Bipartisanship is mandatory for Republican governors looking to accomplish much of anything in this state. The are too many Democrats on Beacon Hill for legislative arithmetic to suggest otherwise.
Tuesday night’s State of the Commonwealth again put GOP Governor Charlie Baker on the balance beam. Eager to curry favor with fiscal conservatives and centrists, he reiterated his resistance to broad-based tax increases. Ever the technocrat, he touted the elimination of “thousands of pages of outdated and obsolete state regulations.”
And, cognizant that he won election in 2014 by the slimmest margin in 50 years, he name-checked an exhaustive list of Democrats, including union leaders and some of the state’s most progressive lawmakers.
There was a shout-out for a former Obama White House aide, Eric Lesser, the Longmeadow Democratic state senator against whom Baker campaigned last year, backing Republican challenger Chip Harrington. And another for Alice Hanlon Peisch, the liberal Wellesley state representative.
Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh came in for praise for his “extraordinary work and collaboration” in convincing GE to relocate its world headquarters from Connecticut to Boston. Both men have been dining out on the business win for months. Going unmentioned was the local establishment’s — Walsh’s — failure to land the 2024 Summer Olympics, and the arm’s length at which the governor kept the entire enterprise.
Another issue that split Baker and Walsh, last year’s failed ballot effort to lift the cap on charter schools, was glossed over, with the governor committing to boost struggling schools with added administrative flexibility on policies like scheduling and curriculum.
“That jumped out at me,” said Representative Joseph Wagner, a Chicopee Democrat, referring to the exclusion of any mention of charter schools.
There was the standard chiding of Washington dysfunction, a common trope out in the states where governors like to brag that — as constitutionally required — they balance their budgets.
Much of the policy talk was confined to areas without a clear ideological hue. College affordability, broadband access, steps to curb opioid addiction and homelessness.
These are sometimes called “web” issues, which can create coalitions of disparate interest groups, not the “wedge” issues that Baker decried Tuesday night, and which are designed to cleave coalitions. Like Bill Clinton in the 1990s — whose perceived insufficient liberalism came back to haunt Hillary Clinton’s presidential primary campaign last year — Baker is aiming for triangulation, the practice of finding a middle and politically advantageous ground.
Not all Democrats are on board with the Baker agenda. Many — particularly those more ideologically aligned with his predecessor, Deval Patrick — say privately that the governor suffers from the technocrat’s failure of imagination, confining his agenda to obvious and high-profile crusades against opiates and MBTA woes, and then more small-bore agenda items.
“I think he was silent on criminal justice reform, which was a surprise to me, given some of the long conversations we’ve had about it,” said state Representative Russell Holmes, a Mattapan Democrat.
They note that he has never followed through on a promise to introduce campaign-finance reform, and point out that his political operation has pioneered new ways of collecting checks, including overt outreach to interest groups that have organized political action committees.
“I think he was stronger on things that have been accomplished and things around which we could achieve agreement. There are things, obviously, that remain out there,” Wagner said, adding, “I’m looking forward to seeing a little more detail as to what the agenda going forward might be on his part.”
But Baker advisers argue that the governor has delivered on his campaign promises — on a host of policy initiatives, but also in governing fundamentally from the middle. He has clearly differentiated himself from the national Republican brand that President Trump has swallowed whole, they point out, referencing Baker’s high poll numbers as evidence.
Two years ago, Baker’s swearing-in and maiden speech were attended by a small band of prominent Republicans who would, eventually, fall in line behind Trump: former governor Mitt Romney, former US senator Scott P. Brown, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.
On Tuesday, the lone Republican of national renown on hand for Baker was his old boss, former governor Bill Weld — and he was last seen running for vice president on the Libertarian Party’s ticket.
To the chamber of almost all Democrats, Baker said, “Success is measured by what we accomplish together.”
So, too — at least for Republican governors in Massachusetts — are the prospects for second terms.Jim O’Sullivan can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JOSreports.