Long before Charles A. Baker III became a highly sought-after Democratic strategist, he was a student who showed up to help Michael Dukakis win back the governor’s post in 1982.
“One of those kids who has it instinctively and does great stuff,” Dukakis said in an interview. “He had it, he has it. He’s certainly the kind of person you want working for you.”
Hillary Rodham Clinton, the Democratic candidate for president, agrees. Baker has joined the Clinton campaign in Brooklyn, N.Y., as chief administrative officer, a position in which he is using his skills as a lawyer to vet contracts and his political experience to manage relationships with allies and organizations, including the Democratic National Committee.
And while he shares a name with the Republican governor of Massachusetts, Baker the strategist is typically the “Charlie Baker” who comes to mind when the name is mentioned in Democratic circles, said Democratic consultant Michael Goldman.
“He’s known for being very smart, the kind of guy you always want to have in a political fight,” Goldman said.
Baker’s ascension from his hometown of Auburn to the campaign headquarters of the leading Democratic candidate for president is a story of national politics, but it is rooted in Massachusetts.
Dukakis recalls meeting Baker, 57, when Baker was an undergraduate at Harvard University. Their relationship would continue through Dukakis’s campaign for governor in 1982, when Baker was in charge of Worcester County and then everything west of Interstate 495, through Dukakis’s second and third terms, when Baker served as deputy chief secretary to the governor, deputy secretary of communities and development, and assistant secretary of administration and finance. Along the way, Baker went to law school at Boston University.
Baker developed an interest in presidential politics early, and at 14, was the Third Congressional District youth coordinator for George McGovern’s campaign in 1972. His first paid role with a presidential campaign was with Walter Mondale’s campaign in 1984.
Baker ran Dukakis’s 1988 presidential campaign in New Hampshire, which Dukakis won after coming in third in the Iowa caucuses. Jack Corrigan, a Democratic strategist who has known Baker since 1981, said Baker’s planning in the Granite State, from knowing where to deploy four-wheel-drive vehicles to get voters to the polls in the snow to a weeklong media strategy, was crucial to the campaign.
“We were so preoccupied with surviving Iowa, almost an election in itself, and Charlie picked up the ball and ran everything until we got out of New Hampshire, which was the key to winning the nomination,” Corrigan said.
Baker went on to become Dukakis’s national field director.
The strategist is described by colleagues as someone who is smart about politics and policy, a level-headed, skilled manager who is something of a workaholic. In 1993, he cofounded Dewey Square Group, a grass-roots advocacy and communications consulting firm that now has 85 employees, and he has also been a partner at top Boston law firms Hill & Barlow and DLA Piper. In his work as a lawyer, he specializes in real estate, public law, and corporate matters, as well as copyright issues. He has represented Suffolk Downs over the past 25 years and was involved with the development of the Northpoint neighborhood in Lechmere Square in Cambridge.
His experience starts at the grass roots, and people who know him said he places a high value on local knowledge. He has also helped with debates, worked with the media, and given counsel on the spending decisions of national campaigns. He’s done delegate selection and has worked nominating conventions.
Tracy Spicer, who worked for Senator Edward Kennedy for 10 years, said she would call Baker whenever there was a state convention, leaning on him for his insight on convention rules, delegates, and candidates.
“Charlie’s always been an activist at heart,” Spicer said, adding that Baker kept in touch with the grass roots even as his stature grew nationally.
Since his days with Dukakis, Baker has worked on several presidential campaigns, including Bill Clinton’s in 1992; Vice President Al Gore’s in 2000, where he advised the campaign through the Florida recount; and Senator John Kerry’s in 2004, where he was a senior adviser on national field strategy. He also worked on the reelection of Senator Edward Kennedy against Mitt Romney in 1994.
Mark D. Gearan, who is president of Hobart and William Smith Colleges and worked in the Clinton White House, met Baker through Dukakis’s presidential campaign. Baker has an ability to digest the substance of many issues, from health care to world affairs, while understanding their political implications, he said.
“I think he’s masterful at being able to blend policy — the nexus of policy and politics and communications,” Gearan said.
His demeanor will also help the campaign, Gearan said. “Campaigns are crazy. High voltage, high octane, high stress. Not everyone reacts at the same volume or with the same capacity to bring calm into choppy waters,” he said. “I’ve seen him under extraordinary stress points but always in an even keel.”
The Clinton campaign declined to make Baker available for an interview.
His experience at all levels, his intellect, and his steady hand make him a natural choice for Clinton, said Chuck Campion, who founded Dewey Square with Baker and Michael Whouley.