WASHINGTON — The governor walked out of the steakhouse fund-raiser with his cellphone to his ear.
“They’ve got me on hold,” Charlie Baker said, by way of explanation for not stopping to make conversation, before climbing into the waiting SUV.
It was a rare instance during Baker’s weekend trip to the capital when he was back-burnered. As local polls find him riding a sustained wave of popularity and a national poll in November found him the nation’s most popular chief executive, Baker spent much of the National Governors Association conference this weekend receiving accolades from politicians and lobbyists.
“I’m also the butt of a lot of jokes,” Baker said late Friday night in the lobby of the JW Marriott Hotel, a short walk from the White House.
“I’m the most popular governor as a Republican in a blue state,” Baker said, prompting “all good-natured jokes” along the lines of: “You’re obviously one very lucky guy, and we’ll look forward to watching that fade as people get to know you.”
Aside from the breakfast fund-raiser at Charlie Palmer Steak, a few blocks from the US Capitol, and a spate of meetings with the Republican Governors Association, Baker also had some heavier policy lifting to do.
He met Saturday with Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell and, he said, broached the state’s opioid epidemic.
Baker said the drug crisis was also a common topic of conversation among the governors. After his meeting with Burwell, Baker, who chairs the health and human services committee of the governors association, headlined a panel on the national problem.
“This is on everybody’s radar and everybody is involved in it and you don’t have to, like, explain why you’re focused on it when you talk to anyone,” he said Friday. “But it’s definitely a bigger deal in terms of the level of public awareness that people are trying to create from one governor to the next.”
On Wednesday, Baker is expected to appear with Stephen Ubl, president of PhRMA, the pharmaceutical research and manufacturers lobby, and the head of the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association to unveil an effort encouraging the safe disposal of unused pain medication.
Baker has also filed broad legislation intended to curtail opiate abuse. The Massachusetts House and Senate have approved separate versions, and negotiators are expected to send Baker a compromise bill in the next few months.
Baker said Saturday he drew an encouraging response from Burwell after proposing a federal waiver that would allow the state to provide increased post-detox care and support for Medicaid recipients dealing with substance abuse. That process, he said Saturday in a phone interview, would probably take “months more than years, but certainly months.”
Baker also discussed with Burwell the state’s high-stakes federal Medicaid waiver, long the subject of bargaining and cajoling between Beacon Hill and Washington. Funding for the current deal, negotiated by the Patrick administration, expires at the end of fiscal 2017, potentially leaving the state with a $1 billion annual gap.
The federal push, Baker said, is for the state to “move toward a more accountable care organization approach.” He said he hopes to finish the waiver negotiations by the end of summer.
The pair also discussed the spreading Zika virus. He praised the Obama administration for being on top of the problem.
Baker left Massachusetts on Thursday night, amid yet another public transit nightmare, with the MBTA blaming Amtrak signal problems for commuter rail woes. That timing prompted criticism from Democrats.
“It’s insulting to the working people who rely on public transportation that in the midst of a crisis, Governor Baker escapes to raise money in Washington,” state Democratic Party spokesman Pat Beaudry said in an e-mail. “While our status quo governor is off hobnobbing at exclusive fund-raisers, excessive delays are the norm and he wants to raise fares on people who need public transportation to get to work.”
But more than one attendee at Baker’s Friday fund-raiser noted that his carefully burnished image as a problem-solver stood in sharp relief to the current impasse consuming Washington, over the new vacancy on the Supreme Court.
“Despite some of the discourse at the presidential level, voters do value leaders who govern, and Charlie’s standing with Massachusetts voters is a validation of that,” said David Tamasi, a lobbyist and longtime Baker supporter who helped organize the fund-raiser.
Alaska Governor Bill Walker, elected as an independent, said he had been “intrigued” by Baker and said he approved of Baker’s performance last year during the historic snowfall.
As a veteran of former governor Bill Weld’s administration, Baker is no stranger to gubernatorial summits. He recalled attending one conference with Weld in the 1990s and being swarmed by reporters who peppered him with questions.
Only after a few moments, he said, did he realize that the reporters had mistaken him for the governor of Maine.
No such identity problems this year, just enviable poll numbers and a lot of jokes.