Lauren Baker learned how to pitch products like Labatt beer and Lotus Notes during her 13 years as an executive at a prominent Boston advertising agency.
During the last year, she has been sitting in on strategy meetings, reviewing rough cuts and scripts for television ads, and crafting the marketing toward women for a brand much closer to her heart: her husband, Charlie Baker, the Republican candidate for governor.
After staying on the sidelines during his 2010 run for governor, she has taken on a much larger role in this campaign, as a key voice shaping her husband’s message and as an outspoken leader in his drive to cut into Martha Coakley's lead among women voters.
“Last time, I kind of felt like I was all out,” she said. “This time, I want to be all in.”
Baker said she is fascinated by political strategy and familiar with media and communications as a former account executive at Hill Holliday, where she worked until 1999, when she quit to become a stay-at-home mother.
“When there’s communication, or direct mail, or TV, or video, or even just the logo or the branding of Charlie, I want to be involved in that because I think I understand both the brand — the person — and the process,” she said.
Privately, she also urged her husband to run again after his defeat four years ago. “The day after we lost last time, I looked at him and I’m like, ‘Let me at ’em,’ ” she said. “We have to do this again because we learned so much and we made so many mistakes.”
Now, she is active in the campaign every day, speaking at fund-raisers and house parties, writing a weekly newsletter to female supporters, recording YouTube videos, and stumping alone and alongside her husband.
At a recent Women for Charlie event in West Roxbury — one of 50 she has hosted across the state — she mixed homespun anecdotes about the travails of day care pickup with some sharp jabs at Coakley’s efforts to win women’s votes.
“I believe she is going to play that gender card really, really hard,” Lauren Baker said. “I, frankly, think it’s insulting that any political group would assume that women would vote for a woman because she’s a woman.”
The crowd of about 30 women broke into applause.
Later, asked about the battle for women’s votes in an interview, she was just as plain-spoken. “The first thing is: There’s no war on women,” she said. “I just find that insulting. It’s dumb.” At that point, the campaign manager, Jim Conroy, cut in, insisting she go off the record.
Baker is valuable to the campaign not only because of her advertising experience, but because she has known the candidate for 30 years and can help soften the hard-edged image he cultivated in 2010 when he tried to tap into voter anger at Beacon Hill.
The two met in the fall of 1984, at the business school at Northwestern University, when she looked out on the first day of Strategy D30 class and said, “that’s the guy.”
“He was the guy who always sat in the first row with his hand up all the time, answering questions,” she said at the Women for Charlie event. “I was in the back row thinking, ‘Please, don’t call on me.’ ”
They married in 1987 and now have three children: Charlie Jr., 23; A.J., 20; and Caroline, 17.
When she quit her job in 1999, she said she had been looking for a change and needed to spend more time with her children. Her husband had just become chief executive of Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates and was “never around,” she said. Though she became active in charitable work, she said it was hard giving up her career.
“It’s difficult when you’ve been a working person and then, all of a sudden, you’re a stay-at-home mom, and people say, ‘Well what do you do?’ And you’re like, ‘Well, nothing,’ ” she said.
Despite her husband’s well-publicized $1.7 million salary as chief executive of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, she said the family also worries about affording college and retirement. It was one of the main concerns she had about him quitting Harvard Pilgrim in 2009 to run for governor the first time.
“Are we making a huge mistake?” she said, recalling her fears at the time. “We’ve got three kids going to college. We’re not millionaires. We don’t have our retirement paid for. We’ve got to save money.”
During that race, she devoted about one day a week to the campaign so she could spend most of her time with their children.
“I felt they needed me to be there for them, and I was determined not to let any of the negativity of the campaign infiltrate their lives,” she said. “And I didn’t want them to feel neglected because they never saw their dad.”
Now, the children are older (Caroline has appeared in an ad, saying “he’s totally pro-choice,”) and Lauren Baker has become a frequent speaker at campaign events, testifying to her husband’s qualities as a father.
In West Roxbury, she recounted that, when he was a top budget aide in the Weld administration in the 1990s, he would leave work in the evenings to feed, bathe, and put the children to bed.
“So when people try to tell you that Charlie can’t relate to the trials and tribulations of being a working mother – trust me, he knows, because he lived it,” she said.
Research shows these kinds of messages, called “maternal appeals,” are most effective on behalf of Republican men, who are more likely to be viewed as lacking compassion, said Jill S. Greenlee, a Brandeis University political scientist.
“It’s much easier to have your family talking about this beautiful personal story than to talk about policy that affects women and take more controversial stances,” Greenlee said. “This is, in many ways, a safe strategy for his campaign.”
Baker also fields questions about policy, and jots down voters’ concerns in a notebook that she takes back to the campaign staff. In West Roxbury, she received a warm response.
“The fact that she could speak to the issue of women, and how so many politicians use the woman card and the female card to garner votes, was really impressive to me,” said Diane McNamara, who works in public relations and attended the event. “As a feminist, I don’t want to be labeled as someone who will vote for you only because you're a woman.”
Sandy Averill, a retired employee at WLVI-TV, said she also appreciated hearing from the candidate’s spouse: “She’s so friendly, she’s so bubbly; she’s very real.”
Baker said she knows she is battling against Democratic efforts to depict her husband as a ruthless corporate executive. So she begged the women at the event to defend her husband, saying “we need you, desperately, to be the truth squad.”
“If there’s a woman who doesn’t support Charlie,” she said, “it’s because she doesn’t know him.”