Fresh off a massive victory, Baker is awash in political capital. So how does he use it?
As Governor Charlie Baker’s top lieutenants settled in for a mid-morning Cabinet meeting Wednesday, a senior aide quickly set the tone in the executive suite.
“On to Cincinnati,” Tim Buckley, Baker’s longtime adviser, joked, in Bill Belichick-ian do-your-job fashion.
Or, in Baker’s case: It’s on to Lawrence.
Hours after sealing reelection by yawning margins, Baker began laying the groundwork for a second term in the same technocratic style he fashioned his first.
He pointed to a laundry list of priorities: building more housing, fighting the opioid crisis on new fronts, making the MBTA as reliable as he’s promised. “What people really want more than anything,” the Swampscott Republican told reporters Wednesday, “is progress.”
And with voters sending him back to Beacon Hill with a 34-point victory, he’ll have oodles of political capital.
So, it begs the question of how exactly he’ll spend it: guiding to fruition the same type of blocking-and-tackling priorities he’s emphasized in his first term? Or will he put his political chips on the table and go big on policy — or politics — as many of his predecessors have?
Baker, in celebrating Tuesday night on the Hynes Convention Center stage, said voters can expect to see the same “humble,” thoughtful approach out of him, before adding: “And that’s going to be nonstop, pedal-to-the-metal, let it rock!”
His tie re-straightened Wednesday, Baker arrived at the State House shortly before 9:30 a.m. to listen to details about transportation studies in the Cabinet meeting. He traveled to Lawrence — the Merrimack Valley city rocked by gas explosions in September — to discuss recovery efforts. And he expressed optimism over such things as his “vulnerability planning initiative” around climate change and the “hazard mitigation programs” towns are developing.
Another work day, as he put it.
“We get accused sometimes of being the three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust administration,” Baker told reporters at the State House. “But if you add up three yards over time, if you’re relentless about it, you can make a lot of progress.”
Translation: Baker plans to stick to the management-driven governing of his first term, his eyes averted from national political distractions if he can manage it.
“Charlie has a lot of political juice. . . . He can write his own ticket to a certain extent,” said Rob Gray, a Republican strategist who advised Baker during his first gubernatorial campaign in 2010.
“I do know Charlie. And he is a planner and also an innovator,” Gray added. “I don’t think he’ll just show up to work the first day of his second term in January without having scrubbed the library for new initiatives that might improve the state.”
Baker, in his final debate and again Wednesday, has pointed to addressing climate change as a major priority. That — like the opioid crisis, education funding, and health care financing — is also high up on House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo’s to-do list, which could help foster the same kind of collaborative work Baker touted on the campaign trail.
“Governor Baker and I have a track record of getting things done on behalf of the people of Massachusetts, and I am hopeful that will continue as we begin the new term,” DeLeo, a Democrat, said in a statement Wednesday.
The liberal Senate, with its newly installed president, Karen E. Spilka, could provide more friction, even if it pursues similar issues. This past session, it championed immigration policies that Baker threatened to veto. It also passed legislation calling on state officials to study the costs of implementing a single-payer health care system, a concept Baker has roundly criticized as being too costly and unnecessary.
“Because of what is happening at the federal level, Massachusetts is in a unique position to lead, and the Senate intends to be bold in that leadership,” Spilka said in statement.
But Baker’s campaign pitch largely steered from detailing daring new initiatives that could emerge in a second term. With state revenue trending up, is he interested in crafting a tax cut proposal? Baker in 2010 supported trimming the state sales tax from 6.25 percent to 5 percent in 2010 and voiced support for reducing it at April’s state Republican convention.
“I’m sure we’ll have more to say about some of that stuff” when he presents his budget proposal next year, he said.
It’s also likely his inner circle will see some change. His Cabinet has experienced little turnover in his first term, with six of his nine original appointees still in their posts and a seventh — former budget chief Kristen Lepore — now chief of staff. Administration officials acknowledge the positions can be taxing jobs without the pay of equally demanding private sector positions.
But many also reflect his get-to-work attitude. Jay Ash, his secretary of economic development, mused Tuesday on Twitter that instead of glad-handing at the polls on Election Day, he personally spent Tuesday “doing something very bureaucratic,” he wrote: “conducting 7 hours of FY ’20 budget meetings.”
Many of Baker’s predecessors turned their political capital into big political plans. Reelected by a 38-point margin in 1986, Michael Dukakis ran for president in 1988. Reelected by 43 points in 1994, William F. Weld launched a US Senate bid barely 11 months into his second term.
Baker says he has no interest in federal office. He said Wednesday that he’ll “absolutely” compete his second term, and he’s generally avoided national political discussions as if they’re the plague. He also called it “really premature” to discuss whether he’ll run for a third term; Massachusetts governors aren’t bound to term limits.
Avoiding the national political fray, though, is likely to become far more difficult as the 2020 presidential race heats up, with Senator Elizabeth Warren as a potential entrant and the possibility of a moderate Republican challenging President Trump in the GOP primary. Baker has often criticized the president and said he has no plans to vote for him in 2020.
And, of course, there are unexpected challenges. It’s not a matter of if, but when, a humming economy sputters into a recession. Governor Deval Patrick, elected in 2006 on a tide of optimism, knows that all too well after the Great Recession cratered state finances.
Baker, who entered office in 2015 with plans to retool various agencies, had to suddenly move the MBTA to the top of that list after a disastrous winter exposed the structural and financial problems festering at the system’s core.
“I think the biggest part of the mandate,” Baker said Wednesday of his resounding victory, “is people want us to focus on the work.”
After several more questions, Baker departed the lobby of the gubernatorial suite and ducked under a low door frame back toward his office.