Baker’s first months in office win high marks
Amid the blizzards, governor grasped the levers of power
Temperatures were close to 70 degrees Monday, just perfect for the Red Sox home opener. But for Charlie Baker, the winter blizzards were still demanding attention.
The Republican governor, coming up on his 100th day in office, spent much of the day in Washington, D.C., pleading with federal officials for financial relief for the weather disaster that nearly crippled the state in his first weeks in office.
It has been the most unusual first few months for any Massachusetts governor in recent memory. The winter storms hijacked Baker's agenda, leading him to muse early on that perhaps he had actually run for state highway commissioner.
"I learned a lot about snow removal I didn't know,'' Baker quipped in an interview Wednesday. "I learned about how much fluffy snow weighs on a per cubic basis and how much wet snow weighs on a per cubic basis. I learned a lot about how to shovel a garage roof off, whether it is a pitched roof or a flat one."
Still, the consensus by most close and experienced observers, even many Democrats, is that, despite the force of nature that dominated much of his time, Baker has gained his footing at a point when past governors were often foundering. In short order, he has established a Cabinet, trimmed the state budget, and tackled the region's broken transit system.
His early tenure has not been without friction — some initial budget proposals faced skepticism from legislators, for instance, and President Obama rejected his plea for a large-scale winter disaster declaration. But Baker, who served in Cabinet posts for previous Republican governors, came to the office with a deeper knowledge of the politics and policies that go with governing than any other recent governor.
As a result, he used the skills gained as budget chief for the Weld and Cellucci administrations to swiftly make unilateral cuts and propose other spending reductions to close a huge budget gap, adeptly avoiding some of the outrage that such actions often provoke.
With the record snowstorms highlighting the long-neglected problems facing the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, he took ownership of the agency, creating a panel that has already come back with proposals to fix it.
He established a cooperative relationship with legislative leaders, and he casually e-mails and texts with Democratic Treasurer Deborah Goldberg over bonding and fiscal issues and Attorney General Maura Healey over initiatives to address the state's opioid epidemic. Baker's appointments to top positions — including a large stable of Democrats — have won him praise for bringing a mix of ideological opinions to the table.
There is generally a good feeling about Baker among Democratic lawmakers and activists for making himself and his administration accessible. And he used the weather crises to cement relationships with local officials, working with them to dig out and deal with the damage.
Among the public, Baker also seems to have escaped the battering that elected officials can take from the sort of storms that clobbered Massachusetts this year. A poll this week by WBUR and MassINC gave Baker a 64 percent favorable rating — and just 13 percent unfavorable — from voters in Greater Boston, a heavily Democratic constituency.
Ironically, the weather that bogged down his initial agenda rollouts also helped dampen the protests when human services activists — upset over reductions in programs for health care to the poor and the homeless, and job-training programs — could not get to organizing meetings or even to the State House to voice objections.
"He has had a pretty successful 100 days, particularly given the circumstances of the weather and the potential those events can have on harming the perception of a governor,'' said Peter N. Ubertaccio, an associate professor of political science at Stonehill College.
That assessment crosses party lines.
John Sasso, a veteran Democratic strategist who was chief of staff for Michael Dukakis's second term as governor, said that despite getting hit with record cold and snow, Baker has gotten off to a "solid start."
"He has established himself as the state chief executive right from the beginning,'' Sasso said, citing his work with Democratic lawmakers on potentially contentious fiscal issues and his taking on the daunting task of fixing a broken-down transit system.
Those twin headaches — the budget and the T — existed before Baker took office. But the governor refuses to publicly blame his precessor, Deval Patrick.
"My view at this point: I am the governor, these issues belong to me, and frankly, people elected me to fix stuff like that,'' Baker said.
Jay R. Kaufman, the liberal state representative from Lexington and House chairman of the Joint Committee on Revenue, said he is intrigued with Baker's ability to deal with both complex policy and complicated politics at the same time.
"Conversations with him are an interesting mix of policy wonk and political force,'' Kaufman said. "He does both of those well — engage in intellectual conversations about a policy and then also be able to think about the political implications."
Still, the state Democratic Party has harsh words to describe Baker's first months. Party spokesman Pat Beaudry argues that Baker failed to meet his early benchmarks and campaign promises.
Beaudry contended Baker's budget cuts took money from education, jobs, and urban economic development, areas that the governor promised to support in the campaign.
"Actions speak louder than words, and while voters have heard a lot of rhetoric from Republican Governor Baker, the reality is he has already broken promises in just his first 100 days in office," said Beaudry.
Some human-services activists are far less critical. Lewis Finfer, director of the Massachusetts Communities Action Network, a statewide, faith-based group advocating social justice and economic equality, credits Baker for trying to govern "from the middle" of the political spectrum.
He also praised the governor's appointments of liberal Democrats in positions around him.
But Finfer said the verdict is still out. His biggest concern: whether Baker's budget proposal to squeeze hundred of millions of dollars out of Medicaid, the health care program for the poor, comes from reform or through cuts to recipients' benefits.
Finfer said Baker's $14.3 million cut to job-training programs was a major blow. But he said the governor clearly softened some cuts by diverting some capital-gains tax revenue from the state's rainy day fund to help close the budget deficit.
There have been stumbles and some friction. Baker's appointment of Paul Barrett, whose personal finances were in chaos, to head the panel to rebuild the MBTA was embarrassing to a governor who touts his own managerial skills.
His failure to quickly open communications with Beverly Scott, the embattled MBTA general manager, as the system ground to a halt was clumsy.
His plan to eliminate what he called "onerous" state regulations raised alarms among environmentalists, consumer advocates, and labor leaders.
His decision to sign on to a friend-of-the-court brief before the Supreme Court in support of gay marriage angered conservative activists in his own party.
Baker's early-retirement plan for state workers concerned some senators who feared it could gut important agencies, but a similar plan now seems likely to pass.
His plan to kill the state film tax credit — touted before his budget was unveiled — seems like a nonstarter in the Legislature, even though lawmakers like the other half of Baker's equation: increasing the earned income tax credit to help poor people.
His trip to Washington in a bid for a huge infusion of federal disaster funds this week fizzled when Obama administration officials offered a small fraction of what he was looking for.
Overall, though, Baker said he feels "very good" about his administration's performance. And with weather breaking, he plans to roll out some new initiatives, including plans for the MBTA's recovery, K-12 education, and economic development in the state's urban centers.
As to adjusting to his very public role, Baker said that even though he watched and worked closely with past governors, he is still surprised about how constricted a governor's movements and life are.
"If I go visit somewhere, it's a big deal,'' Baker said, noting his constant State Police security and ever-present aides. "I don't just casually go out anymore."