Opinion

SCOT LEHIGH

The state of Charlie Baker

01-24-2017: Boston, MA: Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker gives his annual state of the state speech in the House chamber of the State House in Boston, Mass. January 24, 2017. Photo/John Blanding, Boston Globe staff story/, Metro ( 25state )
John Blanding/Boston Globe staff

Emerging from Charlie Baker’s rhetorical report to the Commonwealth this week, Bill Weld, his one-time mentor and a long-time free spirit, proclaimed the address “the best State of the State I have ever heard.” And indeed, who among us, no matter how flinty, didn’t blink back a tear or two upon hearing the governor recount his valiant effort to restore the true purpose of the state’s rainy-day fund?

Kidding. But wonky though Baker’s address sometimes was, Weld is right that this was a meaty effort. “It is not like an hour later you’re going to be hungry again,” noted the one-time-Republican-turned-libertarian (supposedly for life, but at the very least for last year). “There was plenty in there to digest for quite a while.”

And not just policy substance. I saw a two-part political message, aimed at Democrats eyeing a candidacy. Part One: You’re not going to get away with labeling me a do-nothing governor. To that end, Baker’s speech was a guided tour through the Beacon Hill policy plant, spotlighting progress and repairs.

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Part Two: I’ve staked out the center here, so if you run against me, you’ll have to veer significantly left. Thus it was that Baker ran through a litany of matters that should resonate with pragmatic Massachusetts moderates. Efforts on climate change. More dollars for education. Progress on college affordability. Anti-homelessness endeavors. An overhaul of the Department of Children and Families, with more funding and scores more (mostly licensed) social workers. New approaches in the fight against opioid addiction. A big budget boost to revamp treatment at Bridgewater State Hospital.

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That progress has largely come by working with, rather than battling against, several well-known unions. “I think the collaboration he is doing with the unions, whether it is MACOFU [Massachusetts Correction Officers Federated Union] at Bridgewater or the counselors at DCF or the [Boston] Carmen’s Union, quite honestly, that is important stuff,” Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, a labor favorite, said afterward.

Now, obviously, there’s room for a more expansive — and expensive — agenda to Baker’s left. That said, given the traditional trade-offs in this state’s coalition-building continuum, the further left you go, the more you lose by way of government-reform impulse.

So how appealing is that terrain? So far, the early obviously interested Democrats are Newton Mayor Setti Warren and Jay Gonzalez, Deval Patrick’s second secretary of administration and finance. Dan Wolf, the former state senator from Harwich, has left the door open a crack. As candidates, they’d all be credible but not formidable. The one prospect who falls into the latter category is Attorney General Maura Healey, who has signaled some keep-her-options-open interest.

Now, with President Trump lurching about like a loose cannon on a pitching deck, Baker is in a somewhat tricky position, as evidenced by the “he absolutely should have been there” left jab he took from US Representative Seth Moulton for not showing up for Saturday’s women’s march against Trump in Boston.

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The view here is that the protest sent an important national message — but that criticisms of Baker for not attending are ill-considered. Different jobs have different roles. Most members of our all-Democratic congressional delegation are in protest mode, some perpetually so. The reality, however, is that Trump is president and that Massachusetts needs a point-of-governing contact who may be able to influence decisions affecting this state. Baker could enlarge that role by joining with like-minded governors on issues of mutual concern. And he’ll need to speak up if and when Trump’s excesses lurch from eye-rolling to truly alarming. But a Republican governor who needs room to maneuver does his state little good by joining an early liberal protest march.

In short, Baker made the right call there.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.