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How Charlie Baker charmed Beacon Hill

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Governor Charlie Baker (left) has built good relationships with Senate Majority Leader Stanley Rosenberg (center) and House Speaker Robert DeLeo.Elise Amendola

Shortly after he settled into his first state job as deputy secretary of human services, a young Charlie Baker was summoned to the office of the House taxation committee chairman, a panel that had nothing to do with his office.

"This name tag may say 'Taxation Chairman,' but I am the biggest voice around here for the mentally ill,'' Representative Angelo Scaccia told Baker in 1991, as both men recall. And he gave Baker some pointed advice on how to survive on Beacon Hill: "If I'm going to punch you in the face, I will call you and tell you I am going to punch you in the face. I expect the same from you."

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That terse lesson, delivered by a hard-nosed urban Democrat who still holds his Readville-based House seat, caught Baker by surprise. Twenty-five years later, it's clearly a lesson the new Republican governor has internalized.

Now at the end of his first two-year legislative session, Baker has — without grandstanding for the media or waging partisan battles — successfully courted the overwhelmingly Democratic Legislature, declaring victory on many of the major issues he's tackled in the past 19 months with rarely a word of opposition from longtime lawmakers.

With no bold agenda but with a potent combination of high-level government experience, a strong grasp of complicated public policies, and just plain charm, Baker has emerged, according to close observers of the State House's inner workings, as the dominant figure on Beacon Hill.

"He's worked the Legislature as well as anyone I've ever seen,'' said Democratic Representative Ron Mariano, the House majority leader and 25-year veteran of the Legislature. "He values opinions, he's called me a couple of times, wanting to get a sense where I am and where the membership is going."

Baker persuaded the Legislature to give him broad new power to fix the ailing MBTA; to limit doctors' ability to prescribe opioid pain killers; to reduce the state workforce; to expand tax breaks for low-income residents; and to modernize state-issued identification cards in line with federal law.

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As the final hours of their session wound down a week ago, lawmakers delivered to Baker major bills on topics he had identified as priorities: energy, economic development, and regulating the ride-sharing industry. Baker signed the ride-sharing bill last week, and is set to sign the energy bill Monday.

And despite state budget challenges, Baker has kept his antitax pledge.

One of the Democrats' signature priorities — a transgender civil rights bill that had languished for nearly a decade — wasn't on Baker's own to-do list, but he ultimately signed the bill into law, giving liberal activists a key victory last month.

It has been a political lovefest, to the benefit of all. Baker's favorability rating hovers at 70 percent, and Massachusetts voters view the Legislature more favorably than unfavorably, according to the governor's internal polls.

How long the good feelings will last is not clear, particularly as the state faces a fiscal crunch, and some liberal leaders are calling for increased taxes. His attempt to chop more than $200 million from the state budget was overriden by lawmakers, though Baker may use his executive authority to restore many of those cuts.

Baker’s early years on Beacon Hill as part of Bill Weld’s administration taught him valuable lessons.WIGGS, JONATHAN GLOBE STAFF PHOT

Baker's tenure has not been without stumbles. His opposition to a plan extending the state hotel tax to short-term rentals like Airbnb — after initially indicating support — did not sit well with lawmakers. His ill-fated attempt to let condo developers use a sliver of the historic State House lawn was greeted with head-scratching among his usual Democratic supporters, after he lost a public tiff with Secretary of State William Galvin, among the longest-serving Democrats on Beacon Hill.

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But so far, partisan criticism is light. The theme Democrats use most is that Baker is focused only on fixing what is broken, not developing a more visionary agenda.

"Clearly the governor has done a masterful job of coalition-building across party lines and, from a political power base perspective, has created an opportunity to get a lot done,'' said Senator Dan Wolf, a Harwich Democrat. "The question is, will he?"

Some diehard critics lament Baker's ability to use his relationship with Democratic leaders to work out nettlesome issues without much public debate. Policy issues, says former Democratic Party chairman John Walsh, need a full-throated public airing.

"Right now, cooperation and collaboration is at the top of the agenda at the State House, but working, debating, and fighting over important policy issues is good,'' Walsh added.

It was evident in the first months of his term that Baker's style would not be overly partisan. He had his chances early on when some of his staff thought he should use his bully pulpit to score political points and create pressure on lawmakers.

Sitting in his office recently, Baker recounted the frustration he was facing in the winter of 2015 as Democrats and unions resisted the major overhaul he wanted for the struggling Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority.

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"People wanted me to put my foot down,'' he said, referring to his aides as his legislation remained stalled in the Legislature. "My view was, as long as we keep talking, we get there."

In the end, lawmakers gave Baker power to create a new fiscal control board for the MBTA and to suspend a law standing in the way of privatization efforts.

Baker noted that the early skirmish taught him that legislators deal with a different political reality than he does.

"To me, that one was all about working toward a solution and . . . I appreciate the fact that we can see it one way, but in the end the House and the Senate both needed to vote on it. Which is just harder,'' he said.

On at least one key policy proposal, Baker declared victory even though he got less from the Legislature than he asked for. Some of his tougher ideas to deal with the opioid crisis — including a provision that would have allowed hospitals to hold addicts for treatment against their will — were left out of the final legislation. Instead of waging a battle with lawmakers, he took what they gave him, noting that there were perhaps other ways to address the epidemic.

"In the grand scheme, there's a lot of tools in the tool box,'' Baker said.

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After his first stint on Beacon Hill, Baker served as a Swampscott selectman.ROBERT SPENCER

Even when Democrats thwarted his effort to eliminate a film industry tax credit — a measure he considers badly misguided — Baker accepted the cards he was dealt. There was no denunciation from the corner office, no effort to politicize the issue or polish his fiscal credentials.

That strategy helps explain why Baker has enjoyed the longest honeymoon in memory for a new governor.

The power dynamics at the State House have also helped. Baker has built a good relationship with a friendly House speaker, Robert DeLeo, and a rookie Senate president, Stan Rosenberg. Like Baker, neither of them wants a public brawl.

Rosenberg shares the governor's interest in policy but is far more liberal than Baker. DeLeo often forms an alliance with Baker that helps the governor's agenda.

The normal opposition to a Republican governor — labor, humans services advocates, progressives looking for more revenue — is muzzled. Many State House players seem to want to be his friend. Those who don't nonetheless appear cowed by his record standing in the polls.

Baker is also helped by the fact that some combustible political issues are no longer in play. Health care, gay marriage, legalized gambling, and tax hikes have been settled or are off the table.

In addition, he has charmed the insiders. He has captivated many of the social service community activists and leaders with appearances at gatherings where he demonstrates a strong knowledge and understanding of their mission. And he has muted Democrats who can't easily put him in an ideological box.

Perhaps important, in contrast to some of his predecessors, Baker does not come across as imperious. According to veteran observers, he listens and wants to understand everyone's views — and is willing to adjust his own.

"He has been respectful,'' said Lou DiNatale, a veteran Democratic pollster and close adviser to Rosenberg. He said Baker knew from experience that his success would depend heavily on the Democratic legislative leadership.

"His predecessors were surprised that the both legislative leaders had significant authority,'' DiNatale said. "Deval Patrick chided and embarrassed them. [Mitt] Romney ignored them. Baker came in and asked for their help."

Baker often refers to former GOP governor William Weld as his mentor. But he also clearly recognizes that 1991 meeting with the chairman of the taxation committee put him on the right track.

"He learned so much from where he started,'' Scaccia says, chuckling about the lesson he taught the younger Baker. "I have seen him mature and grow in leaps and bounds since that day I called him down to my office and gave him a lesson on State House politics."


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