He has signed a bill boosting the minimum wage to one of the highest in the nation and creating a paid leave program by raising taxes — and still others strengthening gun control, reforming the criminal justice system, enshrining protections for pregnant workers, defending transgender people from discrimination, and ensuring free access to birth control.
This week, he’s poised to put a law on the books securing a woman’s right to choose an abortion in case Roe v. Wade gets overturned.
Such a record would be pretty good fodder for a Democrat running for office.
But all these measures were signed by Governor Charlie Baker, a Republican who is facing reelection with a record built in part on the policy priorities championed by the Democrat-controlled Legislature.
The progressive laws starkly illustrate how Baker is increasingly at odds not just with the conservative national GOP, but also the base of his party in Massachusetts, which remains fiercely loyal to President Trump.
Indeed, such a record would probably get progressive activists applauding on the rubber chicken circuit in Iowa or New Hampshire.
“Charlie Baker could fit comfortably in the Democratic primary running for president,” Democratic strategist Mary Anne Marsh said.
Still, his record, and his early opposition to Trump, appears to be good politics in Massachusetts, at least in a general election.
While some Republican activists fume, Baker’s support of — or acquiescence to — a host of measures from the left side of the political spectrum leaves his Democratic opponents with less to run on. Recent surveys of Massachusetts voters found Baker far ahead of his gubernatorial challengers and his favorability numbers as strong or stronger among Democratic voters than with those from his own party.
Baker, of course, premised his successful 2014 campaign on being a socially moderate Republican in the style of his former bosses, governors Bill Weld and Paul Cellucci.
Few dispute he’s governed as a moderate, but many conservatives are left wondering about the “Republican” part.
“He is the most progressive Republican in the entire country,” said conservative activist Mary Lou Daxland, spitting out the p-word with disdain.
“He has completely thumbed his nose at the Republican platform. He’s not even a Republican at this point. He has lost the base, and he has lost a lot of conservative independents,” said Daxland, president of the Massachusetts Republican Assembly, a statewide conservative GOP group.
She expressed particular dismay with Baker signing a law, pushed by the Legislature, that allows people to use the restrooms and locker rooms that match their gender identity and protects transgender people from discrimination in public accommodations.
On the campaign trail four years ago, Baker pledged no new taxes or fees, but he’s signed both into law. For example, the state’s new paid family and medical leave program — part of a “grand bargain” by progressive and business groups and legislative leaders — is paid for by an estimated $800 million annual payroll tax on employers and workers.
And while he didn’t talk much about gun control while campaigning against Democrat Martha Coakley in 2014, his signature strengthened what was already some of the nation’s most stringent gun control — putting a bill to ban bump stocks on the books, and giving courts the authority to strip weapons from people who have been identified by their families as a danger to themselves or others.
How would Jim Wallace, who leads the Gun Owners Action League of Massachusetts, rate Baker on the Second Amendment? “Pretty poorly,” Wallace said. “He’s taken a back seat and just waited to see what the Legislature hands him.”
Then there’s state spending, which has grown during his tenure, meaning more money for state programs. That’s the result of the booming economy, and actions by Baker and the Legislature.
Baker advisers say the administration has straightened out the budget mess it says it inherited, keeping a close eye on protecting the taxpayer, and the advisers say he has thoughtfully plowed extra money into the state’s rainy day fund.
But the growing government makes some conservatives see red.
“He doesn’t belong in the Republican Party,” said Scott Lively, Baker’s long-shot GOP primary challenger aiming for an upset on Sept. 4. “Only a fiscal liberal could use the surplus from the Trump economic miracle as an excuse to raise taxes and give us the largest budget in state history.”
On matters fiscal and social, conservatives are unhappy with the chief executive.
“Certainly he’s been all liberal, all the time,” said Steve Aylward, a conservative activist from Watertown and a Republican State Committeeman. “It leaves you feeling frustrated.”
In a statement, Terry MacCormack, a Baker campaign spokesman, said he ran “on delivering common sense, fiscally responsible leadership, and reaching across the political aisle to do what is best for the people of Massachusetts.”
He is “proud to have the support of Republicans, Democrats, and independents from across the state,” the spokesman said.
MacCormack pointed to the governor and the Legislature working together to expand the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit, which helps the working poor; taking a harder line against pushers of deadly opioids; and backing up law enforcement.
“Whether it was promising and delivering tax cuts for working families, or proposing and enacting measures to crack down on criminals who traffic fentanyl and who assault police officers,” he said, Baker has delivered on his pledge to work in a bipartisan way.
Baker’s decision to sign bills that move Massachusetts leftward are not a surprise to students of the state’s history, and, they say, is unlikely to damage his prospects with the broader electorate.
“I don’t think it hurts him in a way that matters at all. In fact, it helps him,” said Peter Ubertaccio, a political science professor at Stonehill College. “He needs [to] appeal to Democratic and independent voters, and the legislation that he’s signing helps him to do that.”
Ubertaccio said there is a long history of Massachusetts Republicans who are liberal relative to their national counterparts: “Baker is perfectly in line with the trajectory of Massachusetts Republicanism.”
Baker’s Democratic opponents, Jay Gonzalez and Bob Massie, say the governor is visionless, blinkered, and bound to the status quo with no big ideas to move Massachusetts forward.
They say he’s satisfied with a state that leaves too many people behind even in these good economic times.
“His administration is, and always has been, pro-corporate, pro-privatization, anti-labor, anti-immigrant, and a strong friend of the fossil fuel industry,” Massie said.
The Democratic candidates point out that when it comes to much of the progressive legislation put into law in recent years, hard-working activists and Democratic members of the House and Senate have led the charge. Both chambers have super-majorities to override any Baker veto. The governor, the Democrats say, has just acquiesced to the political reality.
“Every positive piece of legislation that has been passed and signed into law this year has happened in spite of Charlie Baker, not because of him,” Gonzalez said. “Baker gets backed into corners and takes action not because he believes in it, or it comes from the heart . . . it’s because he has no option.”
Baker’s aides point to plenty of places where they say he’s successfully led the way, such as a law that’s been heralded as a nation-leading response to the scourge of opioid overdoses, streamlining state regulations, and allowing for greater privatization at the MBTA. He’s opposed a push to make Massachusetts a so-called sanctuary state, an effort that would have limited law enforcement cooperation with federal immigration authorities.
Despite howling about many of the bills he’s signed into law, after three and a half years of a Republican in the corner office, even conservatives give Baker his due in the context of recent history.
“He’s done some good things on regulations. He’s tried to hold the line on the budget,” said Aylward, the Watertown activist, pausing for a moment to think. “Better than Deval Patrick, let’s put it that way.”