Governor Charlie Baker, the Republican who maintained the enduring support of his blue-state constituents through boom times, the Trump presidency, and the COVID-19 pandemic, will not seek a third term in 2022, he said Wednesday.
A moderate who has kept his distance from the controversies of the national Republican Party and cast himself as a thrifty and thoughtful manager, Baker, 65, would have entered the race as its front-runner. With less than a year before Election Day, Baker’s choice leaves the contest wide open. And it means he will forgo a shot at history: No Massachusetts governor has served three consecutive four-year terms.
Baker on Wednesday framed the decision as an attempt to avoid the “distraction” of campaigning while guiding the state through a still-grueling pandemic. He emphasized to reporters at the State House the importance of starting to put federal stimulus money to use, and joked as he left the dais that he hoped to see as many reporters when he calls a news conference about environmental infrastructure.
“The main reason we’re choosing to make the decision we made is because we want to focus on the work,” Baker said.
But an array of personal factors fed into his and Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito’s choice to not seek reelection, as well as Polito’s decision to not run for governor herself after two terms in the number two position.
Baker was actively grappling with whether to run again, and his decision was made only recently, people close to the governor said. At times, advisers even began to sketch out how they would approach a reelection announcement. As recently as last Tuesday, Baker held a fund-raiser at Davio’s restaurant in the Seaport, pulling in campaign cash ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday.
But over the weekend, Baker huddled with his family — he and his wife, Lauren, have three grown children — and it was then that he decided not to pursue another campaign, according to two people familiar with Baker’s thinking.
His family was a driving factor, not any fear that he couldn’t win another term, said one of them.
“He put his family first,” said the other.
Baker told a small circle of close aides on Monday that he would not seek another term; two days later, he announced it publicly. Speaking to reporters Monday, Baker recounted recently hosting an “appreciation gathering” in the backyard of his Swampscott home for current and former Cabinet members and their spouses, where Lauren Baker said that the biggest challenge of being married to “somebody in one of these jobs is presence.”
“Being there,” Baker said. “The point she was making was there’s a lot of time where I might be in the house, but I’m just not there because I’m thinking about or processing or trying to find an answer to some other thing.”
That, Polito added, can grate on a person’s home life, cut into bedtime routines, and sidetrack weekend sporting events. In the time Polito first ran with Baker on the 2014 ticket to now, her children have gone from grade school to teenagers in high school.
Polito, a 55-year-old Shrewsbury Republican and former state representative, was widely viewed as a likely candidate for governor if Baker opted against reelection. She and Baker had held numerous fund-raisers across the state in recent months, helping push her campaign account to $2.3 million by the end of October.
Baker’s choice may make way for more major candidates than the three Democrats and one Republican who have already announced. The political klieg lights will shine most brightly on Attorney General Maura Healey, a Democrat.
Baker allies frame his tenure as a success that would have earned him another term. They praise him for his responsiveness to local needs and willingness to compromise with Democrats, who dominate the Legislature.
While he has led the state to great economic heights, longstanding racial inequities persist, disparities that the announced Democratic contenders — state Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz, former state senator Ben Downing, and Harvard professor Danielle Allen — have highlighted.
Critics cast Baker as an incrementalist who has lacked a vision equal to the gnawing problems in the state, a plodding bureaucrat unwilling to harness Massachusetts’ vast resources — and, worst of all, a leader whose administration’s management failures have led to tragedy. They cite the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, where a COVID-19 outbreak killed 76 veterans last spring, one of the highest death tolls of any senior-care facility in the country, as proof of mismanagement with devastating results.
They also point to the scandal at the state Registry of Motor Vehicles, where officials had ignored tens of thousands of alerts that Massachusetts drivers had broken driving laws, including by driving drunk, in other states. Baker said he had not known about the problem before a deadly 2019 crash in New Hampshire pushed it into public view.
For his part, the governor has long projected a steady, even keel, avoiding partisan spitting matches and distancing himself from controversial members of his party, including former president Donald Trump. A baseball cap spotted in his office over the years, which reads “JUST FIX IT,” seems to neatly sum up his pragmatic approach.
Veto-proof Democratic majorities in both chambers of the Legislature have forced him to reach across the aisle, his politics often hewing closer to the centrist Democratic leanings of the Massachusetts House than the conservative planks of his own state party’s platform.
Baker would have been a formidable opponent. Polls during his tenure showed him more popular with Massachusetts Democrats and independents than with Republicans, and his overall approval ratings make him the envy of most of his 49 colleagues across the United States.
Under Baker, polling has consistently shown residents believe Massachusetts is headed in the right direction. Before the pandemic, the state economy was in good shape, with unemployment under 3 percent. And Baker has been credited with improving some of the state’s most beleaguered agencies, including reducing wait times at the Registry and lowering caseloads at the Department of Children and Families, although it has struggled this year to quickly find enough foster homes for children in its care.
Baker’s second term has been upended by the pandemic, which hit the state earlier than much of the country, spreading rapidly after such events as a late February 2020 Biogen conference. After Baker declared a state of emergency that spring, the state’s unemployment rate shot above 16 percent. It has declined significantly in the last few months, though it remains above its prepandemic low. And while the state is a national leader in vaccination rates, Massachusetts still has one of the country’s higher death rates from COVID.
Baker has been attacked from all sides for his handling of the pandemic — those on the right who said he did too much to lock the state down, those on the left who said he did too little. And there have been occasional bristly moments with Democratic legislative leaders, notably earlier this year, when limited doses of the vaccine and a flubbed website for scheduling shots earned Baker perhaps his most biting criticism since taking office.
He’s publicly feuded with Jim Lyons, the conservative head of his own state party who aligned the GOP apparatus with Trump. Trump, too, has weighed in, endorsing former state representative Geoff Diehl in the governor’s race, and attacking Baker as a RINO, or Republican In Name Only, last year, last month, and again on Wednesday.
In a separate statement, Lyons said it was clear to him “that Charlie Baker was shaken by President Trump’s endorsement of another Republican candidate in Geoff Diehl.”
Baker denied that was a factor in his decision. “Not at all. Nope. Not at all,” he told a reporter, who continued to press him. “Which part of no . . .” he said.
While he has fallen out of favor with a conservative sliver of the Massachusetts electorate, Baker has for the most part maintained his good standing in the eyes of the vast majority of voters.
“You’re doing a hell of a job,” President Biden told Baker in May.
Speaking Wednesday, Baker said his administration is viewed as “center right” or “moderate,” but described it as a mainstream Massachusetts administration.
“If you look at where we land with respect to the people of Massachusetts, the vast majority of them are in basically the same place we are,” Baker said. “One way or another they — the people of Massachusetts — will have a lot to say about the kind of political discourse and the kind of political behavior that they will choose to support.”
A graduate of Harvard College and Northwestern’s business school, Baker was a wunderkind secretary of health and human services and later budget chief for Governor William F. Weld, who called him the administration’s “heart and soul.”
He left state government after eight years and joined Harvard Pilgrim Health Care as chief executive in 1999. Soon after he took charge, the insurer was in such a catastrophic financial situation it was put into state receivership. But Baker helped nurse it back to fiscal health and made it the top-rated insurer in the country.
He first sought the governor’s office in 2010, the same year the stick-it-to-the-establishment Tea Party movement helped Republicans take control of the US House of Representatives. In that gubernatorial race, he struck a now-unfamiliar angry tone, asking voters whether they’d “had enough” of incumbent Deval Patrick.
They hadn’t; Patrick won.
But Baker rebounded, rebranding himself as a cheerier candidate who showed up to listen. In 2014, pitching the campaign slogan “Let’s be Great, Massachusetts!” he squeaked into office with 40,000 more votes than Democrat Martha Coakley, the slimmest margin in decades.
Shortly after taking office in 2015, Baker led the state through a historic series of snowstorms, making himself a consistent presence in the news and scoring early political points. His job approval rating reached 70 percent that April, and has rarely flagged since.
He sailed to reelection in 2018, easily beating Democrat Jay Gonzalez, who unsuccessfully tried to tie Baker to Trump. Gonzalez, like the 2022 Democratic hopefuls, called Baker a “status quo governor” who lacked the vision to push the state to its full potential. But voters, overwhelmingly approving of the state’s direction, delivered Baker and Polito a decisive mandate, with 67 percent of the vote.
During his two terms, Baker has had opportunities and enjoyed success previous governors did not. He reshaped the state’s Supreme Judicial Court, appointing all seven of its justices.
He has made the opioid epidemic a priority and pushed to bring the nation’s first large-scale offshore wind farm to federal waters south of Martha’s Vineyard. Baker also made major changes lauded by advocates at Bridgewater State Hospital, where prison guards had used seclusion and restraints at more than 100 times the rate of other state mental health facilities.
Under Baker’s tenure, the state also has seen horrific failures, including during the pandemic.
A Boston Globe Spotlight Team investigation found that Baker and a top deputy played crucial roles in the lead-up to the tragedy at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home. Bennett Walsh, whom the Globe found was an unqualified, politically connected hire to head the facility, was indicted on criminal neglect charges for his role in the deadly outbreak, as was former medical director David Clinton. In November, a Hampden County judge dismissed all criminal charges against them.
Baker has downplayed his role in hiring Walsh, saying initially that he never interviewed him for the position, and then reversing himself: “I forgot,” he said.
Before he made his gubernatorial decision, Baker already had several people hoping to succeed him, from both the left and the right — hoping to reframe the moderate through-line that vaulted Baker to power in a state dominated by Democrats.
In the end, however, that technocratic, collaborative, centrist approach to governing may be how his time in office is most remembered.
In December 2018, as he was finishing his first term, the governor was asked what he hoped the story of his political exit would say, to fill in the blank of a sentence that began, “Charles Duane Baker Jr., who . . .”
Baker listed several key policy efforts. Then he reflected on a broader success. “And who demonstrated time and time again that it’s possible in politics and in public life to find common ground and to avoid the cheap nitpicking that so dominates partisan politics.”
Baker paused for a moment, then asked: “How’s that?”
Joshua Miller of the Globe staff contributed to this report.