The pandemic has put Governor Charlie Baker in a novel spot.
For years, the Republican has enjoyed stratospheric approval ratings from voters, including Democrats, and preternatural deference from Democrats on Beacon Hill. But now the man who built two political campaigns and six years as governor on his stellar managerial skills is facing pretty vehement criticism right where it hurts — on his handling of the pandemic.
On Wednesday, Senate President Karen Spilka and House Speaker Ronald Mariano announced they would convene joint oversight hearings into Baker’s vaccine rollout, which has been criticized for being too slow and unequal. Last Friday, all but one member of the congressional delegation wrote to Baker asking him to improve the vaccine registration system and share the shots around more evenly. A new rule allowing a person who accompanies someone over 75 to a vaccination site to get a shot themselves drew folks trying to game the system, and yet more criticism. He’s gotten heat from city officials and some public health experts, too.
It remains to be seen whether the critiques will budge the many voters for whom it appears Baker can do no wrong — particularly since he’s been responsive to some criticisms and the state’s initially abysmal vaccine numbers are improving. It’s possible that in a few months, when millions more in the state have been vaccinated, the criticisms will be forgotten.
But we may also be seeing the start of a new era in state politics, one in which other leaders are more willing to take Baker to task on the way he’s running things around here. And that will make a real difference if the governor decides to run for a third term in 2022.
As will the fact that Donald Trump is no longer president. Baker, like other local politicians, benefited from the dumpster fire in the White House over the last four years: The contrast between decent, well-meaning local officials and the disastrous former president couldn’t help but be flattering, especially for Republicans like Baker, who was one of the few in the GOP who stood up to Trump’s most egregious assaults on decency.
That’s why some Democrats’ efforts to lash Baker to the national party have fallen flat. And it’s why former senator Ben Downing has steered clear of criticizing Baker for his political affiliation and urged folks to focus, instead, on the governor’s record.
“Charlie Baker is not Donald Trump,” Downing said. “He’s a good man and a dedicated public servant who I disagree with on the issues.”
What a refreshing approach that is. This month Downing, a Pittsfield native who now lives in East Boston, became the only person so far to officially declare his candidacy for the state’s top job. But he’s been trying to draw people’s attention to what he sees as Baker’s policy failures since 2019, piling them up in a lengthy Twitter thread linked with the refrain, “Focus on the record.”
Recently, he’s criticized Baker for cutting public transportation when essential workers need it the most, for failing to act more aggressively to head off evictions during the pandemic, and for being insufficiently ambitious on climate change.
“The instances are few and far between when ... the governor used his political capital to make Massachusetts a fairer place,” Downing said.
He says he’s running to make sure the state doesn’t just go back to normal once the pandemic passes, after having exposed the hollowness of our reputation as an enlightened mecca and a national leader in health care.
“I want to change the culture in Massachusetts politics ... that is overly reliant on Massachusetts exceptionalism, because that has left out too many in communities I have called home,” he said.
That means, for example, pushing more truly equitable child care, housing, and education policies. And for a fairer tax system to fund them.
Downing knows he has a tough path ahead here: Baker and other potential candidates are better known and way better funded so far. That’s why the former senator is starting so early, hoping to build a movement “Zoom by Zoom, then diner to diner,” the way Baker’s predecessor Deval Patrick did in 2006.
More voters might be willing to listen to him now.