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Charlie Baker’s second inauguration speech focuses on the practical, not the visionary

Governor Charlie Baker and his wife, Lauren, arrived for his swearing in to a second term at the State House.
Governor Charlie Baker and his wife, Lauren, arrived for his swearing in to a second term at the State House. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Charlie Baker, the wonkish chief executive who’s become known as an adroit, if careful, collaborator in a time of heightened partisanship, took the oath of office Thursday to officially launch his second term as Massachusetts governor.

The Swampscott Republican marked the moment with a measured speech detailing the ways he’d delivered on his promise to make state government “thrifty, hard-working, and creative.” He also laid out a broad agenda intent on easing the region’s housing crunch, fixing its crumbling transportation infrastructure, and addressing the performance gap between urban and richer suburban school districts.

Notably, Baker began and ended his speech by contrasting what he described as Beacon Hill’s collegial style with the tenor of national politics — though he did not name names as he bemoaned the divisiveness defining the current moment in Washington.

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Baker arrived at the State House.
Baker arrived at the State House. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

In emphasizing his disdain for the “era of Snapchats, tweets, Facebook and Instagram posts, put-downs and smack-downs,” Baker vowed to continue to cultivate what he called a brand of “positive and optimistic” politics as opposed to a “cruel and dark” approach.

“These days, too much of what pretends to be debate is just rhetoric or character assassination,” Baker said. “Let others engage in cheap shots and the low blows. . . . And instead of the bickering and the name-calling that dominates much of today’s public debate, let’s build on the work of those who came before us.”

Surrounded by family, friends, and state dignitaries inside the House chamber, the 62-year-old governor was sworn in to a second term on a Bible held by his 90-year-old father, Charles D. Baker.

Baker cruised to reelection in November and enters his next four-year term as a popular if enigmatic executive who’s successfully forged relationships in a Democrat-controlled State House. His first term was defined, in part, by two sweeping bills aimed at the opioid crisis, massive energy procurements, and still-ongoing efforts to overhaul the problem-plagued MBTA.

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An array of pomp and circumstance welcomed him and Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito at the State House, where a red carpet snaked through its ornate halls and a marching band played outside to hail his arrival. Each of the state’s constitutional officers was on hand, in addition to members of the Supreme Judicial Court justices, Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh, and Vermont Governor Phil Scott, a fellow Republican.

Baker’s 35-minute speech, true to form, appeared more practical than visionary, punctuated by a list of accomplishments and varied pledges of policy changes to come.

It also showcased his love for policy details. He mentioned changes at the Registry of Motor Vehicles, joking that it was the second inaugural address in which he’d done so. He peppered a discussion of health care pricing and the opioid scourge with specific data points. Problems at the MBTA, he said, need to be “scoped.”

Boston Police Commissioner William Gross (right) greeted first responders before the governor’s arrival at the State House.
Boston Police Commissioner William Gross (right) greeted first responders before the governor’s arrival at the State House. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

One of his first rousing ovations came after he touted the state’s recent budget surplus, as well as plans to deposit more money into the state savings account.

“And we did it,” Baker added, “without raising taxes.”

The mention, even if it is contradicted by Baker’s support of some new levies, drew applause from House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo, who has joined Baker in opposing broad-based tax hikes and sat behind him on the rostrum.

Notably, Senate President Karen E. Spilka, who sat next to DeLeo, did not react to the line. Spilka, who’s left open the possibility of raising or creating taxes, was not available for an interview after the speech, according to her spokeswoman.

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Speaking of Massachusetts’s sky-high health-care costs and struggling community hospitals, Baker promised to file legislation later this year and mentioned expanding “telemedicine,” or virtual contact between patients and providers, as one priority.

Baker expressed particular urgency on the need to address the region’s housing shortage, warning the assembled lawmakers they “shouldn’t let the perfect become the enemy of the good.”

He indicated that he would again offer legislation to alleviate the crisis, similar to the Act to Promote Housing Choices, which stalled in the Legislature this year. The bill sought to spur more housing construction by making it easier for municipalities to change zoning rules.

Baker was sworn in to his second term on a Bible held by his 90-year-old father (right), Charles D. Baker, while his wife looked on.
Baker was sworn in to his second term on a Bible held by his 90-year-old father (right), Charles D. Baker, while his wife looked on. David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

The state’s economic well-being depends on boosting housing production, Baker said: “We absolutely, positively need to get this one done — in this session.”

Baker is also targeting the state’s oft-debated school-funding formula and intends to release a detailed plan to overhaul it as part of his annual budget plan due in the coming weeks.

James Peyser, Baker’s education secretary, said afterward that the proposal would include “significant new investment” and build on recommendations from a 2015 commission that found the state formula doesn’t accurately account for costs around health insurance and teaching low-income students.

But without offering specifics, Peyser said any changes would be “phased in over time,” and added: “How much we spend is ultimately not as important as how well we spend it.”

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Some education advocates were not impressed. Several supporters of overhauling the state’s education funding said Baker and the Legislature need to do more than merely massage the budget.

“Charlie Baker every year makes the same promise and fails to actually commit and do the hard work and raise the revenue necessary to invest in our public schools and colleges,” said Charlotte Kelly, executive director of the Massachusetts Education Justice Alliance, a coalition of students, parents, educators, and community members.

Various reports have found the current formula, which dates back 25 years, is underestimating the annual cost of public education by hundreds of millions of dollars — which advocates say is driving stark achievement gaps between urban and wealthier suburban districts.

Transportation, too, will remain a focus. A Baker-assembled task force recommended a variety of paths forward for the state’s transportation networks in a report last month, including phasing out gas-powered cars and considering congestion pricing, or levying fees or tolls on traffic heading into Boston at busy periods.

Baker highlighted several of its recommendations, notably making investments to allow autonomous vehicles to “thrive” in the state. He also touted efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions within the transportation system by working with surrounding states.

The speech found a welcome audience in DeLeo, who said many of the things Baker discussed were already on his “radar screen.”

“I think he hit upon all of them,” the Winthrop Democrat said, noting Baker’s promise to enter the fray on overhauling the school-funding formula is especially welcome after the Legislature failed to hash out a compromise last session — largely without public input from Baker.

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DeLeo said he’s hopeful Baker’s involvement can help spur the debate. “The question’s going to be: What’s the budget going to look like? I think that’s what the real test will be.”


Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout. Victoria McGrane can be reached at victoria.mcgrane@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @vgmac.