This year’s race for governor unfolds beneath mostly sunny skies. In the last eight years, Massachusetts withstood a brutal recession far better than most states did. It came through a terrorist bombing more unified than it had been. Greater Boston’s innovation economy is thriving, and a construction boom is reshaping the skyline. In the major-party candidates — Republican Charlie Baker and Democrat Martha Coakley — voters are lucky to have two experienced, trustworthy public servants who can capably govern a state whose schools and hospitals are the envy of the nation. Three independent candidates offer voters a breadth of additional choices, and their presence on the ballot testifies to the vitality of the political culture in Massachusetts.
Not all is entirely well in the Commonwealth, though. In cities and towns far removed from the shiny new towers of Cambridge’s Kendall Square or Boston’s Seaport District, the economic picture looks much dimmer. Meanwhile, cracks are showing in the edifice of state government itself. The Department of Children and Families, the Probation Department, the state crime lab, the board that regulates compounding pharmacies, the state Labor Department’s unemployment system, the Health Connector website — voters have come to know all these terms as shorthand for the kind of bureaucratic failures that make them doubt state government’s ability to help Massachusetts move forward.
Effective activist government isn’t built on good intentions. To provide consistently good results, especially for the state’s most vulnerable and troubled residents, agencies need to focus on outcomes, learn from their errors, and preserve and replicate approaches that succeed. Baker, a former health care executive, has made a career of doing just that. During this campaign, he has focused principally on making state government work better. The emphasis is warranted. And in that spirit, the Globe endorses Charlie Baker for governor.
Baker splits from the national Republican Party on social issues such as abortion rights and same-sex marriage. The commitment he expresses to avoid raising taxes shouldn’t be mistaken for an allergy to the public sector; Baker spent the formative years of his career deep in the weeds of government — first as secretary of health and human services under Governor William Weld and then secretary of administration and finance under Weld and Governor Paul Cellucci. In those years, he learned how agencies work (or don’t) and how budgets are balanced (or not).
Subsequently, Baker led the turnaround of the once-troubled Harvard Pilgrim Health Care. It wasn’t a one-man operation. It involved some help from state officials, and some employees lost their jobs. But the overall outcome was beneficial: Despite difficult circumstances, an insurer that was near financial ruin became known as a top performer in its industry. The pitfalls that lurk in state government won’t be so readily fixed by a new CEO’s ministrations, but Baker’s guiding focus on customer outcomes was the right one — and hints at how he would handle the governor’s job.
The current gubernatorial contest also unfolds in the shadow of Deval Patrick, one of the more rhetorically gifted political leaders in recent Massachusetts history. A former US assistant attorney general and corporate lawyer, Patrick surprised the political establishment in 2006 and won the Democratic nomination and general election easily. Four years ago, he defeated Baker handily to win reelection. In both cases, Patrick’s stirring, inclusive message won over reform-minded, business-friendly voters as well as grass-roots progressives. That combination helped Patrick secure long-elusive reforms in public pensions and health care for municipal employees. It yielded a push for investments in renewable energy and the life sciences, and for an overhaul of the transportation bureaucracy, later accompanied by much-needed new funding.
Martha Coakley, the current attorney general, suggests she would follow a similar path — with less pizzazz than Patrick, to be sure, but with a more methodical approach. Her record shows both empathy and foresight: She was at the forefront of challenging the federal Defense of Marriage Act, and she has steadfastly sought a legally defensible manner to protect women’s ability to seek abortion services without harassment.
Recent criticism from Baker notwithstanding, she rightly declined to settle a lawsuit brought by the group Children’s Rights, because she understood that doing so would have incurred legal fees better spent on improving services. Her office has been closely monitoring health care costs for years, an effort that culminated this year in an agreement with Partners HealthCare, the state’s largest and most powerful health provider. That deal would allow a controversial takeover of South Shore Hospital to go forward, in exchange for Partners’ submitting to limits, across its entire system, on its ability to raise prices. Partners’ competitors are deeply skeptical; quite tellingly, Coakley appears confident the state can muster the economic, medical, and regulatory brain power to monitor pricing and hold down costs in the complex health care industry for years into the future.
Indeed, voters who believe that, by and large, the state government handles most public policy matters well — that it needs improvements here and there but not an overall course correction — can feel confident in choosing Coakley over Baker. Her assessment of the status quo is fundamentally upbeat, and she’s grown increasingly effective at communicating that view. In recent weeks, the side of Martha Coakley known mostly to her inner circle — warm, funny, happy to engage on the minutiae of public issues — has come into greater evidence.
Still, Coakley’s campaign up to now suggests an odd reluctance to seize the initiative. Even as a prohibitive favorite during the Democratic primary contest, she was unwilling to spell out an issue agenda — raising the possibility that, if she is elected, the public discussion might drift toward whichever priorities legislative leaders decided to emphasize. For instance, lawmakers seem to have cooled lately on education reform. Coakley’s positions in this area, such as on raising the cap on the number of charter schools in the state, appear to be a work in progress. Baker would provide full-throated support for the kind of high standards, accountability, and innovation that will give all children in Massachusetts the opportunities they deserve.
A Baker governorship may have its awkward moments. Aware of his hard-charging reputation — and of criticism that his 2010 campaign was too angry — the Republican nominee has sought to project a more relaxed image this year. Still, a certain testiness shows through at times. And Baker’s effort to soften the edges backfired recently, when he called a female reporter “sweetheart” in a misplaced stab at chumminess.
Voters dissatisfied with the personalities or issue positions of the Democratic and Republican nominees may look instead to the independent candidates. One of them, Scott Lively, is a religious crusader who is disengaged from the realities of public policy making. More interesting are Evan Falchuk and Jeff McCormick, both of whom used to vote in Republican primaries; today, their independent candidacies speak to the GOP’s broader difficulty competing in Massachusetts.
Falchuk is energetic and charismatic, and his cause extends beyond his own candidacy; he hopes to reach 3 percent of the vote so that his fledgling United Independent Party can field candidates for other offices. The implication is that, if the state Republican Party can’t reliably compete with the dominant Democrats, maybe a more centrist party could. Still, it’s a long shot, and some of the most vexing problems that Falchuk identifies in Massachusetts — such as the difficulty of getting new housing built in towns whose residents fear taking on more schoolchildren — are utterly unconnected to any partisan identity. McCormick, meanwhile, is an accomplished businessman with nuanced views on policy matters, but he’s been unable to gain much traction. Neither Falchuk nor McCormick has the depth of experience in public leadership that Baker and Coakley both offer, and neither has provided a clear picture of how he might succeed on Beacon Hill.
One needn’t agree with every last one of Baker’s views to conclude that, at this time, the Republican nominee would provide the best counterpoint to the instincts of an overwhelmingly Democratic Legislature. His candidacy opens up the possibility of creative tension. Facing veto-proof Democratic majorities in both houses, Baker would have no choice but to work constructively with the Legislature. Likewise, the Legislature would have to engage with Baker’s initiatives.
Perhaps ironically, in light of their differing partisan affiliations, Baker’s candidacy offers an opportunity to consolidate some of the advances made during the administration of Deval Patrick. Baker could be counted on to preserve and extend educational reforms, to ensure the rigorous administration of new funds for transportation, to knowledgeably oversee the cost-containment law now reshaping the state’s signature health care industry. At a difficult inflection point in state government, Massachusetts needs a governor who’s focused on steady management and demonstrable results.