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One year in, governor stresses outreach to foes

“Most of the time, I think my orientation is to problem-solve,” Governor Charlie Baker said.Gretchen Ertl for The Boston Globe/File 2015

Last year’s gubernatorial race was still in full swing when Charlie Baker reached out to House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo.

Two days after he was elected, he paid a visit to the Democratic mayor of Springfield, who had supported his opponent in the election. There was a sit-down with Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh, too.

Baker, a Republican descending on a deep-blue Beacon Hill, knew he would need help if he were to succeed during his first year in office.

“The biggest mistake, I think, a new administration makes is they don’t talk to a lot of people who are important to whatever it is they’re trying to accomplish,” he said, in a wide-ranging, year-end interview with the Globe in his office Monday. “We spent a lot of time, early on, talking to people. And we still do.”

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Those conversations, and Baker’s managerial chops in the face of crises at the MBTA and the state’s Department of Children and Families, have served the governor well thus far.

A survey taken between May and November across all 50 states by Morning Consult, a technology and media company, found that Baker had a job approval rating of 74 percent, the highest of any governor in the country.

And Democratic officials, cowed by the approval numbers and charmed by his outreach, have offered only muted criticism of the governor.

But there have been stumbles. Baker had to apologize after saying, in the wake of the Charleston, S.C., shooting at an historic black church, that “South Carolinians can make their own call” about whether to fly a Confederate flag at the state Capitol.

He also took flak for voicing hesitation about accepting Syrian refugees in the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks that left 130 people dead. Baker said, at the time, that he wanted to be sure a proper vetting process was in place.

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The governor defended his comments on the Syrian refugee crisis Monday. But he seemed to acknowledge that his sometimes cautious response to emotionally charged issues does not always fit the tone expected of the state’s top elected official.

“Most of the time, I think my orientation is to problem-solve,” he said. “And whether you talk about solving the problem and why you care about it, [or] you talk about why you care about it and [how] you solve the problem — people expect to hear about both.”

Baker was more forceful, recently, in his reaction to Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s proposal to bar Muslims from entering the country. After a Hanukkah event at the State House, he told reporters it was “ridiculous” and “directly in contrast and in conflict with most of the most important values that people in this country hold most dear.”

In his interview with the Globe Monday, though, he would not rule out supporting Trump if he wins the Republican nomination for president.

“It seems to me like we haven’t had a caucus or a primary, yet, and [we have] a long way to go,” he said. “And I like what some of the candidates have to say, and I don’t like what some of the candidates have to say, and we’ll see where it goes.”

Baker said he started to sense the public’s strong support for his administration after his handling of last winter’s storms and the icy paralysis of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority.

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“I would run into people, when I would just be out talking, who would say, ‘I’m a Democrat, I didn’t vote for you, but I think you’re doing a really good job,’ ” he said.

Baker said they would usually cite his handling of the T, his push to tackle the opioid addiction crisis — “I’m telling you, it’s everywhere,” he said of the scourge Monday — and his relatively harmonious relationship with the state Legislature and Walsh.

“I think people are kind of tired of the really amped-up rhetoric that passes for a lot of political dialogue, and they appreciate the fact that that’s not the way we are participating in this process,” he said.

Baker has taken pride in balancing the budget without raising taxes. And he has managed to avoid the sort of sweeping cuts that can alarm advocates for the poor. But he has faced criticism for some budget-trimming efforts, including a failed push to narrow eligibility for services for homeless families.

The governor defended that push Monday, saying it was part of a larger package that included a plan to divert people out of the far-flung hotels and motels that serve as shelter for so many homeless people.

More broadly, he defended his efforts to help low-income people in an era of growing inequality, touting his push to open more charter schools in poor neighborhoods and improve the state’s job training programs.

Those efforts, he said, would help narrow the “opportunity gap,” borrowing a phrase Republican presidential candidates Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush have used as they fashion a GOP response to inequality.

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The governor did not lay out a big agenda for the coming year, pledging instead to keep pressing for passage of legislation designed to curb opioid abuse. “I’m going to chew on it like a dog with a bone until it actually happens,” he said.

Whatever the coming years bring, Baker said, he will keep talking with people — elected officials, advocates, voters, anyone who can tell him what’s happening on the ground. The governor, enjoying a prolonged honeymoon, said he worries about being told only what he wants to hear by those around him.

“I live in mortal terror of that — me thinking the world is round and everybody who’s looking from the outside-in thinking it’s square,” he said. “Because that’s when you really screw things up.”


David Scharfenberg can be reached at david.scharfenberg@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @dscharfGlobe.

Correction: Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this story included an incorrect middle inital for Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh.