Governor Charlie Baker spent Wednesday promoting one of his administration’s top initiatives — offshore wind energy — kicking off four days of meetings, summits, and even a Red Sox-Yankees game during an official visit to London.
But back home and an ocean away, fires were burning.
Hours after Baker left, his administration admitted making a “mistake” in not suspending the license of a driver now charged in the deaths of seven motorcyclists. His handpicked leader at the Registry of Motor Vehicles had resigned. And his plan to speed up fixes at the beleaguered MBTA, announced Tuesday, was already being met with skepticism.
The crises, and their timing, quickly underlined the potentially prickly optics of gubernatorial travels abroad, including for a popular Republican who’s built an image as the state’s Mr. Fix-It Governor.
Baker’s aides on Wednesday defended the trip, which his office first disclosed the night before Baker left. The governor keeps in regular contact with senior staff and his top lieutenants, his office said, and before he left, Baker personally briefed legislative leaders on his proposals at the MBTA, which includes asking them for a $50 million infusion.
In London on Wednesday, Baker was a keynote speaker at an offshore wind conference and met with executives of a wind turbine manufacturer. He has a slate of meetings scheduled for Thursday before attending a gala with his wife, Lauren, sponsored by Home Base, a veterans-focused partnership between Massachusetts General Hospital and the Red Sox Foundation. (Red Sox principal owner John Henry also owns the Globe.)
On Saturday, Baker will attend the first game of the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees’ series at London Stadium.
“Massachusetts is leading the nation in offshore wind development,” said Baker spokesman Brendan Moss. “The governor is working to continue the commonwealth’s role in building affordable, renewable energy sources to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, a critically important challenge for the commonwealth and the nation.”
But the trip — albeit a rare one for Baker — left him open to criticisms from Democrats, who have often sought to paint him as disconnected from the state’s transportation woes.
“It just highlights that he doesn’t understand what the common working person is going through right now,” said Gus Bickford, chairman of the state Democratic Party. “He should be around getting to the bottom of what actually happened. He should be here leading the state. He is supposedly a manager.”
The operations of the RMV and Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority have long figured prominently into the Baker’s administration’s plans. Making the former more efficient played heavily into the governor’s 2014 campaign promises, with mostly good results.
Meanwhile, reshaping the T has been perhaps Baker’s longest-running challenge, underscored by the still-rippling delays caused by a June 11 derailment on the Red Line.
Suddenly, both agencies are now facing serious tests. RMV officials admitted they should have stripped Volodymyr Zhukovskyy of his commercial driver’s license before the 23-year-old was accused of plowing a truck into a group of motorcyclists in New Hampshire last week.
Zhukovskyy had been charged in May with drunken driving in Connecticut, which is grounds for an automatic suspension here, but state officials said the RMV had “not acted on” the information before the crash.
“There was a mistake made,” Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito, who serves as acting governor while Baker is out of state, said Wednesday at the State House.
Polito could not say whether other drivers who should have their licenses suspended because of out-of-state infractions are still on the road, saying that is part of a review officials announced Tuesday night.
“We will determine whether there are other matters like this,” Polito said.
“I just know in my heart, and I know the governor feels the same way, there’s seven beautiful lives lost in a very, very tragic accident,” she later added. “We take our responsibilities very seriously.”
The lapse cost Registrar Erin Deveney her job, though Polito said neither she, Baker, nor Stephanie Pollack, the state’s transportation secretary, asked for her resignation.
It still didn’t quell the frustration Wednesday. The head of a motorcycle club that lost seven people in the New Hampshire crash said it was “ridiculous” Deveney was allowed to resign, arguing it does little to solve the problem. Meanwhile, lawmakers said they still expect answers from the Baker administration on how they plan to address the lapse beyond naming a new leader.
“Appointment of a new registrar alone will not accomplish the immediate fixes that tragically are called for in systems operation at the RMV and other states as well,” Representative William M. Straus, House chair of the Transportation Committee, said in a statement. “I believe Massachusetts is capable of exceeding ‘best practices’ and expect the administration will have a plan shortly to share with the public and the Legislature.”
But whether that failure, and the MBTA’s, ultimately sticks to Baker politically is unclear. Baker remains soaringly popular, with nearly 70 percent of voters viewing him favorably in a Suffolk University/Boston Globe poll released this month.
Even as the state’s transportation woes have intensified, voters have continued to give Baker good marks, said Steve Koczela, president of MassINC Polling Group — an indication there’s no a strong link between frustration over the MBTA and Baker’s own job performance in people’s eyes.
“Charlie Baker’s approval numbers have stayed consistently high through a bunch of periods of negative headlines,” said Koczela, who, coincidently, is releasing a poll on the state’s transportation issues Thursday. “You can only look back [in polling]. You can’t look ahead and say, ‘This particular thing will affect his overall numbers.’”
Matt Stout can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.