Governor Charlie Baker arrived on a late August morning at a dirt-covered lot in Williamsburg, a 2,500-person town two hours west of Boston that, in some annals, is best known for the deadly flood that swept through it a century-and-a-half earlier.
In fact, that May 1874 tragedy may mark the last time the governor of Massachusetts appeared in this corner of the Pioneer Valley, one local official said. The day the waters drowned the area, acting Governor Thomas Talbot came with $200 of his own money for a disaster relief fund, Paul Wetzel, the town’s Finance Committee chairman, told the crowd. More than 148 years later, it was Baker, heralding $1.8 million in state money for a new building in town.
“Quick! Take a picture!” he cried, throwing his arm around Wetzel and saying it could be another century before the town sees another governor in person. “I want people to know this one — forever!”
While his predecessors filled their final months with international trade missions or presidential barnstorming, Baker’s gubernatorial coda has had a noticeably local flavor.
The Republican in recent months has embraced a drumbeat of ribbon-cuttings, groundbreakings, and the kind of quiet, small-town appearances he said the COVID-19 pandemic precluded. He has largely eschewed the campaign trail — Baker has refused to endorse anyone in the race to replace him — and in his few appearances on a national stage, he has almost entirely shared it with Democrats, be it President Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, or a Clinton.
Along the way, he announced a round of grants in front of a closed library in Melrose and helped christen a new taxiway in Westfield. He munched on fried cheese curds and hugged supporters at the Big E. On a recent rain-soaked Thursday, he marveled at the gaping window frames inside a gutted building in downtown Springfield tapped for new housing. Like, truly marveled.
“Look at these windows in here!” Baker shouted from a third-floor room.
Governors, of course, typically traverse the state, be it to celebrate policy victories or glad-hand before the next election. In Baker’s telling, local appearances have been a lifeblood for him and his lieutenant governor, Karyn Polito, shaping ideas and reinforcing relationships. Polito has visited all Massachusetts’ 351 cities and towns; since lifting the COVID-19 state of emergency in May 2021, Baker has held at least 330 public events, according to his office.
“This is where a lot of the oxygen . . . comes from,” Baker said.
They are also evidence of a promise fulfilled to “show up” in local communities, said Baker, a technocrat who campaigned on better connecting municipalities with Beacon Hill. And they constitute something of a quasi-victory tour for an outgoing executive seemingly more eager to wield a ceremonial shovel than plot a political future, should one even exist.
Baker, 65, will leave office in January showing no appetite for national politics or federal office, where his socially moderate Republican brand may have little draw. He also appears destined to leave behind a Massachusetts electorate that views him more favorably than Biden or any candidate vying to succeed him.
“It’s almost like someone who has been a farmer, who has been working really hard planting a field,” Geoff Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, said of Baker. “And he’s going around encouraging everyone to keep up the good work after he gets out of the business.”
His locally focused final months stand in stark contrast to those of his predecessors.
While he appeared in more than 200 towns and cities over his two terms, Deval Patrick went on three international trade missions in his final year alone, ultimately embarking on 10 across 15 countries over his eight years. (Baker took two, and, aides say, has no plans for another.)
Mitt Romney spent 219 days outside Massachusetts during his final year as he readied the first of two unsuccessful presidential campaigns. William Weld and Paul Cellucci didn’t even complete their final terms, each resigning to pursue ambassadorships.
In an interview, Baker spoke admiringly of the late Thomas Menino, Boston’s longest-serving mayor, whose embrace of neighborhood events bordered on legend, to the point that nearly half of the residents polled in his final year said they had met the Democrat personally.
“He knew what was going on, on the ground, in practically every neighborhood of Boston, pretty much all the time,” Baker said. “You can’t really do that with 351 cities and towns.”
But by at least one account, Baker and Polito appeared to try. A brief prepared by the Harvard Kennedy School’s Rappaport Institute and released Wednesday cast the administration — and Polito particularly as Baker’s liaison to municipalities — as a model for state-local partnerships, including with the creation of the so-called Community Compact program.
Through it, the administration signed more than 600 “compacts” in which local officials agreed to develop best practices, on topics ranging from housing to fiscal management. The effort included $14.7 million in grants, relatively small money for a statewide program, but they helped shape relationships statewide, the brief found.
“This administration is as close to really hearing local input as I’ve seen,” Athol Town Manager Shaun Suhoski told researchers.
That perception could help explain Baker’s stable — and, his would-be antagonists say, mystifying — popularity, which has rarely, if ever, faltered in public polling even amid high-profile failures at the MBTA, the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, and the Registry of Motor Vehicles.
It’s also illustrated in places like the Big E, the West Springfield staple that Baker has made something of a pilgrimage since his 2014 gubernatorial campaign. His recent rounds were familiar, if food-stuffed. He ate a Finnish pancake, sipped on a Harpoon UFO white ale, shared a loaded baked potato with his wife, Lauren, and spooned bits of a golden kiwi into his mouth.
People repeatedly stopped him as he traversed the grounds, asking for handshake or photos, many of them taken by the 6-foot-6 Baker squatting low to the ground, an iPhone craned in his hand, to fit everyone in the frame.
At the Craz-E burger stand, he ordered an egg and bacon sandwiched between glazed doughnuts after touting it to Lauren. As he leaned over the counter, a woman from behind him jokingly called out, “Did you get mine, too?”
Turning, Baker asked her what she wanted — two breakfast sandwiches, neither on a doughnut, she said — and bought them for her over her polite protests.
“I had no idea who he was,” Allison Rutledge, a visitor from Meriden, Conn., later told a reporter a few steps away. “I don’t know if the governor of Connecticut would have done that.”
She then took another glance at Baker. “Nice-looking man.”
Baker’s travels, at times, also included a bit of venting. Standing in a work site within the downtown Springfield building — itself a $63 million project that promises 74 new apartments and a new first-floor restaurant — Baker called it the type of development for which he’s sought billions of state dollars for Gateway City downtowns.
Instead, he said, the Democratic-led Legislature gave “tens of millions, OK.”
“I really do hope that when it’s not a Republican [as governor] and it’s a Democrat — and theoretically it’s somebody on your own team — you do the right thing when it comes to some of this stuff,” Baker said.
Baker has not backed anyone in the governor’s race between Attorney General Maura Healey, a Democrat, and former state lawmaker Geoff Diehl, a Republican, in which Healey has held yawning leads in polling. The same surveys show Baker is bound to leave office at a time when most voters believe the state, but not the country, is heading in the right direction.
Speaking at the Williamsburg event last month, state Senator Adam G. Hinds, a Democrat and onetime candidate for statewide office, recounted to the crowd how at an earlier event, some joked about naming something after Baker, perhaps a driveway, to commemorate the state’s contribution to the project.
Maybe for another $10 million, Hinds joked, Baker could get a plaque. Or, in Williamsburg, he could at least match the personal generosity of the last governor to visit.
“We’re waiting for the $200 anytime before you leave,” Hinds quipped.
As Hinds continued, Baker fished something from his suit pocket, strode to the podium, and, to Hinds’s surprise, slammed money on the podium.
“I mean,” said Hinds, eyebrows raised as he held two bills, “it’s actually $200.”
Seemingly unsure of what to do with the cash, Hinds said the money should go to the town. He then handed it back to Baker, chuckling as he returned to the podium.
“Touché,” he said.