The encounter with a fisherman that a choked-up Charlie Baker recounted during the signature moment of Tuesday’s debate in fact occurred in 2009, during Baker’s last run for governor, the campaign acknowledged Wednesday.
In retelling the story in the televised debate, Baker did not mention that the encounter that left him struggling with emotion had occurred so long ago.
On Wednesday, Baker told reporters “every time I tell it, it’s like it happened five minutes ago, as far as I’m concerned.”
Baker on at least two occasions spoke about what appeared to be the same fisherman on the campaign trail during his 2010 gubernatorial run. He used the story in one case to issue a tough, fist-pounding critique of federal regulations objectionable to the commercial fishing industry, appearing more angry than sad. In both cases, he left out some of the most poignant details from Tuesday night’s rendition.
The candidate retold the story Tuesday in response to a debate question: When was the last time you cried?
The odd query produced one of the most interesting moments of a largely humdrum campaign.
Baker’s Democratic opponent, Martha Coakley, addressed the question first, admitting she had cried that very day, hours earlier, at a memorial for a union leader who had died of leukemia, the disease that had killed her mother.
Then Baker began his response: “So I got asked the other day — and I may not make it through this story — I got asked the other day to tell some interesting stories about people I had met over the course of the campaign.”
He told the story of a fisherman—“a big huge man, completely soaked in sweat and salt water”—who wept when Baker asked him about the fishing business.
“I gave him a hug, he was a big huge guy,” Baker said. “It was like hugging a mountain. And he shook for a while and we started talking about the business and the industry and the federal government.”
Baker continued: “And then he said, ‘See those two kids up there?’ And he pointed to these two boys on the boat. ‘Those are my sons.’ And he said, um, ‘They were both spectacular football players at New Bedford High School who were given college scholarships to go play football.’ ”
But the father had said no, according to Baker, the boys were to become fisherman.
“ ‘And I ruined their lives,’ ” Baker said, appearing to struggle with emotion, quoting the fisherman.
The Baker campaign said Wednesday that the candidate had told the story last weekend at a private event. That was, according to the campaign, the last time he had cried.
The powerful tale of a proud industry’s unraveling and a father’s stifling love reduced Baker to near tears. By Wednesday morning, New Bedford was buzzing: Who was the whale of a man in the story, whose embrace Baker described as “like hugging a mountain?”
From the docks to the mayor’s office, across the Acushnet River in Fairhaven and out in Mattapoisett, a hunt worthy of Ahab himself was on.
And though Baker has recounted the story on several occasions, he told reporters Wednesday that he never got the one thing all of New Bedford wanted to hear: the man-mountain’s name.
Attempts by the Globe on Wednesday to locate a New Bedford family that fit Baker’s description from the debate were unsuccessful.
The likeliest subject, a commercial fisherman from another Massachusetts town who fits the general description, could not be reached last evening.
At the Massachusetts Fishermen’s Partnership on Wednesday, navigator Verna Kendall spent the morning fielding calls about the mysterious man whose sons Baker said had been local football stars.
“I can’t tell you who it is. I do not know who it is,” Kendall said. “I’ve never heard of this before in my life.”
New Bedford football coach Mark DeBrito, in his first year as coach but a former player familiar with the program, said he cannot think of any brothers fitting Baker’s description.
The Baker campaign said the candidate mentioned the fisherman to the Globe in 2010, in response to a question by then-columnist Brian McGrory, who is now the Globe’s editor, about what Baker had learned about the people of Massachusetts and how they had changed him over the campaign.
Baker responded at the time by citing tradesmen he had met at a barbecue. “They were burly guys,’’ Baker said, in the column, which was published Oct. 27, 2010. “They had mortgages. A couple of them had kids in college.’’
McGrory then wrote: “[Baker] also talked about a sweaty and solemn fisherman who described his job as a ‘cancer’ and regretted bringing his two sons into a vocation that was heading toward death.”
“The urgency in my voice comes from those conversations,” McGrory quoted Baker as saying at the time.
He mentioned the fisherman again in an undated video from the 2010 campaign obtained by the Globe. Speaking to a small crowd in a room plastered with campaign signs, Baker said the fisherman had just come off his boat after a day or two at sea and that they had discussed the industry.
Fishermen from New Bedford to Gloucester have argued for years that federal scientists are relying on shoddy science to determine catch limits, especially for cod, the region’s iconic species. But repeated assessments by scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have shown that the cod population has been dwindling for years.
Said Baker on the video: “And he looked up at me and he said, ‘You know, I think this is what it’s like when you have cancer . . . you really feel like [you’re] dying a slow death.”
Baker used the story as a launching point to critique regulations, and then suddenly shouted: “It kills me what’s going on with you guys!” apparently speaking to fishermen.
“If you guys are still in business come January and I win, you will have an advocate, a fighter, someone who’s going to fight for you,” he said in the video, raising his voice and repeatedly punching a fist into his palm.
Baker, speaking to reporters Wednesday, said the troubled Massachusetts fishing industry is filled with family tales much like the one he tells.
As he fielded questions about the story of the fisherman, Baker said: “Well, he certainly existed for me….That story, you could find ten more that are just like it.”
Jim O’Sullivan, Eric Moskowitz, David Abel and Sean P. Murphy of the Globe staff contributed to this report.