When good things happen, Governor Charlie Baker gets credit. When bad things happen, no one blames him and he never blames himself. As Baker wraps up his final year in office, that Teflon is part of the magic and mystery of his tenure.
Last week, a woman was killed at a railroad crossing after a safety system was not restored to its normal operation following maintenance by a state contractor — a failure that kept the gates from going down. On Tuesday, two employees working for a state contractor raised a bridge connecting Chelsea and East Boston while a vehicle was on it. That same day, a piece of concrete fell from an overpass on Interstate 93, crashing through the windshield of a car driven by a motorist from California.
A governor who lauds himself for managerial brilliance might want answers about a state transportation agency that seems to be asleep at the switch, or at least be wary about touting its record. Not Baker. On Tuesday night, as he delivered his final State of the Commonwealth address, his long list of accomplishments included these lines: “We rescued a bankrupt, unaccountable public transportation system. Created an oversight board and invested over $6 billion to modernize its operations and infrastructure.”
Baker deserves credit for running an administration rooted in civility and bipartisan compromise, although given the dominance of Democrats on Beacon Hill, it’s bipartisanship or nothing for a Republican governor. When it comes to the coronavirus pandemic, he has been a strong leader, walking a tightrope between science and an economy that needs freedom and oxygen to recover and thrive. He has advanced an interesting concept of housing development around transportation hubs, although it’s far from affordable and relies on sometimes shaky public transit. That’s all good stuff, and of course, there are more examples.
But it’s also true that during Baker’s seven years in office, neither Democrats nor voters, generally, held him accountable for a series of sometimes catastrophic bureaucratic failures, such as a system breakdown at the Registry of Motor Vehicles that led to the deaths of seven motorcyclists on a New Hampshire highway. State police corruption got a pass too. When at least 76 veterans died of COVID-19 at the state-run Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke, a legislative oversight committee produced a report that did direct some blame at Baker for putting a politically connected person, with no health care qualifications, in charge of the facility. Yet he has never shouldered any personal responsibility for what happened there and, so far, has made no public commitment to proposed reforms that would address governance of the facility. During his Tuesday night speech, however, he did thank the National Guard for, among other things, “Helping us right the ship at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home.”
Nothing sticks. A little girl disappears after a Massachusetts judge grants custody to a father with a troubled record. Baker said he feels a “tremendous amount of pain” — but apparently no responsibility for a tragically flawed system. He’s awaiting a report that, if it follows the template of past reports, will assign culpability to others.
He’s tall, white, and male. Does that explain it? Or is something else at work? Perhaps people have come to expect so little of government, they hold no one accountable for its many bungles. Maybe that’s a good thing, a necessary readjustment of overly idealistic goals, and a welcome reckoning with reality. After all, government is run by humans, who by definition are imperfect. Despite the best of intentions, things go wrong. A rusty MBTA staircase with gaping holes where steps should be is fenced off, but not repaired or removed until someone falls through it and dies. A Green Line train derails after its operator, who had a history of speeding infractions, drives it too fast. An escalator at another T stop suddenly runs backward; no one knows why. Maybe collectively, we no longer believe government can or should be the answer to all problems, and accept that elected officials and the people who work for them can only do so much to hold the pieces together.
If so, Baker is the beneficiary. As he rides off into the sunset, the next governor can only hope that Baker leaves the Teflon behind.
Joan Vennochi is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @joan_vennochi.