Some Republicans are alarmed and some Democrats are astonished, all at Governor Charlie Baker for the choices he has made in filling his Cabinet and key staff positions.
Baker, who courted the GOP’s conservative wing last year to win the party’s gubernatorial nomination, has surrounded himself with Democrats and activists, many of them with solid liberal credentials and advocacy backgrounds.
The governor insists no one should be surprised, including those fiscal hawks and the antitax, antigovernment base of the state Republican Party.
“I ran saying one of my major platforms was that I wanted to bring in a really strong team and get things done and do it in a bipartisan basis,’’ he said in an interview this week.
Still, it is bound to be noisy around the governor’s office, considering the ideological mix that Baker has created for his administration. It has the potential to create the sort of raucous back-and-forth he has always enjoyed during his times on Beacon Hill. But for some Republicans, the view from afar is unsettling.
“We are bracing ourselves,’’ said Mark Fisher, the GOP’s Tea Party gubernatorial candidate who was crushed in his primary challenge against Baker.
Take, for instance, Baker’s new chief of staff, Steve Kadish, his doorkeeper, enforcer, and a top adviser. While he has worked in both Democratic and Republican administrations in the past, he is a Democrat who voted in the September gubernatorial primary — for Don Berwick, the favorite of the party’s progressive wing.
Jay Ash, Baker’s choice for secretary of housing and economic development, built his career as a top legislative staff member for Democrats. With that experience and his deep urban roots and long ties with the Beacon Hill Democratic establishment, Ash, a self-described moderate, has had a long and warm professional relationship with Baker.
Mary Lou Sudders, an independent who is the governor’s new health and human services secretary, has worked in Republican administrations with Baker in the past. She has been deeply imbedded for years in the Massachusetts human services advocacy community, particularly through her long work in mental health services.
There are other Democrats and liberal advocates in key posts: Chrystal Kornegay, the CEO of a Roxbury-based nonprofit, is now commissioner of housing and community development; Ronald L. Walker II is Baker’s secretary of labor; Carlo Basile, a state representative from East Boston, resigned his seat to be Baker’s chief secretary. Linda Spears, a 30-year-plus veteran child welfare advocate who believes the state needs to spend more than it does to protect children, is the new commissioner of the Department of Children and Families.
And then at Baker’s elbow, whispering advice into his ear, is political strategist Will Keyser, a Democrat whose credentials include working for several of the state’s most liberal members of Congress, including a stint as Ted Kennedy’s director of communications and as chief of staff to former US representative Martin T. Meehan.
But what broke the camel’s back for some GOP insiders was his choice of Stephanie Pollack as his transportation secretary. She stands for everything conservative GOP factions revile. Much of her career was involved in environmental activism. She speaks like a Michael Dukakis disciple when it comes to public transit issues. She is being described by Republican operatives on the party’s right flank as the “moonbat liberal” appointment.
“I am astonished and pleased because these are competent professionals, many of whom I have worked with for years,’’ said Philip Johnston, a former Dukakis administration humans services secretary, ex-state Democratic Party chairman, and a strong liberal partisan. “Any Democrat would have them in an administration. These are pros in my field.”
It doesn’t mean that Baker has not tilted to other end of the political spectrum as well. He has some tight-fisted fiscal conservatives by his side, too — most notably, Kristen Lepore, his secretary of administration and finance who will have strong say on the administration spending plans. James Peyser, a charter school champion, is the new education secretary. Matt Beaton, a 36-year-old conservative Republican lawmaker, was chosen to be secretary of energy and environmental affairs, warming the hearts of many of the state’s small business people and entrepreneurs who bristle at Massachusetts environmental regulations.
But, with decades of Democratic domination of state government, Baker was facing a thin Republican bench from which to choose experienced staff and Cabinet members who would have the skills to maneuver in the politically charged State House, particularly when it comes to implementing reforms and efficiencies — something the bureaucracy and political establishment are often reluctant to embrace.
The ideological balance, however is raising alarms among some of the conservative ranks of the GOP. It is not a revolt, at least yet. But there are rumblings among the grass-roots party activists.
“Baker AGAIN forsakes his party” was the headline on the conservative RedMass group website on Jan. 16, the day after Baker appointed a Democrat to fill the seat vacated by Bristol District Attorney Sam Sutter.
“Shame, Charlie, Shame,’’ said the anonymous blog that was posted by Rob Eno, publisher of the website that promotes the GOP.
Baker, with only a month in office, is still finding his grounding. But he is sure about one thing: He said he wants the ideological mix and debate within his administration and his inner circle because, as he says, it allows for “creative problem solving’’ and leads to far better policy making. (In fact, Baker has shown notably little interest in his new team’s past partisan leanings; he had no idea, for instance that his chief of staff had voted for Berwick.) He said he has made clear to his Cabinet that the administration will lean heavily on reforms and efficiencies and not seek new revenue sources.
“I am sure we will have our moments,’’ Baker said, when asked if such a diverse group within his top circle could create serious disagreements and some potential for chaos. “But I’m also sure that will give us a much better product than if we just talked to one side.”
Ash, who resigned his position as Chelsea city manager to take his new job, said he already has seen Baker show flexibility when it comes to making decisions. He said the tensions Baker had created are healthy as the administration faces complex challenges, from budget deficits to bringing major reforms and revenue savings to state government.
“He has strong convictions and has well-informed opinions,’’ Ash said. “But he listens to what people have to say and often incorporates it into his own thinking.”
That has not calmed the strongly conservative, antigovernment hawks in the GOP.
Baker has some political cache with that wing of the party. He backed their anti-gas-tax ballot petition last year and has courted the grass roots for years. But in private conversations — they want to give him the traditional three-month honeymoon — their alarm is clearly evident as they watch some key administration posts go to what they call “tax and spend liberals.”