Charlie Baker may be the country’s most popular governor, but he remains something of an enigma
It was the spring of 2017 and in East Boston, the traffic was particularly expletive-worthy.
The state had just taken down the tollbooths at the entrance to the Sumner Tunnel, and now cars were clogging residential streets, trapping people in their driveways, and causing backups at Logan Airport.
Jonathan Gulliver, who had recently become acting state highway administrator, was called to the governor’s office for an urgent meeting.
Gulliver and other transportation officials laid out detailed engineering drawings and told the governor their plan to improve the traffic flow. Charlie Baker listened.
Then he dismissed their particular solution. He went to a white board on his office wall, drew the interchange from memory, and proceeded to explain why one street was backing up.
When they pushed back, Baker produced iPhone pictures he had taken of the tunnel entrance to prove his point.
They talked about the timing of the signals. They considered cone placement. The meeting went on for well over an hour.
“I bet you didn’t expect that,” a top Baker aide told Gulliver later.
Gulliver definitely had not. But everyone who has come to be acquainted with Baker in his decades in public life knows a man who loves diving deep into the machinery of government.
Baker’s comfort with the weeds, his emphasis on nonpartisan data rather than ideology, his step-by-step style of governance, conciliation with Democrats — it’s all part of what helped him notch consensus victories on opioid and energy laws, and earn a big reelection win in November.
But as he begins his second term on Thursday, the governor’s managerial style means the man himself remains something of an enigma.
And in this Trump era, the nation’s most popular governor has found political safety and success in speaking in muted tones of disappointment and writing wonky letters of dismay to national Republicans.
But at this pivotal moment, what do we really know about Baker and what drives him? For clues, you have to look back.
The Charlie Baker who now sits in the governor’s office was already being formed in the joyful “Ozzie and Harriet” childhood he has described growing up in Needham. There were Mom, Dad, Charlie and his two younger brothers, a dog, a couple of cats. There were good friends, wonderful teachers, sports.
At Needham High School, he was elected to the student council and was good enough at basketball to be on the senior team his junior year, his father Charles D. Baker, 90, remembers.
Central to Charlie’s upbringing was, in his words, the nightly “laser light show” of opinions at the dinner table. His mother, Betty, was a Democrat; his father, a Republican. The Baker boys — and their guests — were expected to come ready to tangle intellectually, to take positions, to listen well, and to know facts.
Sometimes, by the time they were eating dessert, young Charlie had brought reference books to the table to bolster his points.
“He liked to win a lot,” Baker’s father recalled.
But Baker’s college friends don’t remember that being his main quality at Harvard.
Glenn Parsons, a friend who played on the freshman basketball team with Baker and was his suitemate at Mather House sophomore year, recalls him being thoughtful and cerebral.
“He used to always talk in analogies,” Parsons said. Baker and friends would be talking about “the usual knucklehead 18-year-old stuff, probably sports, and he would bring in an analogy.”
Parsons and other friends thought of Baker as an amiable, well-rounded guy, a good listener. They recall him loving music, from Cheap Trick to Aerosmith, shredding air guitar and going to a Kiss concert dressed in full band regalia. He served as an imposingly tall bouncer at the Oxford Ale House in Harvard Square. They recall him playing club sports, too — a tight end for the Mather House tackle football team.
But Baker wasn’t happy at Harvard.
“I’m a team guy,” he said in an interview. “Harvard is much more about the individual. And I just found that uncomfortable.”
Good moments came mentoring in the Big Brothers program. And basketball.
On Harvard’s 1977-1978 varsity basketball team, Baker, 6 foot 6, was not the standout he was in high school, and spent much of the season on the bench. The junior was not a particularly good jumper or runner, his teammates recalled, but he was cheerful, kind, hard-working, positive, and passionate about the team.
“He had limited athletic ability but got the most out of it and had a tremendous, tremendous work ethic,” said Frank McLaughlin, then the varsity coach.
Bill Aulet, who spent the season with Baker mostly on the bench, said Baker was a workhorse and “willingly played his role.”
Baker “seemed to have less of an ego challenge than other people, which is hard because one of the things that makes you good in sports is you have to believe you are better than you are. You have to believe you’re better than the other person,” said Aulet.
The governor’s father remembers a story his son once told him about a high school basketball buddy who said, “you know, Charlie, you can jump just as high as we can — but we hang up there and you come down.”
After graduating from college in 1979, glad to leave the experience behind him, Baker worked on the short-lived presidential campaign of onetime treasury secretary and Texas governor John Connally, and then in communications for the New England Council, a business group.
A big career step came when his father asked the president of the Massachusetts High Technology Council, Howard P. Foley, to interview his oldest son.
Baker got the communications director job, and the next three years were formative.
He learned that “details matter,” said Chris Anderson, who succeeded Baker and later became the group’s president. Baker developed a “dedication to going where the data led.”
And Foley, a onetime IBM manager, became a mentor and teacher for Baker.
“He has a sense of balance, and he can really get his arms around whatever it was,” Foley, now in his 80s, said.
He recalled “a kid who would listen to something and analyze and try to draw conclusions based on what was there.”
In the summer of 1984, Baker left to study at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, having spent years immersed in the intricacies of state policy.
“When he went to Kellogg, I think he had a much better sense of who he was, what he wanted, what his direction was,” said Baker’s youngest brother, Alex. “I think Howard Foley was a mentor to Charlie and helped launch him.”
Northwestern was important to Baker in several ways. He met his future wife, Lauren, with whom he has three adult children. He excelled in Kellogg’s team-focused environment, and loved working together to get things done.
He did not love his next job at Touche Ross, the consulting and accounting firm that is now Deloitte. But it was just a short career interlude before Baker helped found a new conservative-leaning think tank, the Pioneer Institute, and served as codirector. Everything did not go smoothly at first.
Baker used to call the October day in 1988 when Pioneer rolled out a big, 120-page study on health insurance the worst of his life.
At the news conference to trumpet the report, the lead author insisted that there weren’t any kids under 14 in Massachusetts without health insurance.
But that was not true. The faulty assertion ended up being the story dominating the news rather than the report.
It was a learning moment for Baker. Preparation. Stick to what you know. And there are checks and balances on you — like from the news media — when you don’t.
The report debacle notwithstanding, the institute survived. It cast a gimlet eye, a conservative eye, toward some of Governor Michael Dukakis’s marquee programs. Pioneer, this newspaper wrote, “thoughtfully trashed state programs that had been promoted as shining examples of what liberal, good-government policy is all about.”
It pumped out big papers on important state issues. Baker became something of a talking head. His profile grew in Republican circles. He became a key outside adviser to GOP gubernatorial candidate William F. Weld.
“Literally the beginning of my campaign in 1989, he was tutoring me first on insurance then on health care, then on everything,” Weld said. “Because he knew everything.”
Weld, who won the 1990 race, hired Baker as undersecretary in the Executive Office of Health and Human Services and he soon became the administration’s wunderkind, promoted to secretary and, later, state budget chief.
Baker was at the forefront of reshaping state government, privatizing some services, transforming others. Balancing helping the state’s most vulnerable people with the budget’s bottom line, he was cheered and loathed in different quarters. He led the charge in slimming the growth of Medicaid costs, tightening welfare rules and imposing work requirements, and deregulating the hospital industry, reshaping it to rely on the free market to limit how much they charged.
“He’s a bureaucrat in the best sense of the word,” Judy Meredith, a human services lobbyist, memorably said in 1998 when Baker announced he was leaving state government. “He’s also the most charming slash-and-burn artist that this human-services advocate has ever seen.”
Philip Mangano, an advocate for the homeless, recalled that even if you came to Baker pressing for the most sympathy-inducing population of people — young people coming out of foster care, homeless people on the street in the middle of a snowstorm — that wasn’t enough.
“You would have to appeal not just to the heart, but to the mind of the man as well,” he said. “But once you made the case and you could back it up with data . . . he would be as aggressive a practitioner of finding a solution as anyone.”
Baker’s next big job, as the chief executive of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, was another head-and-heart gig.
Soon after he took the reins, the insurer was in such a catastrophic financial situation it was put into state receivership.
Baker had a big vision for Harvard Pilgrim, to make it, in his words, the most “reliable, predictable, dependable, and affordable health plan.” And, through hard work, he made it reality, said Bruce Bullen, who was his chief operating officer at the company.
But Baker will only embrace a vision if it’s anchored in a tenable step-by-step plan, Bullen said. “He literally can’t make himself do it unless he thinks he has the infrastructure in place to make it happen.”
Bullen said Baker has a “cautious side to him. He wants to advance objectives. He wants to achieve a vision, but he’s not going to do it in a way that sacrifices any steps along the way. He’s going to do so in a measured way.”
Baker helped nurse Harvard Pilgrim back to fiscal health and make it the top-rated insurer in the country.
So when he announced a bid for governor in the summer of 2009, few doubted he had the qualifications to lead the state. The political chops to win the post? That was another matter.
By October 2009, Governor Deval Patrick was deeply unpopular. The unemployment rate was almost 9 percent. Two-thirds of Massachusetts voters thought the state was on the wrong track.
Baker, guided by longtime political hands, ran an angry campaign focused on channeling grievance and hurling it toward the incumbent. With the slogan, “Had Enough?” Baker unfurled ideas like charging people in jail and prison “a nominal daily room and board fee.”
Four days before the 2010 election, the socially moderate, fiscally conservative candidate called a news conference. The topic was welfare.
The Republican’s campaign had made props, too. To reporters, they passed out wallet-sized cards with a fake magnetic strip that said “Deval Patrick’s Massachusetts EBT Welfare Card” and, in capital red letters, “SWIPE ME FOR BOOZE, CASH, CIGARETTES AND/OR LOTTERY TICKETS AT TAXPAYERS’ EXPENSE.”
“He raised our taxes eight times to fund his spending habits,” Baker said, channeling a bitterness and resentment he would later disown. “In addition, the governor spends $400 million a year on welfare assistance that can be used for slots and booze and tobacco, the so-called EBT card, electronic benefits transfer card.”
For those even vaguely familiar with Patrick’s story — a black man who had grown up poor, his family sometimes on welfare, and risen to become the state’s first African-American governor — it was hard to miss the resonance.
Asked about it at the time, Patrick smiled and called it Baker’s “gimmick du jour.”
But Patrick’s team was “disgusted by it” and found the event to be “racially charged,” one then-top Patrick aide says now.
Baker lost the election.
After the defeat, Baker asked for feedback from friends, top political minds, reporters.
“Those that knew me said they did not see the guy they thought they knew in the campaign generally. And a bunch of them said they thought it was, at times, inappropriate, and over the top, and disrespectful,” he said in the interview.
On the EBT card event, Baker says he doesn’t buy the idea that the event was racially charged. “But I definitely regret it.”
The race chastened Baker. If he ran again, he’d be more careful, the conservatism narrower, the message brighter.
“This is, basically, not an angry state,” Weld said recently, reflecting on Baker’s 2010 bid. “Running an angry campaign is not going to be successful.”
In January 2013, Charlie Baker appeared on a New England Cable News television show, “Broadside,” with host Jim Braude.
Braude asked if he was a different Charlie Baker than he was during the campaign.
Baker replied that he did not think so. He’s always been a passionate guy. But he said people running statewide have to remember that voters will make a decision based on flashes and snippets of the candidate. “And that means you have to be enormously careful about how you portray yourself,” he said.
A few months later, but before he announced a second run for governor, Baker wrote a long Memorial Day message that he blasted out in an e-mail and posted on Facebook.
It included an anecdote about a samurai who tells his son that there’s a battle in all of us between two wolves.
The good one is love, hope, humility, kindness, generosity, and compassion. The evil one is anger, jealousy, greed, superiority, and ego, Baker wrote.
Which wolf wins? The one you feed.
In 2014, a cheery Baker ran with the slogan “Let’s be Great, Massachusetts!” He won by the narrowest margin in decades against Democrat Martha Coakley and set upon a pragmatic, if not particularly flashy, agenda of fixing problems — the troubled Department of Children and Families, the state’s scourge of opioid deaths, the prison for men with mental illness in Bridgewater, the MBTA.
The economy hummed during his first four years. In several areas, there has been profound progress. In others, such as the T, there has been less. There are blights on his record, too, like the still-expanding overtime corruption scandal at the State Police.
He has worked hand in hand with the Democratic-controlled Legislature on several fronts, and acquiesced, rather than fight lawmakers when they knocked down some of his ideas.
But the image his 7 million constituents have seen of him, made up of those flashes and snippets Baker said determine a candidate’s reputation, is not just of bipartisanship and wonky competence, but also of a nice guy. He got his head shaved for charity four times and took the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge wearing a “Free Brady” T-shirt.
His upbeat 2018 campaign aimed to affirm the ideas people already had about him. It worked.
He says to expect more of the same: positivity, compromise, competence.
“What people really want out of us is for us to do our jobs, do ’em well,” he said recently.
Deep down Baker is still the kid who came to the dinner table with reference books to bolster his argument, the college basketball player who lived within the reality of his skills, the cautious leader who walks low among the facts rather than flying high in aspiration.
He is a man who believes that thoughtful, incremental, collaborative fixing and tinkering, compounded over time, is truly transformational.
Michael J. Widmer, the former longtime president of the watchdog Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, who has closely followed every step of Baker’s public service career, said from the managerial perspective, Baker has done a good job, even as Widmer is “struck by his inherent caution.”
But Widmer said a governor must both manage and lead.
“When he’s got this kind of public support and this overwhelming election,” Widmer said with wonder in his voice, “what are the possibilities here? The stars don’t get aligned in this business very often.”
Indeed, the governor’s position is unique.
Some politicians shy from political risks because they have an eye on the next rung of the ladder, but Baker and those close to him make clear that he has no ambition for higher elective office. Others never get traction on their big ideas because of a lack of political finesse, but Baker is a gifted politician who has traversed the hallways of the State House for decades. Others still are simply bored by the mundanity of government work and distracted by other interests, but Baker loves spreadsheets, budget line items, queuing theory. The 62-year-old has no hobbies.
So as he swears the gubernatorial oath a second time, how much more will Baker be willing to take on? Will he embrace more risk in responding to the current economic, environmental, and political instability? And if he’s caught between his cautious temperament and the extremity of the times, can he, will he, jump and hang up there a while?