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Baker tells LGBT Republican group ‘We have miles to go,’ for equality

Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff/File photo
In 2010, then Republican gubernatorial candidate Charlie Baker (right) joked with his brother, Alex, a gay man who was featured in a campaign video.

WASHINGTON – A moderate Republican voice at a time of deep political polarization, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker joined the country’s largest conservative LGBT group on Tuesday to reflect on his personal connection to the LGBT community.

The speech at the Log Cabin Republicans annual “Spirit of Lincoln” dinner marked an unusual foray for Baker on the national Republican stage. But he was in friendly territory. Hundreds applauded his record on gay rights before he took the stage at the Mayflower Hotel.

In 2010, when Baker launched his first bid for governor, he chose Richard Tisei, a gay lawmaker, as his running mate.

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“To this day, I feel guilty about the fact this guy won 13 elections in a row until he ran with me,” Baker joked of Tisei, the former long time state senator from Wakefield. “For the vast majority of the electorate, the fact that he was gay didn’t matter. The reason we didn’t win was because I wasn’t a very good candidate.”

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Four years later, when he again ran for governor, Baker did a campaign video featuring a conversation with his brother recalling how he told Baker that he is gay. He touched on this moment again Tuesday, sharing details of attending his brother’s wedding shortly after Massachussetts courts legalized gay marriage in 2004.

“I remember being at the wedding, and the thing I thought about most, in addition to how happy my parents were, was how many opportunities have been missed,” Baker said.

Over a decade later, Baker was the only sitting governor to add his name to an amicus brief filed by Republicans lobbying the United States Supreme Court in favor of gay marriage before its ruling in 2015.

Baker also mentioned his desire to push for equality in other facets of life.“We talk all the time about how important it is for us to always find the best people when you put together an organization, or a team or whatever it is, or a campaign. Find the best people,” he said. “But how the hell are you supposed to find the best people if you don’t let everybody play?”

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During his first year in office, Baker expanded a government diversity program to set aside a percentage of state contracts for businesses owned by members of the LGBT community. “It’s great because it’s part of putting every player on the field,” he said.

But Baker has not been immune to criticism from state activists pushing for additional changes. In 2016, he was booed off the stage at the LGBT Executive Networking Night by demonstrators urging him to support a bill protecting transgender individuals from discrimination in public spaces. Baker was publicly undecided at the time, but he eventually signed it into law. This November, the bill’s future will be up to voters after opponents of the legislation gathered the required number of signatures to put it in on the ballot for repeal.

Baker, who is running for a second four-year term, faced a primary challenge from the right earlier this year. The Swampscott Republican soundly defeated anti-gay pastor Scott Lively last month. Baker faces the Democratic nominee, Jay Gonzalez, who has criticized his record on transgender issues, on Nov. 6.

In closing, Baker noted that while progress has been made, there is more work to do. “Are we perfect? Far from it,” he told the crowd. “Do we have miles to go? You bet.”

libby.berry@globe.com