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Baker stresses bipartisan compromise, incremental change in State of the Commonwealth

John Blanding/Globe Staff

Governor Charlie Baker was greeted as he arrived in the House chamber at the State House in Boston.

By and Globe Staff 

Standing before a sea of Democrats, Republican Governor Charlie Baker used his annual State of the Commonwealth speech Tuesday night to make the case that his brand of incremental change and bipartisan compromise has made Massachusetts stronger.

The governor, who usually avoids offering a grand vision in favor of a nuts-and-bolts approach, underscored his work on issues close to the hearts of the state’s moderate majority: measures to improve the MBTA, grow the economy, fight the scourge of opioid abuse, and regulate services like Uber and Lyft.

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But perhaps most notable, Baker, who in the past has not used such addresses to wade into political territory, seized the opportunity to contrast Massachusetts with the divisive politics that grips the nation.

Without mentioning him by name, Baker distinguished himself from President Trump.

“It’s one thing to stand in a corner and shout insults at your opponents,” he said to the state officials assembled in the House chamber at the State House. “It’s quite another to climb into the arena and fight for common ground.”

Baker, known nationally as one of the most moderate Republican governors, walks a tight line in a state full of Democrats. That line is narrower now because the governor must maintain a positive relationship with a newly elected Republican administration, which controls a federal government that funnels billions to the state.

“Our Commonwealth is strong because we listen and we learn from one another,” Baker said.

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In his speech, the governor also ticked through a raft of statistics: 270 more social workers at the state’s child protection agency over the last year or so, 15 percent fewer opioids prescribed, and 1,410 fewer homeless families living in motels at state expense since he was sworn in.

“We worked to fix state government, passed groundbreaking legislation, and focused on growing our economy,” Baker said at the State House. “And it’s working.”

Although the speech did not announce many large new proposals, Baker did highlight a plan to reform Bridgewater State Hospital, the state’s medium-security prison for those with mental illness, that includes $37 million in new funding.

“For decades mental health advocates have urged the Commonwealth to redesign the way it serves those who are committed to Bridgewater State Hospital,” Baker said. “Little has changed and the results, in many cases, have been disastrous for all involved.”

And he offered other, small-bore plans such as establishing a Council on Older Adults and proposing a $4,000 tax credit for businesses hiring and retaining unemployed veterans.

Baker suffered a major defeat in November when voters soundly rejected a ballot question to expand charter schools, a measure that he campaigned for. In his speech, he praised a new legislative plan that is also designed to give schools more flexibility.

“We must also recognize that not every child in the Commonwealth gets to attend a first-class school. We have an obligation to every parent and child in Massachusetts,” he said.

Baker, who won his office running on a no-new-taxes pledge, reiterated his fiscal conservatism — seen as key to his brand — but backed a new tax on certain people who use services such as Airbnb to rent out their homes.

He also highlighted his efforts to rein in a state budget that was far out of balance when he took office.

And he trumpeted his administration’s efforts to curb “runaway growth” in spending.

There were moments when Baker acknowledged work that is incomplete after just over two years on the job.

“Anyone who rides the T will correctly tell you we still have a long way to go,” he said.

But he emphasized several successes with the public transit agency, including a plan to invest in new equipment, an oversight board that has cut the deficit in half, and a key political win with the carmen’s union.

In December, the MBTA and its largest union — which has had, perhaps, the most antagonistic relationship of any major organization with Baker — agreed to a massive four-year contract.

At the speech, he singled out James O’Brien, president of the Boston Carmen’s Union, Local 589, for praise.

Baker enjoys a remarkably high favorability rating for someone in his position — 59 percent among registered voters, according to a WBUR poll released this week — but Democrats see openings. After all, Baker won election in 2014 with the tightest gubernatorial margin in 50 years.

Two Democrats have told associates they plan to run for the Democratic nomination for governor in 2018: Newton Mayor Setti Warren and former state budget chief Jay Gonzalez.

Attorney General Maura Healey has said she plans to run for reelection but is seen as a potential challenger for Baker.

House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo praised Baker’s speech as comprehensive and bipartisan, but said he is waiting to see the governor’s state budget proposal on Wednesday.

“We anxiously await the budget; that’s where the real interest will lie,” DeLeo said.

Senate President Stanley C. Rosenberg noted there was little in the speech about criminal justice reform, one of his own priorities, but said overall he liked the governor’s attitude of teamwork.

“We’ve watched gridlock in Washington for years, it’s not new with Mr. Trump, but we [in Massachusetts] have managed over the years to have a really collaborative relationship,” Rosenberg told reporters after the speech.

Mayor Martin J. Walsh praised Baker’s work on opioids and the announced changes to Bridgewater. He also praised the administration’s cooperative approach with unions.

Despite what he framed as his successes, Baker said the state still faces “enormous challenges” and opportunities for conflict. He urged more cooperation.

The applause when Baker entered the House of Representatives prompted a joke from the 60-year-old Swampscott resident. “The real test is if you do that when I’m finished,” Baker said to the legislators and other public officials.

But the quick aside could be seen as a message to Massachusetts voters, who are likely to have a chance to reelect him in November of next year.

For the record: Baker’s audience gave him a standing ovation at the conclusion of his speech.


Laura Krantz can be reached at laura.krantz@globe.com
Follow her on Twitter @laurakrantz
Joshua Miller can be reached at joshua.miller@globe.com
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