As he heads toward a reelection fight this fall, Governor Charlie Baker used his State of the Commonwealth address Tuesday night to further distance himself from President Trump’s hard-line policies and harsh rhetoric, and argue that his nuts-and-bolts approach to fixing problems has produced tangible results for Massachusetts.
The speech, an ode to pragmatic governance, previewed some of the conciliatory themes the Republican may evoke as he seeks a second term in a Democratic-leaning state where many vehemently oppose Trump.
“We live in a great state filled with creative, community-minded, hard-working, and decent people,” the governor said in a televised speech in the House chamber, which was packed with politicians of both parties. “And what they want from us is opportunity, possibility, and hope. Not noise. Not name-calling. And not finger-pointing. They want progress on the things that help them help themselves.”
Baker said that on issue after issue — from the opioid crisis to homelessness to the treatment of people with mental illness — his administration, working with the Legislature, has brought about marked improvement over the last three years.
He also used his most formal address of the year to tease a few new initiatives, including several set to be unveiled in his state budget proposal Wednesday. The new efforts include $83 million in new funding to bolster community-based services for adults with serious mental illness; an additional $2 million to help plan for climate change; and an increase in the Earned Income Tax Credit, which helps the working poor. The expansion could benefit about 450,000 residents who receive the credit, the administration said.
Baker reiterated the key tenets of his brand of fiscally conservative, socially liberal Republicanism, offering an implicit contrast to the national GOP. He trumpeted his defense of the state’s universal health care law and his opposition to his party’s effort to repeal the federal Affordable Care Act. And he highlighted a law he signed in November that mandates free access to contraceptives for many Massachusetts women, an initiative sparked by Trump’s efforts to roll back coverage.
Stylistically, he also sought to broadcast — as he has in previous years — his aversion to the president's incendiary rhetoric, urging members of both parties to “commit ourselves to a common decency in our debate, and in our dealings with one another and the public.”
The invocation before his speech was delivered by a local iman, Shaykh Yasir F. Fahmy of the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center, who began his remarks in Arabic and quoted from the Koran. The Pledge of Allegiance was recited in English and Spanish by two Puerto Rican students who had fled Hurricane Maria.
Notably absent from Baker’s speech was any mention of contentious national issues such as immigration and the recently passed federal tax overhaul. Also missing: Trump’s name.
Reaction to the speech was largely positive from members of both parties, who repeatedly rose and gave Baker standing ovations.
“He talked about what we were able to do together, unlike many other states where we see partisanship getting involved,” said House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo, a Winthrop Democrat.
Acting Senate President Harriette L. Chandler, a Worcester Democrat, called it a “very uplifting speech.” And she said, “There is no partisanship when we get things done.”
But the three Democrats running for governor — environmentalist and entrepreneur Robert K. Massie, former state budget official Jay Gonzalez, and former Newton mayor Setti Warren — were more critical.
“It’s exactly what we would expect from Charlie Baker,” Massie told reporters outside the House chamber. “It focuses on the incremental gains he’s made, it speaks only to a certain percentage of the population, and it doesn’t show the boldness which we are accustomed to having.”
Gonzalez also reacted negatively, saying in a statement he was “shocked at the governor’s continued failure to speak out in support of victims of sexual assault and harassment who’ve led a national movement for change.”
Warren said he believes higher taxes must be on the table, though he declined to specify which ones he would raise. “Governor Baker is proposing too little for too many of our problems,” Warren said in a conference call with reporters before Baker’s speech.
Baker’s speech began with six-item list of problems that he says his administration has begun to solve since he took office on Jan. 8, 2015 — and statistics to back up the claims.
They included fewer opioid overdose deaths and opioid prescriptions; a reduction in the number of homeless families living in motels at state expense, from 1,500 in January 2015 to 56 Tuesday night; and lower caseloads for the state social workers charged with protecting abused and neglected children.
And he underscored the sweeping changes that his administration has helped lead at the state prison for men with mental illness, replacing almost all the guards at Bridgewater State Hospital with a specially trained security force, along with psychiatrists and other clinicians.
“We began with a state hospital in Bridgewater that for decades was beset by a series of terrible tragedies — yet nothing was done,” Baker said. “Today, with the help and support of the Legislature and many others, Bridgewater State Hospital is a completely different place. And families who never expected anything to get better finally have hope.”
The governor also pitched the Legislature on his agenda for 2018. Top items include Baker’s housing effort, which aims to drive the creation of 135,000 new homes in Massachusetts by 2025.
He pressed the Democrat-controlled House and Senate to pass his wide-ranging opioid bill that follows the one passed by the Legislature and signed by Baker in 2016. The new legislation would give clinical professionals — such as physicians and psychologists — the power to involuntarily hold, for 72 hours, drug users who pose a danger to themselves or others.
Advocates argue locking up users in addiction treatment facilities could help people who might otherwise leave the care of clinicians and immediately start using drugs again break the cycle of opioid use. Critics say it raises serious due process concerns.
Baker also acknowledged persistent complaints that the MBTA is unreliable.
“Fixing decades of neglect doesn’t happen overnight,” Baker said. “But make no mistake: We will deliver the public transit system that the people of this Commonwealth deserve.”
Baker vowed as well to make commuter rail from Fall River and New Bedford to Boston “a reality.”
Elected in 2014 by the smallest margin in a Massachusetts governor’s race in 50 years, Baker rose to become the country’s most popular governor according to several nationwide opinion polls.
And a WBUR survey this month found 74 percent of voters approved of the job Baker is doing as governor, and about the same percentage said that things in the state are headed in the right direction.
But in traditionally Democratic Massachusetts, even those buoyant numbers don’t mean the 61-year-old is a lock for reelection.
Political prognosticators warn that Democrats motivated by antipathy toward Trump may come out in droves across the country — and especially in blue-hued states — creating a wave that could sweep even the most admired GOP leader from office.