He’s Mr. Popularity; now can Charlie Baker deliver?
His collaborative style has helped to ease the way. But his to-do list is no cakewalk.
IT’S NOONTIME ON A TUESDAY and Charlie Baker is sitting at a table in the office where he spends much of his workday. The 72d governor of Massachusetts is lunching on a roast beef wrap, a bag of oven-baked chips, and a Diet Pepsi. Running a state is serious business, and Baker is well known for his methodical approach to solving problems, but the office is testament to his more playful side. The room is chockablock with framed photos, clocks, mugs, hats, model planes and various mementos and knickknacks, all of which only adds to the cramped feeling of the work space. The room is modest enough in size that if more than a handful of staffers cram in for a sit-down, someone is going to have to stand.
Yet this is where Baker does everything but preside over Cabinet meetings and perform ceremonial duties. “We’re here to work” is the basic idea, appropriate for a governor who campaigned as a Mr. Fix-It ready to roll up his shirt sleeves and see to what he calls the “blocking and tackling of government.” (“JUST FIX IT,” reads a ball cap on a shelf in his office.) And what better way to send that message than to work out of a relative cubbyhole that used to be occupied by the chief of staff of his predecessor, Deval Patrick? Baker decided upon his election that he wouldn’t set up shop in the elegant 18th-century formal office typically used by Massachusetts governors. He didn’t want to worry about spilling a cup of coffee, he said.
It was a good line, but it was also good politics. Patrick, formerly a highly paid corporate lawyer, was widely panned for his early fixation on gubernatorial trappings, including having $12,000 damask drapes installed in his office and leasing a Cadillac DeVille as his official car after running on a theme of inclusion and shared sacrifice amid a $1 billion budget deficit. Baker, who once earned as much as $1.7 million a year as the CEO of Harvard Pilgrim, wisely sought to avoid any hint of pampered entitlement.
Baker has also worked hard to reach across the aisle and engage Democrats. From his first day in office, he has flashed his quick wit and projected an easy affability. All of which stands in marked contrast to the Charlie Baker who was thumped by Patrick in the 2010 election — the “Angry Charlie” who ran on a “Had Enough?” theme. “He’s much different than he was in 2010,” observes Tufts University political science professor Jeffrey Berry. “He was biting and dismissive of Democrats and very critical of the incumbent governor.”
After that defeat, Baker summed up his failed run this way: “That family guy, that really enthusiastic, hard-charging, set-the-bar-high, let’s-go-get-it type leader — people never thought they saw him.” So on the campaign trail in 2014, Baker worked to show voters more of “Charming Charlie,” the side of himself that Baker insists is much closer to his true persona. He wound up beating Martha Coakley by just 40,000 votes out of more than 2 million cast, and he was elected without a majority — but he was elected.
Whatever his challenges on the campaign trail, Baker has been nothing short of a hit so far in the corner office. “Campaigns are contests,” he says. “Governing is about the work.” The governor’s day begins as early as 6:30 in the morning with a call to his chief of staff, Steven Kadish, to discuss up to 10 topics in two- or three-minute bites. From there, his day goes long — he’ll e-mail and text Kadish as late as 11 p.m. “It’s when he tends to do his reading,” Kadish says.
Baker holds his Cabinet meetings in the Governor’s Council chamber, not far from his office. The give-and-take between the governor and the group is lively. “He wants you to make a recommendation, wants you to understand why, the back-and-forth on that versus another option,” Kadish says. “He’s in it. He’s not looking at his cellphone.”
Baker often goes around the table, asking everyone to weigh in on an issue. “They’re not disagreements; they’re debates, and Charlie encourages that, because that’s how we’ll get to the best outcomes,” says Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito. “Charlie uses the word of being ‘disruptive’ in a healthy way. It’s important to bring these ideas to the table and test them out. Some of them will work and some of them won’t, but Charlie’s not afraid to try.”
“You don’t have to agree with him,” says the Administration and Finance secretary, Kristen Lepore. “He doesn’t want you to.” What Baker does want, his Cabinet members say, is an informed exchange of views. And Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders says that the people who work for him know that they’d better come to the meetings prepared. “You have this constant questioning, constant challenging of ‘Why do you think that? Wouldn’t this be a better way?’ ” Sudders says. “I think we come out with better stuff that way.”
Perhaps that’s because Baker worked in both the Bill Weld and Paul Cellucci administrations, during which he headed the two most important secretariats, Administration and Finance and Health and Human Services. Given that experience, Baker knows how to break a budget down line item by line item. He’s so familiar with Health and Human Services, which represents half of the state’s budget, that he can recite its departments and divisions off the top of his head. “His knowledge runs deep,” says Sudders, who has worked for five previous governors. “I have to spend literally no time orienting him.”
Since his election, Baker has crisscrossed the state, appearing at seemingly every swearing in of every town officer in Massachusetts. He has built an impressive social media operation that keeps residents apprised of his every move. And he has demanded accountability, as when he deemed the performance of the MBTA “unacceptable” during the record-breaking winter of 2015, all but pushing the T’s former general manager out of office. The results? A poll in November found that, with a 74 percent approval rating, he was the most popular governor in the country. This from a Republican in a deep blue state, at a time when American politics are poisonously partisan. “Charlie’s kind of a throwback, the resurrection of a pragmatic, moderate-centrist Republican who can work with Democrats,” says Paul Grogan, president of the Boston Foundation. “We used to have a lot of people like that around the country.”
“He’s pretty straightforward,” says Eileen McAnneny, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation. “He calls it as he sees it, which is kind of refreshing. He clearly wants to govern, in all that entails.”
Berry says Baker’s early success is quite a striking contrast to Patrick, who seemed to take a long time to get going in office. “Baker did hit the ground running,” Berry says.
But as Baker begins his second year in office, it’s appropriate to wonder about the challenges ahead. Even as Baker enjoys healthy approval ratings, a close inspection of his record shows that many of the major problems he identified on the campaign trail and in his early months in office persist: The MBTA that he criticized last year? It remains plagued by budget problems, outdated equipment, and a maintenance backlog. The Department of Children and Families continues to generate headlines for all the wrong reasons. The Registry of Motor Vehicles still needs work. Mr. Fix-It has time to make progress on these and other major problems facing Massachusetts, but how long until his constituents start demanding to see something big actually fixed?
IT’S A MONDAY EVENING and the governor is onstage at the century-old Memorial Hall in Melrose. The building, Baker observes, is newer than some of the switches on the Green Line. Baker is here for what he puckishly says is the 486th inauguration of Mayor Robert Dolan, a Democrat, and he is dispensing plaudits all around — to the high school band for its rendition of the national anthem (“Beautifully done”), to a blue-necktied a cappella group (“I have no tonal capability, but I’m loud”), to a third-grade piano prodigy playing Debussy, to Dolan himself (“his temperament, his class, his dignity”).
Baker doesn’t just turn up and swear in local officials; he’s happy to stick around through the benediction and beyond for handshakes, photos, and chitchat. “That’s a good move and a smart move,” says Boston Mayor Marty Walsh. “The relationships between the state and cities and towns are important, and he understands that.”
Historically, of course, the most important political relationship in Massachusetts has been between the governor and the Boston mayor, and Baker and Walsh have become uncommonly close. “The last time I’ve seen anything like that was [Kevin] White and [Michael] Dukakis,” says Paul Grogan. “The things you can get done when the big guys are on good terms with one another . . . ”
Luring General Electric to Boston in January was a signature example of the governor and mayor working in concert for mutual benefit. “We talk several times a week; we’re checking in constantly,” says Walsh. “We go to a lot of events together. It’s not rare that we hear: ‘This is the first time we’ve had the governor and mayor here together.’ ”
Baker is a careful observer of practical protocols, particularly when they involve Democrats. He went to Washington with a half-dozen other new governors-elect for a getting-to-know-you session with President Obama in the Oval Office and met with the Massachusetts congressional delegation on a subsequent visit.
Baker’s former bosses, Republican governors Weld and Cellucci, had to deal, as he does, with Democratic majorities in the State House. Which helps explain Baker’s ease at working across the political aisle. He learned to respect the political sovereignty of the other party during his Cabinet days in the administration of Cellucci, who’d spent 14 years as a state representative and senator. “There were plenty of times when I would come storming into Cellucci’s office saying, ‘I can’t believe what they’re doing to my precious whatever-it-was that was in front of the Legislature,’ ” Baker recalls. “Paul would look at me and say: ‘So, do you think what they’re doing is making it better or worse?’ . . . There were lots of situations where I walked into his office thinking that something that was going on in the Legislature was ruining my brilliant idea, and I would come out of his office thinking that they were actually saving me from myself.”
Having worked under Weld and Cellucci, Baker doesn’t need a lesson in legislative arithmetic. In Massachusetts, only 35 of the 160 state representatives and five of the 40 senators are Republicans. Baker can’t come close to sustaining a veto. “Don’t you think I know that?” he told House Speaker Robert DeLeo, agreeing with the speaker during their first sit-down that they’d need to work as partners. “Any proposal I have you can kill pretty easily. It doesn’t do me any good.”
As Weld did with Speaker Charlie Flaherty and Senate President Bill Bulger, Baker checks in frequently with DeLeo and Senate President Stanley Rosenberg and sits down each Monday with them. “He wanted to collaborate and make decisions together,” Rosenberg says. DeLeo says that the weekly meetings have a productive give-and-take quality. Baker, he says, “is more than open to put his idea on hold while he takes a look at our idea.” And if Baker’s idea requires legislative approval, he makes sure that DeLeo and Rosenberg hear about it first. Eileen McAnneny notes that this kind of cooperation stands in contrast to how Baker’s predecessor sometimes worked with the Legislature. “Governor Patrick had a plan to raise revenues, a $2 billion tax package,” she recalls. “One of the reasons why it was DOA in the Legislature,” she says, was that Patrick had not laid the groundwork with legislative leadership.
As the head of a party that represents only 11 percent of the state’s electorate, Baker seems aware that he needs to pitch a big tent. “His leadership style has been inclusive, especially on the opioid epidemic,” says Massachusetts AFL-CIO president Steve Tolman, who spent 17 years in the Legislature. “If he continues to do that, the people of Massachusetts will benefit.”
One particular challenge for Baker has been his role as the first Republican governor since Mitt Romney, whose single term was marked by aloofness and national ambition. “Mitt used to deny that he had been governor of Massachusetts,” says US Representative Richard Neal, dean of the state’s Washington delegation. “He was all-in for the first two years, and then that changed when he decided he was going to run for president.”
Despite the obstacles, Baker has managed to connect with Massachusetts voters of all political leanings and even seems to have had fun while doing it. Anyone forming judgments after his 2010 campaign would be surprised to see Baker today actually enjoying himself while wandering through the crowds at his public events — and also to hear him compare himself to a Democratic former president. “I love just walking around and chatting with people at those things,” he says. “I have no trouble staying for an hour and just talking to people. I really like it. It’s not about wanting to show what a regular, approachable person I am, because I believe I’ve always been that person. Somebody once said about Bill Clinton that he gets his oxygen and his energy from that kind of stuff. So do I.”
The retail politicking has helped Baker build political capital, which is fortunate — he’ll likely need it during his second year in office.
WHEN BAKER WAS INAUGURATED, his to-do list focused on the state’s worst problems that affected the most people. They included the T, the Health Connector, the opioid crisis, the Registry of Motor Vehicles, and the Department of Children and Families.
“The problems that the governor is willing to take on have been around for some time,” says state Senator Will Brownsberger. “I think any thoughtful person will understand that these things do not admit to quick fixes.” That’s almost certainly true, but when you wear a hat that says “JUST FIX IT,” people start to form expectations.
The biggest, most complex, and most expensive ongoing problem is the T, and it was by meteorological chance that its collapse amid a wintry deluge shortly after Baker’s inauguration ended up as his first challenge.
“Natural disasters can either be the greatest friend of elected officials or their worst enemy,” says University of Massachusetts Amherst journalism professor Ralph Whitehead. “This gave the state a chance to get to know him day by day for an extended period. He wore well, and we got through this.”
Baker created a panel of local and national experts to deliver recommendations. “I asked him, ‘Do you understand exactly what you’re doing trying to take over the T and what that can mean?’ ” says Speaker DeLeo. “He said, ‘I was elected as governor for moments just like this and to see them through.’ ”
Yet progress at the T continues to be slow, with more breakdowns this winter. In fact, you can say the same about every problem the governor inherited, from stalling subway cars to opioid addiction to the DCF’s dismal performance. As with governors everywhere entering their second year, all problems now belong to him — even if he doesn’t always recognize it. “What surprised me a bit in his State of the State address was when he talked about inheriting a [$765 million] deficit,” says state Senator Jamie Eldridge. “I thought Governor, you’re a year into your term and you’re still blaming Governor Patrick?”
Repairing and reforming dysfunctional systems can consume years. “What we have talked about repeatedly is that turnarounds don’t happen overnight, they happen in phases and they take a long time,” says Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack. Baker has established no timetable for his to-do list, but others on Beacon Hill and elsewhere may soon do it for him. “When are the legislators going to highlight the discrepancy between what Governor Baker has said he’s done and what he’s really done?” asks Eldridge.
At least some of the problem, as it always does, comes down to money. Baker is an accomplished manager, and he certainly knows his way around a spreadsheet, but managerial magic only goes so far when the state is facing a structural deficit that adds up to an estimated $635 million for the coming year. It’s the same problem that has handcuffed Massachusetts governors and lawmakers in the past, and it helps explain why all of the items on Baker’s to-do list have appeared on the lists of many of his predecessors. But with Baker adamantly opposed to raising taxes, the math gets all but impossible. Noah Berger, president of the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, believes that much can be done to improve the performance of many state agencies, but, he says, “it’s very hard to deal with the very big challenges our state faces without additional revenue.”
Baker, who promised to link aid for education to rising revenues during his campaign, so far has fallen short in that area, with aid going up just 1.6 percent despite an increase in revenues of 4.3 percent. State Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz, a Democrat, says that’s not good enough. “Kids are happening in our Commonwealth,” she says. “Education is not an issue that waits. It has consequences.”
Baker still has three years, and possibly more, to deal with his to-do list, and if history is any guide, he’ll need it. Still, at least one of his Cabinet members believes he can succeed where a long line of his predecessors, Democrats and Republicans alike, have failed. “If the governor wants to fix the T,” says Pollack, “he’ll need two terms.”
“GOVERNOR FIX-IT HAS BEEN an entirely appropriate first act,” observes Ralph Whitehead. “At some point, he can use a second act.” The governor’s second act won’t take place in the nation’s capital. “He really doesn’t like Washington,” says Will Keyser, president of Keyser Public Strategies and a senior campaign adviser. “He has no interest in all of that silliness. He wants to do this job and then be ready for the next enterprise. If you want to irritate him, say, ‘Hey, governor, you might want to think about federal office.’ He’ll look at you and say, ‘That’s the last thing I’m ever going to do.’ ”
What Baker likes about his job is that his primary feedback comes from the people who put him there. “It feels much closer to the electorate,” he says. “I think one of the big problems with the federal folks is they’re completely removed from the folks that voted for them. And that’s part of why the folks that voted for them are so mad at them.”
So far, Baker, whose positions on key social issues like same-sex marriage, abortion rights, and climate change are at odds with Republican orthodoxy, has managed to steer clear of the divisive GOP hurly-burly at the national level. “He has distanced himself with a deftness that is impressive, and he’s getting away with it,” says Jeffrey Berry, the Tufts professor. That distancing had extended to endorsing a candidate for president, but Baker, saying he was concerned about “the slide of the party,” eventually came out in support of his New Jersey counterpart, Chris Christie (who has since dropped out of the race).
But even though Baker considers himself a social moderate, he hasn’t managed to avoid completely the differences of opinion he has on social issues with many of his constituents. Twice in his first year in office he made comments that grabbed headlines and necessitated quick retreats. In June, following the killing of nine black people by a white gunman in an African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina, Baker defended the rights of state capitols to fly the Confederate flag. “My view on stuff like this is that South Carolinians can make their own call,” he said. “I do believe that the reason that flag still hangs there is, you know, what I would call ‘tradition’ or something like that.” This stance put him on the opposite side of the issue from even some Southern governors. After a torrent of criticism, he reversed himself, saying he abhorred the flag’s symbolism and history.
Then, in November, after initially supporting the idea of states accepting Syrian refugees, Baker reversed himself. “I would say no as of right now,” he said. That stance was criticized by human rights advocates, tweaked in a tweet by US Representative Seth Moulton, and lampooned in a cartoon in the New York Times.
Both statements proved damaging, but Baker deftly managed the fallout, and in each case the stories quickly faded. “He knows he can speak his mind on things, and even if he gets dinged up on day one, by day three or four, everything will be OK,” says senior adviser Jim Conroy, who was Baker’s campaign manager. Were Baker viewed as a near-future candidate for Congress or the White House, those missteps might have come back to haunt him.
But the title he has is the only one he wants, he says, and he wanted it badly enough that he ran for it twice. “He’s made it very clear that this is what he wants to do,” says Robert DeLeo. “He’s not setting his sights elsewhere. He’s not using this to prepare for anything else in the future. I think he’s a guy who wants to move the state forward and be judged as a governor.”
The general assumption on Beacon Hill and elsewhere is that the governor will run for a second term in 2018. Were Baker to complete a second consecutive term, he’d be the first Republican to do it since Christian Herter in 1956, when gubernatorial terms were only two years. John Volpe left to become Richard Nixon’s transportation secretary. Bill Weld resigned when he was nominated (but not confirmed) as ambassador to Mexico, and Paul Cellucci departed during his first elected term to become ambassador to Canada. Mitt Romney essentially disappeared after two years to pursue his quest for the White House.
The country’s most popular governor says he’s content with his view of Boston Common, now and in the future. “I get the fact that there’s going to be a big presidential campaign in 2016,” Baker says. “I get the fact that every two years people batten down the hatches and get competitive about this. But for me, the big opportunity is in the chance and ability to try to do some things that make stuff work better here.”
Clarification: A caption on a photo in this story has been updated to reflect that Governor Baker was adjusting the curtains for lighting.