Forged four years ago amid a snow-fueled MBTA debacle, the bipartisan “bromance” between Governor Charlie Baker and Mayor Martin J. Walsh has helped drive policy making, political chatter, and even parody.
But the T’s latest woes have seemingly opened something else between the Republican and Democrat — a rare fissure.
As Baker defends his administration’s ability to steady the T, it’s Walsh who’s suddenly providing some ofthe fiercest fire, lambasting the agency’s planned fare hikes and, on Tuesday, directly criticizing the work of Baker’s appointees on the T’s oversight board following last week’s Red Line train derailment.
“There’s absolutely no checks and balances right now,” Walsh said of T leadership, offering that its governing board has made “difficult decisions” to solidify the T’s financial picture since its creation in 2015 but is falling short in delivering basic service.
“Getting your fiscal house in order is one thing. Now it’s about getting the actual trains running,” Walsh told reporters at an unrelated event in the North End Tuesday. “And there has to be something more to that.”
The criticisms mark both a sudden escalation from Walsh — considered a potential gubernatorial contender in 2022 — and a stinging retort to Baker on one of the governor’s signature issues. Just months ago, Walsh was among those defending the fare hikes passed by the T’s Fiscal & Management Control Board. In February, amid debate about Boston’s $85 million annual payment to the T, it was Walsh who said that the city should work with the agency and that T service had actually gotten better in some cases.
But his approach has shifted as calls to pour more money toward the T have only grown louder after the derailment.
“It’s gone the other way,” Walsh said Tuesday of the T’s performance. “I’ve been pretty sympathetic all along and [was] criticized for being that sympathetic” of the T’s struggles.
“But right now it’s time for action," he added.
Aides to Walsh and Baker both said the dispute is not affecting their relationship, with Baker’s office offering a flat “no” when asked Tuesday. But the criticisms hit Baker in a potentially vulnerable spot. His work and continued vows to turn around the beleaguered transit agency factored prominently into his runaway reelection victory and would likely again should he seek an unprecedented third term in 2022.
Outcry over the T’s performance has prompted the governor to play defense over much of the last week.
He appointed the control board, directly tying him to management of much of the transportation agency after the 2015 winter paralyzed the T.
Following the June 11Red Line derailment, Baker argued that the T is heading in the “right direction,” and his administration has repeatedly pointed to its plans to pour cash into the system, including through a $18.3 billion capital investment plan the T board passed Monday.
Officials have noted that it’s earmarked hundreds of millions alone for revamping Red Line cars and infrastructure.
After Walsh called Monday for the T to delay a set of planned July 1 fare hikes, Baker responded by saying he has faith in the T’s operations. Transit officials — all Baker appointees — rejected the idea of putting off the fare hikes.
“There’s a process here,” Baker said, “and that process has a lot of integrity and I believe in it.”
It wasn’t long ago Baker and Walshnotably stood shoulder to shoulder on — of all things — transportation funding. The pair traveled to Washington, D.C., in May to meet with lawmakers and Trump administration officials to press for more federal cash toward roads, transit, and other infrastructure.
Their pitch in a deeply divided Washington centered in part on the relationship they had built.
“I do think that having a governor and a mayor — a Republican and a Democrat, both of whom are putting a lot of resources in infrastructure and transportation — is a good place to start when you are trying to convince people that this is really something that they need to get done,” Baker told WBUR last month.
The two, of course, haven’t always read from the same script on the T.
In 2016, Walsh, a former labor leader, criticized the agency after it said it would consider outsourcing its bus maintenance work, including rallying with MBTA workers at the State House that October. (The T and its mechanics union later reached a contract deal protecting much of their work.)
The debate over the T now, however, has spilled far wider into the public conscience as tens of thousands of Red Line riders wonder when their commute will return to normal.
“It certainly is a rift. I’m just not sure it’s a rupture,” said Peter N. Ubertaccio, a Stonehill College political science professor. “I think they appreciate each other’s political position, and they’re not going to allow a difference of opinion on that to fundamentally alter their working relationship.”
Baker and Walsh’s close ties were born in the throes of the MBTA crisis in 2015, when the record snowfall paralyzed the transit system.
Baker has said he and Walsh spoke three or sometimes four times a day for five weeks while they dealt with the shutdown and the cleanup.
“I think to some extent that shared scaring, terror, anxiety, whatever you call it, around dealing with all the snow was a really great way for us to get to know each other early on,” Baker told Boston Public Radio in September 2015.
Baker also said Walsh was “very helpful and forthcoming’’ when he approached the mayor before his inauguration and asked him what to expect.
At a joint appearance sponsored by Politico in 2015, Baker called himself a “fan of the mayor as a person and as a public official.”
“I have a lot of respect for what he’s doing and how he’s approaching his job,’’ Baker said in 2016.
Perhaps their most prominent joint venture came in 2016, when they worked together to persuade General Electric to move its headquarters to Boston, pitching their partnership as a major reason the company should choose the city over New York, where Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo, both Democrats, have feuded.
In 2016, Walsh and Baker also teamed up in an unsuccessful effort to defeat the ballot question that legalized recreational marijuana use in Massachusetts.
The relationship was front-and-center again in 2016, at the annual St. Patrick’s Day political roast, where the two showed a video parodying their love story.
Walsh is shown in the spoof wearing a fur coat and pining for Baker as Adele’s song “Hello” plays in the background.
“Call me back,” Walsh says in the video. “I need you.”
In the video, the story ends happily when Baker finally returns Walsh’s calls, and the two reunite in bipartisan bliss.