For Charlie Baker, the hardest part may be ahead
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Governor Charlie Baker, sworn into office a year ago Friday, has carved out a reputation as a fixer willing to wrestle with some of the state's most confounding problems.
He has established a board to oversee the wobbly MBTA, filed legislation aimed at slowing the state's brutal opioid epidemic, and pledged to bring more charter schools to struggling cities and towns.
But as he enters the second year of his governorship, the biggest question hanging over his administration may be this: At what point does Baker have to turn some of these starts into finishes?
"If you establish yourself as Mr. Fix-It, then you can only tinker around for so long," said Peter Ubertaccio, a political scientist at Stonehill College. "Sooner or later, you have to fix it."
The trouble, for the governor, is that there is plenty standing in the way of The Fix. Budget forecasters are warning of a shortfall as large as $1 billion this year, and Baker has sworn off tax hikes. Powerful forces, moreover, are arrayed against some of his top priorities.
A coalition of teachers unions and liberal activists, for instance, is pledging an all-out campaign against his charter school push.
"We're committed," said Barbara Madeloni, president of the well-funded Massachusetts Teachers Association. "This is an opportunity for us to say, 'no more.' We're going to put everything we've got into it."
Baker, of course, has broad authority to fix government agencies on his own. But some of the problems he has embraced, such as those at the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, are so complex that it is difficult to imagine a tangible remedy anytime soon.
"We shouldn't be naive about the challenges that the MBTA faces," said Steve Poftak, a member of the T's new fiscal control board. "It's going to take a number of years to address them.
"The governor has a tremendous amount of good will," he added later, "but the public is impatient, and I get that. Waiting in the cold for a train or a bus will make one impatient."
Still, the Republican governor's willingness to confront big problems comes with some advantages. "It's part of his popularity," said Todd Domke, a GOP strategist. "We're used to politicians wanting to distance themselves from any potential disaster."
His wonkish approach to problems — focusing on capital budgets at the T and intake policies at the Department of Children and Families — has some political upside, too. He is tinkering with a machinery that voters are convinced needs fixing, even if they don't fully understand it.
And if the changes he has pushed through are inscrutable to the average citizen, they've received some crucial outside validation. Several child welfare advocates, for instance, have labeled his push to update DCF's policies an important step toward reforming an agency battered by the headline-grabbing deaths of children under its watch.
"Overall, I think that the governor gets an 'A' when it comes to taking responsibility and requiring some change that was much needed in the Department of Children and Families," said Erin G. Bradley, executive director of the Children's League of Massachusetts, in an interview this week.
Still, advocates say there are deep problems that will be difficult for the Baker administration to fix in the coming months: low morale among social workers, a severe shortage of treatment beds for drug-addicted parents, and a foster system that leaves some of the state's most vulnerable children shuffling between houses from night to night.
If those problems persist, and more high-profile cases of abuse land in the news, the public's admiration for Baker's handling of the issues could begin to wane.
And his popularity could take a big tumble if the T fails this winter, one year after a series of snowstorms crippled the transit authority and a newly sworn-in governor pledged to improve the system.
As the weather warms up, Baker's handling of the planned Green Line extension into Somerville and Medford, which transportation officials warn could run as much as $1 billion over budget, will also face scrutiny.
If Baker winds up canceling the project "it would be a huge failure," said Rafael Mares, a vice president at the Conservation Law Foundation and close observer of the T.
Mares said he expects Baker to pare back the project, instead. But the governor, he warned, cannot rip out too much. If he winds up cutting stations in communities that have been waiting for them for years, the backlash could be intense.
Baker has broadly hinted that the issues he focused on during his first year in office — the MBTA, the DCF, the opioid crisis — will remain at the center of his agenda in his second year. But he may not be able to maintain control of the storylines.
Senate President Stanley C. Rosenberg suggested in a recent interview that the management crises of Baker's first year, which played to the governor's strengths, will soon yield to policy debates and sharper differences of opinion with the Democrats who control the Legislature.
One potential area of friction: criminal justice reform. Liberal lawmakers are pressing for the elimination of mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses and an overhaul of a cash bail system that disadvantages the poor. Baker has hesitated to embrace the push.
Doug Rubin, a Democratic strategist who worked for Baker's opponent in the gubernatorial race, Martha Coakley, added that the governor will have to address the economic anxieties of low-income and middle-class voters at some point.
Baker, he said, had a very good first year. But, he added, "I think how any elected official . . . deals with [economic concerns] in the coming year is going to end up being one of the big, driving factors of how successful a year they have."
The pressure to act will stem, in part, from the prominence of the debate about income inequality in the presidential race, Rubin argued.
That contest could pose other challenges for Baker in the coming months, too. The governor, who has staked out ground as a moderate, has already faced some uncomfortable questions about GOP front-runner Donald Trump's most controversial proclamations.
If Trump wins the Massachusetts Republican primary, the questions could get even more uncomfortable. And if the tightly fought national contest goes all the way to the Republican convention, where party leaders play an outsize role in picking the nominee, they could get downright painful, said Domke, the Republican strategist.
"People will say, 'Baker, you should be one of those speaking out to try to stop Trump or stop [Ted] Cruz,' " he said.
At that point, the challenges at the T might seem a refuge.