Is this the beginning of Charlie Baker’s second-term blues?
Governor Charlie Baker rode onto Beacon Hill in 2015 pledging to make state bureaucracy hum and correct his predecessor’s failures. But as he heads deeper into his fifth year in office, Baker is facing new problems — ones firmly rooted in his administration’s own mistakes or, in critics’ eyes, born from an inability to deliver on long-held promises.
It’s a well-worn pattern in Massachusetts politics: In a governor’s second term, the number of problems seems to rise exponentially — just as the ability to blame others dips to near zero.
But with a cascade of crises at the Registry of Motor Vehicles and MBTA, is this a short summer slump, or the beginning of Baker’s second-term blues?
“I think it’s something he and the people around him have to try to figure out,” said former governor Michael Dukakis, who enjoyed widespread support in the 1980s until a slumping economy, and his unpopular efforts to raise taxes, hampered the second half of his third and final term, which ended in 1991. “If you pick excellent people and give them the kind of leadership they need, the chances of running into these kinds of problem are dramatically less.”
For now, the list of Baker’s problems is lengthy. He revealed this week that for at least 15 months, Registry of Motor Vehicles officials ignored tens of thousands of alerts that Massachusetts-licensed motorists had broken driving laws in other states — including for drunken driving — and instead buried them in mail bins in a Quincy records room.
Baker said Tuesday that the RMV’s mistakes amount to a “complete failure,” and his administration has in recent days suspended more than 500 licenses, with more likely to follow. Officials have also admitted they should have terminated the commercial license of a 23-year-old West Springfield truck driver before he allegedly plowed into a group of motorcycle riders, killing seven.
The revelations came as commuters continue to endure the aftermath of the June 11 derailed train on the Red Line. Baker, a Swampscott Republican, asked the Legislature to infuse $50 million into the MBTA to help speed repairs and maintenance work amid an outcry over the pace of improvements on the T.
Baker had a very public reminder of the challenge to remake the unreliable transit system Tuesday at the Charles River Esplanade, where a half-dozen Democratic Party volunteers stood at an unrelated press conference holding signs urging him to ride the T.
The controversies have also raised questions about the future of Baker’s top transportation aide, Stephanie Pollack. Long a rock of Baker’s Cabinet, she earned a vote of confidence from the governor Tuesday after he was twice asked whether he still had faith in her.
“I understand that we have a lot of work to do to rebuild confidence,” Pollack said Tuesday. “I allow our actions to speak, and I believe that we will be able to show people at both the T and the Registry that while these are setbacks, we are going to produce the kind of agencies that can do what people need them to do.”
The responses, so far, have proven enough to appease some Democrats.
“Certainly the second term of any gubernatorial administration is more challenging. Most of the first four years is really a honeymoon,” said Senator Michael J. Rodrigues, a Westport Democrat who leads the Senate’s powerful budget committee.
“Governor Baker is still very well liked around the state, certainly in this part of the state,” he added at an event in Freetown. “I think people appreciate the fact that he doesn’t sugarcoat anything, he accepts responsibilities, he rolls up his sleeves, [and] he’s very much a technocrat.”
Baker is far from the first governor to face second-term turbulence. The second half of Deval Patrick’s second term was beset by a series of management problems, ranging from the state’s health care website to its the child welfare system.
It made for regular fodder for Baker on the campaign trail. He publicly called for months for Patrick to fire the head of the Department of Children and Families amid a string of child deaths. And when the RMV’s website went down as fees were set to rise in July 2014, Baker called for the state to delay the hikes, arguing in a campaign statement that was the “fair thing to do because the state screwed up.”
If that sounds familiar, it’s because Baker heard — and rejected — similar calls just last month when Mayor Martin J. Walsh, City Councilor Michelle Wu, and others called on the T to delay its July 1 fare hikes until the Red Line returned to normal.
“At the end of the day, we need to be judged on how we perform and how we react and respond to new information as it becomes available,” Baker said, about the latest RMV revelations. “And, in this particular case, the Registry failed to do its job, failed to do this particular part of its job, and we all own that. And we also own the process associated with fixing it.”
Despite the problems, Baker’s popularity has otherwise appeared intact. Nearly 70 percent of voters said they viewed him favorably in a Suffolk University/Boston Globe poll released last month. A WBUR/MassINC poll of metro-Boston voters found a similar response last week, but less than one-third of respondents said they approved of how he’s handled the T.
Over time, however, voters rarely stay satisfied and as problems build, it’s the governor who “becomes emblematic of the problem,” said Jeffrey M. Berry, a political science professor at Tufts University. But he doesn’t believe Baker’s hit serious land mines yet, in part because many Democrats have avoided pushing him onto one.
“It’s a bit of a mystery why the Democrats have been so generous toward him,” Berry said. “There’s not been the kind of hearings on Beacon Hill designed to embarrass and accentuate problems. Leadership is very friendly. They rarely have anything negative to say about him.”
On Tuesday afternoon,as Baker spoke before a ceremonial groundbreaking for the South Coast Rail project, he acknowledged that this particular transit connection has been promised by politicians for decades but never delivered.
Now, he said passenger service connecting Southeastern Massachusetts and Boston by commuter rail will begin as soon as 2023.
“I wish the hell it could be done by 2022, to tell you the truth, for all kinds of reasons,” Baker said as many elected officials, including Democrats, in the audience exchanged knowing looks and laughed.
That’s the year Baker would be up for reelection, should he vie for a third term, a prospect he has acknowledged he is considering.
The Globe reported last month that Baker has been quietly putting together a robust staff of political aides, proven fund-raisers, and seasoned consultants who worked on his previous two victorious campaigns, including last year’s landslide reelection.
Of course, whether voters give a governor a third term depends on how well the second one goes, a story that will unfold over the next three years, four months, and six days.