Donald Trump attacked him as a “Republican in Name Only” and endorsed his Republican challenger, Geoff Diehl. That helped Governor Charlie Baker build a national brand as a heroic voice for moderate politics.
Yet Baker, who is not running for reelection, is giving his blessing to Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson — a.k.a. the Sheriff of Trumpachusetts. This week, the governor is scheduled to stand with Hodgson at his reelection campaign launch, which means he will be standing with someone who served as honorary chair of Trump’s 2020 Massachusetts campaign and didn’t back down from false claims about election fraud after the Jan. 6 assault on the US Capitol. Hodgson also runs a jail that’s regularly decried by prison reform advocates and he’s all-in with Trump’s anti-immigration policies. The sheriff offered to send prisoners to the southern border to help build Trump’s infamous wall, and he let federal immigration authorities build a detention center on prison grounds, where people held were mistreated.
Chris Doughty, the Republican who is running against Diehl, is also scheduled to attend Hodgson’s campaign kick-off. That makes political sense, since Doughty is competing in a Republican primary defined so far by Diehl’s tight clutch of Trump. But now that Baker’s not running for a third term, why would the governor embrace a Trump acolyte like Hodgson — unless he shares his vision on incarceration and immigration? The Baker administration didn’t respond to a question about the governor’s scheduled appearance as a “special guest” at Hodgson’s April 20 campaign kick-off in Westport and why he supports him.
“I don’t really understand it. Politically it makes no sense,” Democratic consultant Doug Rubin told me. As Rubin — who is working with state Senator Diana DiZoglio, a Democratic candidate for state auditor — noted, Baker has campaigned for Anthony Amore, a Republican candidate for auditor, as a politically moderate soulmate. “Campaigning with Sheriff Hodgson is the direct opposite of that,” Rubin said. It goes against the Baker brand and undermines Baker’s core message, he added.
Still, on the topic of immigration, there may be some common ground. “It’s the one place where he [Baker] is not as moderate,” said Rubin, who as a senior strategist for former Governor Deval Patrick, has some history with Baker.
When Baker first ran for governor, in 2010, he blamed Patrick for not taking an aggressive enough stand against undocumented immigrants who ended up in Massachusetts. Baker lost that election bid, but when he ran a second time and won, he reversed a Patrick administration policy that prohibited Massachusetts State Police from detaining undocumented immigrants for federal immigration authorities if that person had been convicted of a crime.
The current immigration debate in Massachusetts centers on legislation that would allow undocumented immigrants to obtain a driver’s license. Baker has voiced concerns about the bill, which was passed by the Massachusetts House in February and awaits a vote in the Senate.
Nationally, Republicans see immigration as a hot-button issue to use against Democrats, and so do Republicans in Massachusetts. In the governor’s race, both Diehl and Doughty oppose the bill that would allow undocumented immigrants to get a driver’s license. State Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz and Attorney General Maura Healey, the two Democrats in the race for governor, support it.
As spokesperson for Doughty said he’s supporting Hodgson because the Bristol County House of Correction “has earned national accreditation” from the American Correctional Association “over the last 6 years with perfect 100% scores. The medical operation is nationally accredited by the National Commission on Corrections Health Care. He has focused on both public safety and rehabilitation. He has instituted a wide range of addiction services including a specialized residential substance abuse treatment unit. The Sheriff has worked in the community on crime prevention and outreach to children.” None of that speaks to specific criticisms of Hodgson’s tenure.
Appointed to the sheriff’s job in 1997, Hodgson was first elected in 1998 and has easily won reelection ever since. Over the years, he has removed televisions from inmates’ cells, sent out work crews shackled together with ankle chains, and worked to limit in-person family visits. He had no opponent in 2016, but this time, three Democrats are looking to unseat him.
Hodgson’s affinity for Trump is more of a selling point in Bristol County, where the former president won his highest level of Massachusetts support in 2020 — 42 percent, versus 32 percent statewide. But for the first time, Hodgson could be vulnerable. A poll conducted by Public Policy Polling earlier this year showed that 42 percent of Bristol County voters say that given the choice between voting to reelect Hodgson and voting for a generic Democratic opponent, they would support his challenger.
Baker isn’t running for anything, so he’s free to do what he wants. And when it comes to Hodgson, he wants to help him — not be a heroic voice for moderate politics. That could help Doughty, too.
Joan Vennochi is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @joan_vennochi.