fb-pixel

Charlie Baker, makeover artist

After his losing campaign for governor in 2010, Baker retooled for 2014 and won. The changes he made offer the clearest picture yet of how he’ll govern.

Election night 2010, Charles D. Baker — as he was known then — saw his gubernatorial hopes collapse as the returns came in from Democratic strongholds around the state: Boston, Worcester, Springfield, New Bedford, Fall River, Lawrence.

The margins for Governor Deval Patrick in those and other blue-collar cities and liberal bastions were so huge that they wiped out any chance Baker could count on his own heavy vote totals in GOP-dominated enclaves across the state to give him a victory.

It was a crushing blow, enough to send almost any other candidate back to private life for good. But instead it sent Baker on a quest of extensive self-reflection. He wanted to figure out what he did wrong and how could he do it right. He sought out a diverse range of people who could offer hard assessments of his failure as a candidate.

Advertisement



What he found — and, just important, what he corrected — led him to where he is now, four years later, staffing an administration and preparing for his Jan. 8 inauguration as the 72d governor of Massachusetts.

His political makeover and how he applied it to his 2014 campaign probably offers the clearest picture yet of how Charlie Baker — as he likes to be known now — will approach the job of governor and the skills he will bring to it.

Robert Lewis Jr. met with Charlie Baker in Roxbury when Baker was a candidate in July.
Robert Lewis Jr. met with Charlie Baker in Roxbury when Baker was a candidate in July. Jonathan Wiggs/Globe staff

How much the newly branded “Charlie” will be there for his four-year term will be critical to his success. There will be challenges to his patience (he is known not to suffer fools gladly, and will no doubt have to deal with a few). There will surely be strains on some of the relationships he built in the campaign, particularly if he sticks to his fiscally conservative leanings. Immigration, closing budget deficits, and welfare reform are but a few of the challenges to his newfound political skills.

Advertisement



Partisan Democrats are treading lightly in the traditional postelection honeymoon period. But they are ready to lay some initial markers.

“Some of Republican Charlie Baker’s early actions and appointments are a welcome change from the 2010 extremist, over-the-top Charlie and reflect the Charlie we saw in 2014,’’ said Matt Fenlon, executive director of the state Democratic Party. “However, it is important to note there have also been early indications to voters that they should be on the lookout to make sure this administration does not revert to the unpopular positions of 2010 Charlie.”

Baker’s self-analysis that began just months after the campaign four years ago was difficult, at times painful, as friends, associates, and political analysts bluntly told him how poorly he performed, how narrow and limited his vision was, and what a miserable, angry image he projected.

What he found bothered him deeply. His defeat and the harsh feedback were jarring for a man who for years was seen as the brilliant, bouncy boy wonder whom the moderate Republican establishment has been grooming to carry on the legacies and political coalitions of the Weld/Cellucci administrations.

“I can’t tell you how many people who I have known told me, ‘I didn’t recognize who that guy was,’ ” Baker said in a recent interview. “That’s just plain disturbing.”

The retooling for this year’s election took his candidacy directly to Democratic constituencies and heavily populated Democratic communities. The strategy was to win not a majority, but enough to undercut Democratic nominee Martha Coakley’s margins that could once again swamp him.

Advertisement



Baker significantly changed his rhetoric and his tone. He made subtle but important shifts in positions designed to soften opposition on issues where he seemed intransigent. He met with the leaders of the state’s largest unions, walked city streets with friendly Democratic mayors, and spent time in minority neighborhoods where he was almost never seen in 2010.

“He learned an awful lot from that loss,’’ said Steve Tocco, a fellow Cabinet member in the Weld administration and close political friend. “He took the time to do deep self-evaluations. It was a very thoughtful process. I know many of the people he talked to. He analyzed what happened and figured it out.”

The question is, now that he has to govern, how much will we see of the wonky-know-it-all manager, prone to finger-wagging lectures — and how much will he use the skills he gained over the last four years and draw on the experiences that were pillars to his successful campaign to the governor’s office.

Supporters, objective analysts, and even Democrats are convinced this year’s campaign took Baker into constituencies and areas that have broadened his horizons and his contacts.

“He hit all the right notes in the campaign and during the transition,’’ said Peter Ubertaccio, a political science professor at Stonehill College. “My sense is he will stay away from the hot-button issues. He is showing he is temperamentally well suited to listening to all sides and arriving at a decision. . . . We will see problem solving and less ideological rhetoric.”

Advertisement



Indeed, Baker is convinced he has emerged from the campaign with a much broader understanding of the state, its people, and the various constituencies that make up the political forces a governor needs to understand. He points to his choice of Cabinet officers: Jay Ash, the Chelsea city manager, a Democrat, and former senior legislative staff member who will serve as a economic development secretary; Mary Lou Sudders, a favorite of liberal Democrats, as human services secretary; state Representative Carlo Basile, an East Boston Democrat, as his chief secretary.

His chief political strategist, both in the campaign and going forward, is Will Keyser, a Democrat who served as director of communications for the late Edward M. Kennedy and chief of staff to former US representative Martin T. Meehan.

Baker also has a new relationship with Steve Tolman, a diehard Democrat, former state senator, and now president of the state AFL-CIO, which worked to elect Coakley. He met with Tolman once during the campaign and called him several times before the election. Their unlikely connection is this: Tolman has been deeply involved in drug addiction issues during his public career. Baker wants to make the issue a priority and is finding common ground with the labor leader.

That relationship, while tentative still, came from Baker’s decision in this past election to not snub organized labor. Fully aware that most labor organizations would not back him and would oppose some of his major initiatives as governor, he worked around the edges of the union coalitions.

Advertisement



He toured the AFL-CIO’s training facility. He spoke with Tolman and other labor leaders of potentially mutual concerns. One of those is so-called under-the-table construction work where laborers get no unemployment benefits or workers’ compensation coverage.

Tolman, who takes his Democratic roots seriously, is impressed with Baker’s push to tackle the addiction epidemic.

“Sometimes when you lose an election, you learn a lot,’’ Tolman said. “He really learned to truly connect with the people and he benefited tremendously. There is no doubt he and I will disagree, but you have to find common ground. He has demonstrated to me he can do that.”

As a candidate in 2010, Baker was not even aware of the community development corporations that have been working to revitalize and bring development to urban neighborhoods. This year, when he met Chrystal Kornegay, president and chief executive of Urban Edge, which works with residents in Jamaica Plain and Roxbury on housing and development issues, he asked if she would show him what her group does.

Kornegay said she was a “little surprised” at Baker’s interest. She gave him a tour, and he stopped back several times, unannounced, just to chat. Such visits sometimes made his campaign team gnash their teeth, as he ignored their pleas to attend to fund-raising calls and political meetings.

Kornegay, a Democrat who has no memory of ever voting for a Republican, was adamant in not saying who she voted for in the governor’s race. Still Baker appointed her to his transition team, and she had high praise for the attention he gave her organization.

“He appears wicked smart, thoughtful, committed to the Commonwealth,’’ she said. “I don’t know the Charlie from 2010, but it appears he got feedback about what he could do differently. . . . I like a person who listens and reflects.”

Gateway Cities — the state’s 26 older industrial cities, most of them heavily Democratic — were never on Baker’s radar in 2010. They were a big focus for him this year.

“This time around, I know, he was there and listening,’’ said Greg Torres, president of MassINC, a nonprofit think tank that seeks to influence policy. His group has initiated the concept of focusing on those cities as part of the state’s economic development initiatives.

“There are lot of high hopes but they are also watching carefully,’’ said Torres, a former Democratic legislative staffer on Beacon Hill.

Asked why he had never approached these sort of constituencies in the past, Baker had little to offer. “I just didn’t,” he said.

But what he learned later was how that strategy was so clearly self-defeating. His mentor and chief adviser in this campaign was former governor William F. Weld, whose political success was his ability to construct a loose coalition of conservative Republicans, moderate independents, and working-class Democrats.

“One piece of great advice I got was that I spent a lot of time talking to our customers and very little time talking to prospects,’’ Baker said.

That switch in his political outlook was not something the Democrats were counting on.

“If Republicans, please God, nominate Charlie Baker, we’re gonna win,’’ John Walsh, the former chairman of the state Democratic Party, told Globe columnist Joan Vennochi just before Baker announced in September 2013.

If he only knew.

Frank Phillips can be reached at phillips@globe.com.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Chrystal Kornegay.