Back in 2013, then-gubernatorial candidate Charlie Baker had a lot to say about the state’s glitch-ridden Health Connector website and who was responsible for it: not the software company hired to make it work, but Governor Deval Patrick and his administration.
“I’ve been involved in both public sector and private sector launches. They really require constant vigilance,” Baker told the Boston Herald. “You should be so far up their shorts that they know you are there every day . . . you should never be surprised about what happens on a launch.” He also called the disaster “completely avoidable, as administrators knew the system was not ready,” and blasted a “botched implementation” that left “thousands in health care limbo.”
You know where this is going: directly to 2021, and the botched implementation of the glitch-ridden website designed to connect Massachusetts residents to COVID-19 vaccine appointments, which instead left thousands in health care limbo. Baker said his “hair is on fire” about the debacle, but he hasn’t really taken ownership of it. Maybe that will change when he testifies this week before a legislative committee. But given his track record, it’s unlikely. For Baker, “sorry” is the hardest word. Earlier this month, while responding to criticism about the vaccine roll-out, he went out of his way to refuse to apologize. Last week, the administration, in the person of “the COVID-19 Command Center,” apologized for the website problems.
Three other words that Baker doesn’t like to say: “That’s on me.”
There’s a scapegoat for every scandal, and it’s never him. Erin Deveney, Baker’s registrar of motor vehicles — who was carrying out the governor’s agenda to reduce wait times at registry branches — took the fall in 2019 when a trucker whose license should have been suspended hit seven motorcycle riders in New Hampshire, who then died in a fiery crash. Kerry Gilpin, who was elevated by Baker to head the Massachusetts State Police amid an overtime fraud scheme, stepped down in 2019 when troopers-gone-overtime-wild continued to generate bad headlines for Baker. And Secretary of Veterans’ Services Francisco Ureña resigned last June after at least 76 veterans died of COVID-19 at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home — even though Baker signed off on the hiring of the official who was running the facility.
Perhaps it’s coincidence, but those taking the blame include two women and one of the few people of color who made it to the upper ranks of the Baker administration.
Who’s next? Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders? She has been Baker’s go-to person since COVID-19 shut down the state. But there are whispers she should be held accountable for pandemic-related problems. “Heads should roll. In my opinion, Governor Baker should replace Secretary Sudders,” state Representative Shawn Dooley of Norfolk wrote in a Facebook post.
These are tough times for governors. Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York is rightly under fire for the way his administration underreported COVID-19 nursing home deaths. In the wake of state-wide power outages, Texans are finally asking the correct questions: not just why was Senator Ted Cruz in Cancun, but where is Governor Greg Abbott?
Baker has been a steady presence over the last 11 months. He faced difficult decisions about lockdowns and other restrictions that drew criticism from those whose businesses are suffering, and from medical experts who say more should be done. Since last March, it has been COVID-19, 24/7, and as we all know, that’s not fun for anyone. Watching him through a TV screen, the toll is obvious. He’s more like the churlish Baker who lost to Patrick in 2010 than the Charlie who cultivated a veneer of amiability to defeat Martha Coakley four years later. Until the pandemic struck, his Teflon was famously un-meltable. Now he’s under attack from Democrats and the far right of his own party. He supposedly hasn’t decided whether to seek a third term.
The last few weeks have pulled back the curtain on this alleged managerial genius. He’s not invincible. He’s human. It’s time to act that way, and take responsibility for mistakes that happen on his watch. After all, as a candidate for the job, he said that’s what a governor should do.
Joan Vennochi is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @joan_vennochi.