It may be the season of Trump, but the most popular politician in these parts is not a figure of bruising bombast. It is Governor Charlie Baker, man of moderation, cruncher of data.
The governor’s methodical handling of a series of crises that have befallen the state since he took office in January — from winter paralysis at the MBTA to trouble at the Department of Children and Families — has earned him stacks and stacks of political capital.
But it has also raised a fundamental question about the Republican’s tenure: Can he remain the Fixer-in-Chief for the rest of his time in office, or is he obliged to spend those stacks on a big, daring, proactive agenda?
The question, to Baker’s ear, sounds a bit loaded. It suggests that repairing government is a pedestrian priority. And for the governor, making the trains run on time — quite literally, in this case — is a high calling.
“I think people judge politicians . . . on two things: ‘Are you interested in the things I’m interested in?’ and ‘Can you actually do anything?’ ” he said in a recent interview.
Of course, there is also some political logic to focusing on third rail heaters and shorter lines at the Registry of Motor Vehicles: A Republican governor would have a hard time pushing a more ideologically charged agenda through a heavily Democratic Legislature.
Former GOP governor William Weld “campaigned on a lot of ideas when he ran in 1990,” said Rob Gray, a Boston-based Republican strategist who worked for Weld. “But when he became governor, he became a very practical guy, very quickly.”
Indeed, it is difficult to imagine any Republican governor in this state making the full frontal assault on public employee unions that catapulted Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin to national fame or the big income tax cuts that turned Governor Sam Brownback of Kansas into the face of supply-side economics.
Baker’s more restrained approach has produced undeniable results. He is well regarded by lawmakers on Beacon Hill. And in July, a WBUR poll found 64 percent of voters had a favorable view of the governor, while just 10 percent saw him unfavorably.
“Even though there’s not a well-articulated agenda, I think the public is convinced that he is a do-something governor rather than a do-nothing governor,” said Jeffrey Berry, a political science professor at Tufts University. “I think there’s an appreciation that he’s trying to solve problems.”
State Senator Ben Downing, a Pittsfield Democrat, acknowledged the appeal of Baker’s fix-it approach. But ultimately, he said, tinkering with the state machinery will not solve the big, defining problems of the day, such as income inequality.
“At some point, big problems do require big solutions,” he said.
For Democrats, a big solution often involves the sort of big spending Baker resists. And nowhere is the call for a cash infusion more pronounced than at the agency that has come to define the governor’s tenure to date, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority.
For years, blue-ribbon panels and outside analysts have churned out reports warning of chronic underinvestment in the nation’s fifth-largest public transit agency. And just last month, the special board Baker appointed to oversee the T reported the agency’s backlog of upgrades and repairs is at least $7.3 billion.
“I think down the road, he is going to come to the realization that he is going to need some revenue to fix these problems,” said state Representative Michael Moran, a Brighton Democrat.
Of course, even Democratic governors have struggled to coax big investments out of Beacon Hill. Former governor Deval Patrick’s push for a legacy-making $1.9 billion tax hike to fund new spending on transportation and education fell apart in the Legislature.
And Baker’s allies suggest he is making an even more audacious play, in some respects. He is betting on his ability to fix a series of big, complex agencies — from the T, to the Department of Children and Families, to the RMV — through sheer managerial brio. And hundreds of thousands of voters will be able to judge the results up close.
“There’s a window here, OK?” Baker said. “People are going to expect me and my administration to show progress and improvement. And the progress and improvement on this stuff [will be measured by] their experience with it. So it’s very real. And I’ll tell you, it sure feels real to me.”
But if there is risk here, analysts say, it has limits. Voters will not expect the governor to fix everything; they’ll give him some slack.
And Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor at the Cook Political Report in Washington who tracks governors, says the problems Baker is tackling are not as politically fraught as, say, the pension crises that have torn through other states.
“The question for governors is: What is the biggest problem that needs fixing and how divisive is it?” she said.
Indeed, the relatively good health of the state’s economy means Baker has been able to avoid some of the hardest choices that can fall to a governor — and pick some shots.
The governor has taken chances on occasion. He pressed unsuccessfully for the repeal of the controversial film tax credit, which had some powerful supporters in the state’s House of Representatives.
And he won the right to privatize more services at the T, angering many in organized labor. He is sure to upset the unions again this fall, when he files legislation to increase the number of charter schools in the state.
But battling public employee unions, if the attack is focused on a handful of well-chosen issues, is generally a political winner.
And for the most part, the Baker administration has crafted an agenda that tends toward the bipartisan and detail-oriented.
Faced with an opioid crisis that claimed more than 1,000 lives last year, the administration has pressed to overhaul a clunky system for monitoring opioid prescriptions and to assign addiction specialists to licensing boards for nurses, pharmacists, and others.
“It’s going to take us a while,” said Marylou Sudders, Baker’s secretary of health and human services, “to bend the trend on this.”
The administration is also feeling its way through an enormously complicated energy conundrum — maintaining Massachusetts’ leadership as a green energy hub, while working to curb the high energy prices that worry so many business leaders.
Observers say striking the right balance between traditionally Democratic and traditionally Republican concerns, on energy and other issues, is shaping up as a central challenge for the post-MBTA-crisis administration.
“My impression is that the governor is trying to paint a portrait of the Baker administration that is suitably purple,” said Ralph Whitehead, a veteran of Massachusetts politics and informal adviser to Senate President Stanley C. Rosenberg, a Democrat. “Certainly, fiscal conservatism provides the red paint, and I think he’s thinking through what kinds of initiatives supply the blue paint.”
The trouble, of course, is that while the governor is the primary agenda-setter on Beacon Hill, there are other players, too. And they are starting to force Baker out of the bipartisan wonkery he finds most comfortable.
The governor’s opposition to legislation that would protect transgender people from discrimination in parks, restaurants, and other public places has provided fodder for the state Democratic Party, which has issued several press releases questioning his commitment to equality.
And amid the national uproar over race and policing, Baker has struggled to strike the right tone on a proposed criminal justice overhaul — signaling tentative support for some elements and reservations about others.
But wherever the Legislature might tug him, and whatever the news media’s demands for “the vision thing,” many observers sympathetic to Baker say he should be able to stick to his fix-it stock-in-trade. There is plenty to fix, after all. And when the governor is talking policy, they say, he sounds genuine.
“I think this can go on forever,” said Ray Howell, a public relations consultant who served alongside Baker in the Weld administration. “This is who Charlie Baker is.”