where Baker is these days, too. Or, as only he would put it: “I am definitely going to spend a lot more time with the receiver on and a little less time with the transmitter on.” Though Coakley copped way more criticism after her 2010 defeat, Baker has the heavier lift in his political reincarnation. In addition to banishing the last campaign’s Mr. Negative, he also has to reinstate his moderate image by walking back some actual policy positions. Already, he has demurred on the antitax pledge he signed three years ago.
The reasonable, positive, goofy guy we lost sight of before was back Wednesday, as Baker toured the Emerging Technologies and Innovation Center at UMass Lowell, letting his dork flag fly, revealing a passion for polymers.
“Can I press this button?” he joked, pointing to a giant switch suspended from a cable in the center’s plastics engineering department. He talked at length with school officials about plastics manufacturing, public-private partnerships, and so on. Then he talked about his “great hopes” for the state.
This week’s candidates are more like the Martha and Charlie I thought I knew. Which brings me to the other big thing these two have in common. By the standards we’ve grown accustomed to, they’re dead boring.
They’re enthralled by the arcana of public policy. They have little appetite for cheap shots and gimmickry. There is little daylight between them on sexy, polarizing social issues like abortion rights and gay marriage. What we’ll get if each becomes a nominee — and if they can leave 2010 behind — is a substantive campaign centered on actual issues: education, jobs, transportation, and taxes.
Heaven help us.