Saying the state needs a bold leader, Democrat Jay Gonzalez formally launched his bid for governor Monday morning, accusing Governor Charlie Baker of keeping to the sidelines as President Trump’s actions roil the country.
The former state budget chief and health care executive is the first to officially challenge Baker in his presumed 2018 reelection bid.
Gonzalez said the state needs someone who will challenge the status quo, not preserve it.
“People are very worried, people are very scared — there are a lot of vulnerable people out there, and they need leadership right here in Massachusetts,” he said.
Gonzalez was former governor Deval Patrick’s administration and finance secretary from 2009 to 2013 when he left to run CeltiCare Health Plan. He resigned as CEO last month to mull a run for office.
Baker, a Republican, fired back Monday afternoon on the radio, taking several veiled shots at problems his administration inherited from Patrick, all of which were at least partly overseen by Gonzalez.
“I don’t think he would be better than me,” Baker said of his new opponent during his monthly appearance on WGBH Radio.
Baker, who enjoys a 59 percent favorability rating, said his team has worked to reform the MBTA and the Massachusetts Health Connector and plug a state budget gap. He also mentioned his work to reform the Department of Children and Families and reduce the number of homeless families living in motels.
“I fully expect in the job I have that I’ll be criticized about almost every decision I make about almost anything,” Baker said on the radio. “My true north is ensuring Massachusetts continues to be a great place to raise a family, to work, and to be part of a community, however you want to define your community.”
The Republican governor in this left-leaning state has walked a fine line during Trump’s candidacy and more so since his election. He purposefully did not vote in the election but did attend Trump’s inauguration in Washington.
The governor issued two statements over the weekend against Trump’s executive order that bars refugees and citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the country, but he has been criticized for not attending Sunday’s rally in Copley Square or last week’s women’s march on Boston Common.
“People here in Massachusetts have seen enough. They don’t need to wait and see,” said Gonzalez, who said he attended the Copley rally with his wife, Cyndi Roy Gonzalez.
Gonzalez, 46, said the state’s economy works well for those at the top, but as governor he would do more to help working families who can’t afford child care, health care, or higher education.
In an interview Monday at the offices of Brody, Hardoon, Perkins & Kesten on Boylston Street, he said health care reform and early childhood education would be top priorities of his administration.
Gonzalez pledged to eliminate waiting lists for child care programs and create the best early childhood education in the country.
“It is the thing that government could do that could have, in my view, the biggest return on investment for children and families,” he said. “And Governor Baker, this isn’t even on his radar. He is happy with the status quo.”
Gonzalez said he would fund such programs with a proposed tax on income over $1 million that is expected to land on the 2018 ballot.
Health insurance will probably become a major topic in the gubernatorial election, as federal Republicans pledge to repeal the federal health care law and the cost of the state’s health insurance programs continue to skyrocket.
Gonzalez called the state’s health system broken and said it needs to be completely revamped. He said everything, including single-payer health insurance, should be on the table.
“It is really hard for regular people to navigate, the costs are killing state government, it’s killing businesses and families, and right now all we are getting from Governor Baker is Band-Aids on gaping wounds,” he said.
One of those Band-Aids, Gonzalez said, is the governor’s proposal to penalize businesses that do not offer health insurance to their employees.
Newton Mayor Setti Warren, a Democrat, has also said he is considering a run for governor, but Gonzalez’s toughest Democratic competition could come from Attorney General Maura Healey, if she enters the race.
As a relatively unknown candidate, Gonzalez faces an uphill battle that could become steeper if the attorney general runs, said Peter Ubertaccio, a political science professor at Stonehill College.
Still, he said Gonzalez has surrounded himself with well-respected advisers, many from Patrick’s team, that will send a message to insiders and donors that he is serious.
Some have called Gonzalez’s bid essentially a third term for Deval Patrick, a notion the candidate did not dispute Monday, even as he sought to distinguish himself.
Gonzalez also heaped praise on Healey, calling her a “great” attorney general, but said he believes his private sector experience sets him apart.
Still, Ubertaccio said, any candidate who wants a serious shot at victory will have to meet voters’ frustrations with the president with a concrete plan of how to do better.
“I don’t think it would be enough to try to tie [Baker] to Trump,” Ubertaccio said.