There was a morning in February 2021 when Charlie Baker’s team stumbled. Thousands of newly eligible Massachusetts residents had logged onto the state-run COVID-19 website hoping to schedule vaccine appointments after a year of soul-crushing pandemic life. Instead they found an error message and an image of a four-legged orange octopus.
So when the governor appeared on the radio just after noon, he made no attempt to sugarcoat the failure. His “hair’s on fire,” he said on GBH. He was “pissed.” He promised to fix it.
And that was the censored version.
“What the f*** happened?” Baker had demanded on a call that morning with top aides, his voice blaring over the speakerphone, his health secretary, Marylou Sudders, recalled in an interview.
“It needs to get fixed — NOW!” Baker bellowed. “Who’s gonna be on it — NOW — to fix it?”
Elected in 2014 on promises to make state government nimbler and more responsive, Baker had long billed himself as the details guy, the data maven, the type of leader who could be trusted in an emergency and with an Excel spreadsheet. Now, presented with just such a task, his administration was stumbling in a very public way, threatening Baker’s managerial reputation and frustrating the hopes of thousands of people anxious for normalcy.
That morning — after, as Baker acknowledged, “I pretty much lost my [expletive]” — the team began searching for new contractors to fix the website. By the end of the day, 60,000 appointments had been booked. Within weeks, Massachusetts emerged as a national leader in vaccination rates.
And Baker, polling showed, was still beloved.
After eight years, Baker leaves office this week as the most well-liked Massachusetts governor in recorded history, having reshaped scores of policies and managed countless crises, not least of which was the deadly pandemic that struck Massachusetts early and hard. The moderate Republican has overseen a blue state that remained strong through boom times and disasters. But what he may be remembered for most is a rare ability to earn constituents’ trust and maintain it even when he faltered.
More than any one specific law or event, Baker’s greatest legacy is a leadership style that impressed even political rivals and put residents at ease in unprecedented times, according to dozens of interviews with elected officials, advocates, political observers, and people close to the governor.
He earned residents’ support in moments of crisis, when he led with steady hands. He never lost it. In a country rocked by Donald Trump, unprecedented political extremism, an upending of constitutional rights, mounting inflation, and a deadly virus, Baker was a stabilizing, confidence-inspiring, 6-foot-6 force.
Baker made strides on some of its biggest challenges and earned high marks, if not outright admiration, from the Democrats who control Beacon Hill and the independent voters who dominate the electorate. Still, he and his administration also stumbled — sometimes with lethal consequences — missteps that bruised his managerial image, even if they did not ultimately dent his popularity.
“To me, what stuck out was his capacity to learn, to grow, and to really double down — on the correct path,” said state Representative Jon Santiago, a South End Democrat and emergency room physician. “To me, that’s the definition of leadership.”
In one long-running national poll, Baker has been America’s most popular governor 15 times. Democratic lawmakers, at least privately, lament his exit. “At least a dozen in this past month, unsolicited, said, ‘I’m really going to miss him,’” said Republican state Representative Bradley Jones, the House’s minority leader.
Baker surrounded himself with a consistent circle of close advisers, collaborated with Democrats, and sought to avoid national controversies and petty scandals. He did not pitch a sweeping agenda so much as he sold the state on his own style: meticulous, predictable, solid, interested in the “blocking and tackling of government.”
The Republican muscled major housing reforms into law, pushed Massachusetts to the forefront of battling the opioid epidemic, and remade the state’s judiciary, including by naming the entire Supreme Judicial Court. Then the pandemic upended the world and his second term along with it, an emergency that saddled Baker with even greater responsibility — and also, sometimes, criticism for how he used it.
Baker’s record is pocked by management failures that had fatal consequences. Eighty-four veterans died — one of the worst such tragedies in the nation — at the COVID-ravaged Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, where the governor had installed an unqualified, politically connected administrator. Deadly safety lapses have plagued the MBTA and the Registry of Motor Vehicles, two agencies where Baker pledged improvements. The former remains in such dire shape that federal officials have taken on nearly unprecedented oversight of its operations; since last fall, safety incidents have plagued the T, resulting in dozens of injuries and at least two deaths.
Baker, who promised a more “thrifty, hard-working, and creative” state government, acknowledged that those failures undermined that. But he still believes he delivered that promise.
“This is a very big job with a lot of moving parts, and it’s humbling and humiliating at times,” Baker said in an interview Thursday in his ceremonial office. “I don’t think people expect that everything’s going to work perfectly all the time. But they do expect that you will do your very best to try to fix it when something goes wrong.”
‘The last of his kind’
Baker had been in office 18 days when the storm hit. It turned out to be a historic one, and the first in a series that dumped more than 9 feet of snow on Boston over the next two months, paralyzing the city and crippling the MBTA.
The new governor was a calming presence. He pleaded with the federal government for disaster relief funds; he learned the challenges of clearing fluffy snow versus wet snow, shoveling pitched roofs versus flat ones. He had squeaked his way into office the previous November with just 48 percent of the vote. By April, he had an astonishing 74 percent favorability rate, on par with Americans’ view of Queen Elizabeth II.
Advisers joked in those early days that Baker had nowhere to go but down. But during his eight years in office, Baker’s support barely dipped, even during the chaos of the vaccine rollout or following disasters on the MBTA. It was not that he never made mistakes, but rather that Massachusetts was willing to forgive them.
“Massachusetts viewed Charlie Baker as the dad who was always on time for pickup,” joked Erin O’Brien, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts. “People trusted that he was trying to do the right thing. And that goes a long way in politics.”
Now, Baker leaves office with the approval of most of the state, so beloved that his successor is emulating his style despite coming from the rival political party. But major unfinished business remains: a housing crisis that has locked thousands out of homeownership, the aging public transit system that fails basic tests of reliability and safety.
Baker and his supporters say he has planted seeds that will grow over time, work that will yield improvements too late for him to get the credit. Critics counter that a governor who branded himself Mr. Fix-It has left a great deal in his wake to fix.
For some — including Baker himself — the Republican’s enduring popularity in this blue state is a mystery. Allies, including many Democrats, said his centrist politics not only appealed widely to the electorate, but favorably distinguished him from the extreme liberals and conservatives who now dominate politics. It made Baker something of a political anomaly.
“He’s really a dinosaur. He’s one of the last of his kind,” said state Senator Harriette Chandler, a Worcester Democrat and former Senate president, who called Baker a “mismatch” for the Trump-led GOP, in which he was derided as a Republican in name only. “He’d make a great Democrat.”
Baker can lay claim to significant policy victories, including two major bills addressing the opioid epidemic. Once criticized in 2010 for his belief that climate change was not the result of human behavior, Baker reversed himself and has built a broad record on the environment, championing the offshore wind industry, committing to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, and signing bills that boost the clean energy industry in the state.
He navigated the deadly 2018 gas explosions in Lawrence, ordering the National Guard to distribute thousands of hot plates and space heaters to residents left without gas service for days. Baker recalled arriving on the scene already having close relationships with leaders in Lawrence, Andover, and North Andover — ties he and Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito worked hard to build that proved crucial when crises came.
“We could finish each other’s sentences,” Baker said of himself and the local officials that day. “We all knew we were in it together.”
Members of the Legislature’s Black and Latino Caucus credit Baker with committing to, and pushing for, the creation of a new statewide police oversight board, a major and unexpected reform for a Republican governor.
“The things he’s going to be remembered for and he’s going to be proudest of are the things he never imagined he would do when he came into office,” said state Representative Russell Holmes, a Mattapan Democrat and former chairman of the Legislature’s Black and Latino Caucus.
The eldest son of a bipartisan marriage — his mother was a Democrat and his father a Republican — Baker has maintained strong relationships with the Democrats who dominate most statewide offices.
He and former House speaker Robert DeLeo, a centrist Democrat from Winthrop, used to trade treats from Luberto’s, a Revere bakery both men like, and they met regularly for dinner. They used to huddle in DeLeo’s office, too.
“Many times, the phone would ring, and [he’d say], ‘Can I come over in 10 minutes? I just want to run something by you,’” said DeLeo, who stepped down in December 2020. “Our success came down to something as simple as being able to talk.”
Of course, there were times when Baker and Democratic legislative leaders clashed. This past summer, he and current House Speaker Ronald Mariano sparred over when Baker knew the state would trigger an obscure state law that returned $3 billion to taxpayers. And the Legislature ultimately rejected a tax relief package that was the lame-duck governor’s signature legislative push in his final year.
But Baker and Democratic lawmakers rarely found themselves at immovable odds. In eight years, Baker vetoed a bill outright 42 times — less often even than his Democratic predecessor, Deval Patrick, who did so 54 times, according to an analysis by the legislative tracking service Instatrac.
The state’s most prominent Democrats, either because of their relationships with Baker or his high favorability rates, rarely criticized the governor in public, leaving his popularity undented. That bipartisan goodwill, along with policy victories, won Baker trust with the public, analysts said. And it didn’t hurt that he is the Hollywood image of a strong leader: white, male, handsome, and tall, said Tatishe Nteta, a political science professor at UMass Amherst.
“When you think of a governor in a picture book, this is the person that you think of,” said Nteta, who has polled Baker’s popularity. “He fits the suit.”
‘JUST FIX IT’
Baker’s critics cast him as an incrementalist too content with small steps. Though he favored some tax hikes, Baker also held tightly to the belief that some problems, namely at the T, couldn’t be solved with more revenue, frustrating advocates who say his fiscal conservatism prevented systemic improvements.
But there were upsides, too, to embracing the minutiae of governing. Aides said the governor wrote the first draft of his own major speeches, parsed individual line items in multimillion dollar budgets, and routinely leapt up to the whiteboard near the desk in his small working office to squeak out diagrams and data from memory.
Baker always says the work “is three yards and a cloud of dust,” recalled Brian Shortsleeve, a former MBTA general manager under Baker, using a football metaphor. “He’s a grinder.”
During a 2017 meeting about expanding commuter rail into the South Coast, the governor drew out on his white board a map of track routes and stations that were unfamiliar even to William Straus, who co-chairs the Legislature’s transportation committee, Straus recalled.
“A governor with this level of detailed knowledge is either very, very good –– or very, very bad,” Straus recalled thinking at the time. On SouthCoast rail, it was good: Straus credits Baker with reviving a project bogged down by years of inaction.
“Just because he knows a lot of the details doesn’t mean he’s going to come to the right conclusion. But he has the ability to handle the detail level and still focus on the decision-making,” Straus said. “I think other governors were content to drift higher up from ground level and didn’t see the value of knowing the specific facts.”
In ways large and small, symbolic and substantive, Baker presented himself as a well-prepared government insider who would take on the state’s challenges without ego or fuss. Baker opted for a small office previously used by staff, and packed it wall-to-wall over the years with mementos, like his “JUST FIX IT” baseball cap. With much of the office already packed into boxes on Thursday, a mug with the phrase “Do your job” still sat on the fireplace mantle.
In a corner of his ceremonial office sat a length of old subway cable, retrieved in 2016 from beneath Commercial Street in Boston, where it had been sitting since 1931. The mess of metal, severely corroded and with wires visible, is a tangible representation of the advanced age of the subways running beneath the city — and a pointed reminder to visitors that the system was in disrepair long before Baker inherited it.
But by many measures — wait times for bus and subway, derailments, serious safety incidents — the transit system is worse now than when Baker took over in 2015. In April 2022, a man was dragged to death on the Red Line; in June, two Green Line trains collided and derailed, sending four people to the hospital; in July, an Orange Line car carrying hundreds of commuters over the Mystic River burst into flames.
“There’s no excuse for that,” said former governor Michael Dukakis, who famously rode the Green Line to work in the State House.
“He’s worked hard and done some good things. But not in the field of public transportation,” Dukakis said of Baker. “We just haven’t had the kind of leadership there that I would have thought Charlie would have brought to it. . . . I’ve never understood how Charlie approached that and why it was such a disaster.”
Baker bristled at that conclusion. “I disagree,” he said.
He touts tens of thousands of feet of new track laid, a rail project that will carry commuters from the South Coast of Massachusetts into Boston, and the long-awaited Green Line Extension into Medford that opened in the final month of his tenure.
But critics say that Baker’s large-scale projects and billions of additional dollars for capital investments came at the expense of the T’s routine operations. The agency currently has hundreds of job vacancies, and daily commutes remain sluggish and unpredictable despite frequent subway shutdowns, including across the entire Orange Line for a month.
Baker blamed the pandemic for decreased ridership and hiring challenges. The grade he would give himself: “incomplete.”
“When you start 100 feet down in the hole, if you only get 50 feet up, or 60 or 70 feet up, you’ve still got a ways to go,” Baker said. He brushed off a question about whether he would do anything differently. “We don’t get do-overs,” he said.
To the families whose loved ones died at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, the tragic failures there are an important part of Baker’s legacy, too.
Laurie Mandeville-Beaudette lost her 83-year-old father, James Mandeville, a Navy veteran, prankster, and relentlessly competitive card shark who favored rummy and cribbage. When Baker called her to offer his condolences, he told her his father had also served in the Navy. But she did not hear what she wanted from him: an apology, or acknowledgment of fault or responsibility, she recalled.
“I don’t think there’s one family member out there that believes that Governor Baker had no idea what was going on,” she said.
But “with the exception of the Soldiers Home,” Baker was “probably one of the best” governors in the country at handling COVID, Mandeville-Beaudette added.
“It makes me wonder,” she said: “You’re handling the public well, why couldn’t this have happened at the Soldiers’ Home?”
Asked about that comment, Baker nodded silently. “Yeah,” he said without elaborating. “I agree.”
‘Never say never’
After Baker’s “lone walk” through and out of the State House on Wednesday, he’ll have just two months before taking over as president of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, a job with its own suite of challenges.
Beyond that, he said, “I’ll be surprised if I don’t end up doing something or some things in public service one way or another.”
Could that be another try at elected office? Baker has repeatedly said he has no interest in a federal run. But, “you never say never,” he said Thursday.
When a reporter called his future political aspirations a burning question, Baker appeared genuinely puzzled. “Why?” he asked.
In part, it’s because he’ll leave office as the country’s most well-liked governor, a political oddity many of his peers would like to emulate. How he remained so popular — why residents kept their faith in him for eight years and perhaps beyond — was something of a mystery even to him.
“People like the fact that we did try to keep the noise down and we didn’t point a lot of fingers. And there’s a lot of finger-pointing in politics these days,” Baker said.
Then he chuckled. “But I don’t know the answer to this question. I really don’t.”
Samantha J. Gross and Taylor Dolven of the Globe staff contributed to this report.