Charlie Baker vows to tackle state’s opiate problem

Charlie Baker said he has “butterflies” as he prepares to take over the reins of state government.
John Tlumacki/Globe Staff
Charlie Baker said he has “butterflies” as he prepares to take over the reins of state government.

SWAMPSCOTT — Governor-elect Charlie Baker plans to address the state’s opiate addiction crisis early in his term, saying in an interview Thursday that he wants to forge a coalition of labor leaders, elected Democrats, and health care officials to curtail the usage of prescription painkillers.

“I would like to do something on this certainly in the first six months,” Baker said, adding, “This is going to be a big issue for me, I’ll tell you that.”

During a wide-ranging interview in his home, Baker also said would propose changes in campaign finance laws and make the state hiring process more transparent. He expressed little desire to get involved in national Republican politics.


But the newly elected Republican became impassioned when he discussed the subject of opiate addiction, which became a prominent concern of public health and law enforcement officials after dozens of overdose deaths around the state.

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“We have a prescription medication problem, which I think is where most of this starts,” he said. “And I think you need to involve the health care community in a pretty serious way in this conversation.”

Baker’s discussion of the issue turned intensely personal when he said he was concerned that his son, who broke his arm playing college football last weekend, has since been prescribed Percocet.

Barnstorming the state in heavy rain Saturday with his wife, Lauren, the couple got a jarring call during their drive from Worcester to Lowell. It was their son, AJ, calling from an ambulance after he had broken his arm in two places while trying to catch a pass in his Union College game against Hobart.

Baker broke away from the interview Thursday to give a good-bye hug to AJ, as he headed back to Union, where he is a wide receiver. Minutes later, Baker steered an answer about coalition-building into a discussion about addiction policy, then grew animated and said he was “[expletive] scared out of my mind” at the prospect his own child could grow reliant on the medication.


Baker said he has admonished his son, who has never had any substance abuse issues, to transition to over-the-counter pain medication as soon as possible.

John Tlumacki/Globe Staff
Governor-elect Charlie Baker said he wants to address the opiate problem in the first six months.

To address the statewide problem, Baker said, he hopes to work with AFL-CIO president Steven Tolman and Mayor Martin J. Walsh of Boston, two longtime substance abuse treatment advocates and Democrats who campaigned extensively for Baker’s Democratic opponent, Attorney General Martha Coakley.

The governor-elect also said he hopes to borrow from programs currently used by various county sheriffs.

“This painkiller thing is a problem, and I think we need to be a lot more aggressive about we think about the front end of this,” he said.

Seated in a brown leather chair and sipping a smoothie, Baker said he had received congratulations from three potential 2016 presidential candidates: former governor Jeb Bush of Florida, Governor Mike Pence of Indiana, and Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey.


But Baker said he plans to eschew the national Republican Party, distancing himself from the GOP just days after it swept the political landscape and declining to show support for any of his party’s prospective standard-bearers in two years.

“I have no thoughts about that,” Baker said of the still-nascent field.

Asked whether his victory could provide a template for his party as it prepares to face a vastly different electorate in two years, Baker demurred, saying, “I don’t view myself as a national anything.”

“I would hope that one of the lessons that some of the Republicans nationally would take from this race is that it’s a good idea to chase 100 percent of the vote and to make the case in as many forums and as many places as they possibly can,” Baker said.

He said he “hadn’t even thought about” whether he would attend the national Republican convention or involve himself in the 2016 presidential campaign.

He said he has “butterflies” as he prepares to take over the reins of state government and reiterated his statement from the day before that his most pressing priority is assembling a talented team. Baker said he had ideas but had made no concrete personnel decisions yet.

The governor-elect said he hopes to implement new rules for state employment decisions that require credentials for each hire to be made public, along with disclosures about whether those hires were made with the recommendations of other state officials, such as lawmakers. Baker said he did not see the need for disclosure if the job candidate was recommended by someone in the private sector or a campaign donor.

Asked if people have come to him looking for jobs, Baker said he had been bombarded by texts, phone calls, and e-mails.

But are they looking for jobs?

“Just people wanting to be helpful,” he said with a smile.

As for what patronage demands he is facing, Baker replied, “So far, it’s all, ‘I want to be helpful.’ And I have been besieged.”

He declined to discuss a commission created in the state budget to review compensation for constitutional officers and legislative leaders, saying he was unfamiliar with the body.

He said he wants to file “reasonably early” in his administration a package of changes to the state’s campaign-finance laws, which he said too heavily favor incumbents. Baker said he is fine with the current donation limits but wants to move to a contribution schedule that does not allow incumbents serving four-year terms to collect maximum contributions each of those years.

Baker said he and the lieutenant governor-elect, Karyn Polito, plan to follow the model put in place under Governor Bill Weld and Lieutenant Governor Paul Cellucci, who forged the closest executive partnership in modern times. Subsequent administrations had tried but not succeeded in replicating that template, Baker said.

“It’s hard for me to see anybody recreating what Bill Weld and Paul Cellucci put together,” Baker said.

Asked how he would integrate his close friend and old boss, Weld, into his transition, Baker replied, “I would expect we will talk a lot.”

But he acknowledged that Weld’s work at a major lobbying firm and representation of corporations with business before the state, including casino mogul Steve Wynn, would be “a factor” in determining Weld’s role.

As the interview concluded and he showed reporters the door, Baker pointed to the State Police SUV in the driveway — a sign of the increased security that comes with his election just two days earlier.

“This is going to take a while to get used to,” he said.

Jim O’Sullivan can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @josreports. Frank Phillips can be reached at