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Democrats now cast wary eye on Baker

Hurdles arise as policies take hold

The governor’s announcement in February of a panel to overhaul the MBTA has led to disagreements with unions.
The governor’s announcement in February of a panel to overhaul the MBTA has led to disagreements with unions.john tlumacki/globe staff/File/Globe Staff

Union workers are frustrated by Charlie Baker’s bid to privatize services at the MBTA.

Environmentalists worry that he plans to gut the state’s clean air and water regulations.

Advocates for criminal sentencing reform say he appears to have cooled to their agenda, despite campaign promises.

Baker, a Republican who was elected governor by appealing to Democrats as well as his more natural constituencies, has, in the course of governing, demonstrated how difficult it is to please everyone on every issue.

Consider his fumble last week over the question of removing the Confederate flag from the South Carolina State House, after the massacre at an African-American church in Charleston. His initial answer: Leave it to the state to decide. But an immediate backlash forced him to back down and call for the flag’s removal. Friends, Baker said, had asked him, “What were you thinking?”

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“Charlie Baker is a conservative, it will continue to emerge, and there will be some people who will be surprised by it,’’ said Peter Ubertaccio, an associate political science professor at Stonehill College.

In his first few months in office, Baker was mostly managing broken agencies, trying to make the MBTA’s trains run on time, getting the highways plowed, and closing a budget deficit, applying the managerial skills that were his strong suit in his race for governor.

But analysts say Baker is now crafting policies and spending decisions that sometimes go against the liberal grain of Massachusetts politics.

To be sure, the governor enjoys sky-high popularity ratings from the public. And he has made several decisions — raising pay for home health care workers, funding urban programs, increasing budgets for environmental programs — that are likely to be popular among liberals and moderates.

For its part, the Baker administration points with pride to his progress on attacking the state budget deficit, while spending on public education and other critical areas without raising taxes.

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“Additionally, the administration, one of the most bipartisan in recent history, has won praise from leading Democrats for the governor’s crossing the aisle on issues such as battling the opioid epidemic, aiding low-income families, and offering state government opportunities to minorities,” said Tim Buckley, a Baker spokesman.

At this point, none of the criticisms of Baker has jelled into full-throated opposition from Democratic leaders. In fact, the first-year governor appears to have good relations with the Democrats who run the House and Senate.

Still, Baker’s unusually warm honeymoon is showing its first signs of fraying. It’s not a political crisis, but small cracks in the eclectic coalition that put him in the governor’s office are appearing.

It is particularly evident among some of the Democrats — liberals and moderates — who comfortably crossed party lines and chose Baker over Democrat Martha Coakley in last November’s election. Despite his conservative leanings, they found him to be sensible, approachable, and compassionate.

“Constituencies and interest groups can read into a candidate anything they want,’’ Ubertaccio said “With Baker, you could watch the campaign last fall and say, ‘He’s not a threat to my interests.’ But in the end he is a conservative.’’

The most high-profile example of such tension involves Baker’s push to privatize some services at the beleaguered MBTA, against the wishes not only of the T’s unionized workers (whose radio advertisements warn of “shark privatizers”), but also Democrats in the state Senate.

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But there are less heralded skirmishes as well.

Just last month, Baker’s education secretary, James Peyser, dismayed the higher education community when, as a member of the University of Massachusetts board of trustees, he tried to cut the business PhD program at the system’s Dartmouth campus. He couldn’t get one trustee to back him.

Those hoping for criminal justice reform, meanwhile, were bolstered by Baker’s campaign promise to back repeal of mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses and his talk of overhauling the state’s anemic prison reentry programs. Today they worry that he is cooling to their agenda.

“I think a lot of people in the criminal justice community who support reform are wondering where the administration stands right now,’’ said Gregory Torres, a former Dukakis administration official who is now president of MassInc., a nonpartisan think tank.

Torres, a Democratic leader in the criminal justice reform movement, supported Baker’s campaign over the last year.

Staffers describe Baker’s style as a go-slow approach. They say the governor is committed to changing policies in such areas as inmate reentry, bail reform, and prison educational programs. But they say Baker first wants to see sound evidence that can show which programs and policies work best.

“We’re very early in the process, making sure the steps we take are right,’’ said one top administration official who talked on background about Baker’s plans for criminal justice reform. “We are trying to make intelligent decisions.”

On the environment, advocates who were heartened during Baker’s 2014 campaign that he might seriously tackle global warming and promote alternative energy initiatives (issues in which he showed little interest in his unsuccessful 2010 race) were shaken when he moved in March to rewrite state regulations in a way that could gut many of the state’s tough standards.

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What bothered them most was Baker’s requirement that state regulations not exceed federal regulations, a goal shared by the state’s leading business lobby, Associated Industries of Massachusetts.

“This was just ridiculous,’’ said Seth D. Jaffe, a partner at the Boston law firm Foley Hoag who specializes in environmental compliance issues and wrote a critical article about the rules on his firm’s “Law and the Environment” blog. “But the sense I get [is] they are not serious, that this is nothing but a political statement.’’

In its defense, the Baker administration points to its series of budget increases for environmental programs to conserve land, protect water quality, reduce greenhouse gases, deal with coastal erosion, and confront the impact of global warming.

Jaffe, a frequent donor to Democrats who made a small contribution to Baker in 2010, said that so far, the administration’s environmental policies have been mixed.

“I don’t think, so far, the administration is a disaster for the environment,’’ he said.


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