Governor Charlie Baker bid farewell to Beacon Hill on Wednesday, taking his first steps back toward life as a private citizen and out of the only job in elected office he’s said he ever wanted.
Baker, Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito, and both their spouses took the traditional “Lone Walk” out of the governor’s office, leaving through the State House’s front doors and into a misty January night to cheers from hundreds of well-wishers.
With Matchbox Twenty’s “How Far We’ve Come” blaring from speakers — a personal choice of Baker’s — he high-fived friends and family, took selfies with the crowd, and laughed at chants of “Four more years!” from members of his Cabinet, past and present. Aides wiped tears away as he jumped into the front passenger seat of a waiting black Ford SUV, which slowly took him down Beacon Street and into his next chapter.
Baker’s final full day at the State House was full of hugs, pageantry, and photos, many of them with Democrats. He met with his successor, Maura Healey, preparing to hand the reins to a Democrat who has emulated his style and echoed some of his own priorities.
“This building has certainly played an important part of my life. And I hope I’ve lived up to it,” Baker told reporters earlier outside the third-floor executive suite. “And I think the big thing . . .” Baker said before pausing. His gaze turned past the group and out into the building’s marbled corridors. His voice caught in his throat.
“I’ll miss it,” Baker choked out, his eyes starting to well. “I’m going to leave it at that. I’m going to miss it.”
The Lone Walk dates to Governor Benjamin Butler’s departure in 1884, when he left the building bereft of supporters and well-wishers, according to the secretary of state’s office.
It’s now a pomp and circumstance-filled celebration marking a governor’s return to private life. For Baker, that will include a new role as president of the NCAA starting in March.
He and Polito — a fellow Republican whom Baker has called a partner in steering the state — exited Wednesday with a 19-gun salute. With Lauren Baker, the governor’s wife, and Steve Rodolakis, Polito’s husband, they walked down a red carpet through the State House, where hundreds of onlookers crowded against the barriers, stood on the Pavonazzo marble stairs inside Nurse’s Hall, and looked on from the third-floor hallways above.
One supporter unfurled a massive banner that said, “Thank You Charlie Baker Karyn Polito” in large red and blue letters. He said he made it earlier this week in Springfield.
“I felt like he was moderate enough that he was representing me, too,” said Kristin Kinsella, a Democrat who lives in Beacon Hill and stood outside to see Baker’s farewell. She said she voted for Baker twice. “And I would have been totally happy to have a third term.”
Baker, 66, first began working at the State House in his early 30s, serving under governors Bill Weld and Paul Cellucci, and earning a reputation as a wunderkind, first as a health and human services secretary and later as state budget chief.
As governor, the second-term Republican leaves after eight years of nearly unfaltering popularity, and by one measure, as the country’s most well-liked governor, a reputation buoyed by years of navigating Massachusetts through Boston’s snowiest winter, disasters, and a worldwide pandemic.
Baker touted signing into law some of the state’s most sweeping housing reforms in years, overseeing the completion of projects — such as the Green Line Extension — that had long languished, and guiding a state that enjoyed budget surpluses and funneled billions into its emergency savings account during his tenure. He often eschewed national political fights. Democrats, by and large, preferred him over those in his own party.
He also leaves a MBTA that’s been plagued in recent years by safety mishaps, some fatal. In his final year, some of his signature policy pushes — a sweeping tax relief package or legislation targeting so-called “revenge porn,” something 48 other states outlaw — failed in the Legislature.
Asked what he’d miss, Baker answered quickly.
“The work,” he said. “I spent 16 years in state government. And I really believe in it. I think it matters and it’s important. . . . We live in kind of a cynical and skeptical age. And there’s nothing cynical or skeptical about what I’ve seen and have worked on the past eight years. I will miss that a lot.”
Baker earlier Wednesday administered the oaths of office to members of the Senate and House, where lawmakers cheered a Republican governor who strived, often successfully, to build bridges into the Democrat-dominated bodies.
He also began Wednesday with 92 bills on his desk after lawmakers pushed through dozens of pieces of legislation during a final-session flurry. Baker said he planned to work through them — any he doesn’t sign will die when he leaves office — and he suggested he may even take time Thursday to go through them; he’s still governor until Healey is sworn in shortly around noon.
He and Polito later met Healey and Lieutenant Governor-elect Kim Driscoll in the governor’s ceremonial office, where Baker and Healey exchanged four traditional gifts that symbolize the continuity of power. They include Butler’s bible from 1884; a gavel made out of white oak from the USS Constitution; and a pewter key that was once used to unlock the original governor’s office.
”It doesn’t work anymore by the way,” Baker joked with Healey.
The fourth gift was volumes of the Massachusetts laws, dating to 1860, in which Baker, like past governors have done for their successors, inscribed a message to Healey. She read it as Baker held the book, thanking him for the note.
Baker also gifted her a coin honoring Army Sergeant First Class Jared C. Monti, who was killed in action in Afghanistan, that Monti’s family had once given Baker. He said he began carrying it as a reminder “of the enormous price that military families sometimes pay to give us the opportunity to lead in these very special roles as part of our democracy.”
“That’s one you can actually take with you,” he told Healey before they embraced.
For generations, the exiting governor has met the incoming governor on inauguration day, after which the Senate sergeant of arms escorts the new governor to the House chamber, where he or she is sworn in, while the departing one leaves through the State House’s front doors. The doors are only used for a visit by the sitting president of the United States, a head of state, or for a departing governor.
That tradition changed in 2007, when Mitt Romney exited the day before Deval Patrick’s inauguration.
Patrick, too, exited on the eve of Baker’s inauguration in 2015. And now, so did Baker before Healey.
Baker said once officially relieved of duty, he planned to first unpack the many boxes now sitting in his home office.
There will be a vacation with his wife, he said. His first grandchild is due this winter. Then, the NCAA.
And what, a reporter asked, will go through his mind when he sees the state’s first really bad snowstorm?
“I’ll roll over,” Baker said, “and go back to sleep.”
Samantha J. Gross of the Globe staff contributed to this report.