Charlie Baker is walking a line with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.
OK, I can’t resist: He’s walking a bridge with Christie — and hoping it’s not a plank.
The Republican gubernatorial hopeful plans to attend a Thursday night Boston fund-raiser for the Republican Governors Association. Unfortunately for Baker, the group is chaired by Christie, who is currently embroiled in a scandal known as “Bridgegate.”
It involves a deliberate effort by Christie’s now former aides to create a massive, multiple-day traffic jam between Fort Lee, N.J., and the George Washington Bridge. What has been cast as New Jersey-style revenge against a Democratic mayor is inspiring investigations that seriously undercut Christie’s presidential ambitions — or so Democrats and ultra-conservative Republicans hope, although even liberal comedian Bill Maher contends Bridgegate is not Watergate.
What should Baker do? Shun Christie and risk losing the money the RGA can pour into his campaign? Or show up at the fund-raiser that will also be attended by former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney?
Of course, he’s showing up at the fund-raiser. But campaigning with Christie is another matter.
“This may be hairsplitting, but it’s a fund-raiser for the RGA that features the former governors and I’m attending it,” said Baker, when asked to explain his decision. “I’m going for a couple of reasons. First, they both worked across party lines as Republican governors with Democratic legislators to get stuff done. Second, we need to be competitive with all the outside money that will surely get spent in this race.”
In 2010, the RGA spent more than $4.6 million on behalf of Baker, who ran unsuccessfully against Governor Deval Patrick. In 2010, Baker also campaigned with Christie at his side. It was a packed event, at which Christie, then barely into his first term as governor, was asked if he would run for president. “We believe in you,” a Christie fan yelled out.
Baker still believes in Christie — sort of. “I take him at his word that he didn’t know what was going on, and he fired the people involved,” he said about Bridgegate.
But he doesn’t believe in him quite enough to commit to a campaign appearance with the beleaguered New Jersey governor.
“I’m focused on my own race. The fall of 2014 seems far away,” Baker said.
On Christie, Baker’s taking what looks to be the safe, centrist position. Take the money, avoid the risk. Safe and centrist is the theme of his entire campaign so far.
Baker’s a passionate proponent of bipartisan leadership, as he told a recent gathering at Suffolk University Law School. On issues, he’s frequently somewhere in the middle, trying to pull off Bill Clintonesque triangulation. Although if he were a Democrat, Baker might not want Clinton at a campaign event because of the taint of past scandals.
It begins with the same story he told last time around, about having a Democrat mother and a Republican father.
It moves to casinos; instead of three, he favors one. He supports an increase in the minimum wage, if it’s coupled with a federal earned income tax credit. He wants a more transparent health care system. He thinks higher education should cost less and wants the state involved in “engaging and nudging” that conversation along.
He’s trying hard not to look angry or sound edgy, qualities that supposedly doomed him against Patrick, who is a smooth political operator. But Baker, the presumed Republican nominee, won’t be running against Patrick. He’ll be running against one of five Democrats who are currently in the race and a couple of third-party candidates. None sound like Patrick.
Somewhere in that muddle, there’s room for bold, isn’t there?
There should be room for loyalty, too. Baker does stand by Christie enough to say he and Romney “are good examples of Republican governors who worked on a bipartisan basis in blue states to get important things done.”
But when it comes to standing next to Christie on the campaign trail, that may be a bridge too far for this ever-cautious Bay State Republican.Joan Vennochi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.