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Charlie Baker’s fisherman story should cause him anger, not tears

Charlie Baker describes meeting local fisherman
Late into the one-hour clash, the debate took a surprising turn on what seemed like a throwaway question: When was the last time you cried?

This was one time Charlie Baker should have gotten mad, not sad.

A father, who also happened to be a fisherman “soaked in sweat and salt water,” prevented his sons from taking college scholarships because he wanted them to become fishermen, too.

“I ruined their lives,” said Baker, quoting the father, as the candidate emotionally recounted the anecdote during Tuesday’s debate.

If this unidentified fisherman did indeed stop his sons from pursuing college degrees so they could take up the family business, that is one self-centered dad. So much for following their dreams — he wanted his children to follow his own.

Hearing that story would make many people angry.

But not Baker. So anxious was he to show heart and compassion, he lost his composure over an anecdote that occurred in 2009, when he was running against Governor Deval Patrick. Reporting on it in 2010, then-columnist and now Boston Globe editor Brian McGrory wrote that Baker “talked about a sweaty and solemn fisherman who described his job as a ‘cancer’” and regretted bringing his two sons into a vocation that was heading toward death.

“The urgency in my voice comes from those conversations,” Baker told McGrory at the time.


As I write this Wednesday evening, Globe reporters have not yet been able to locate the fisherman who made such a lasting impression on Baker. If he exists and his tale is true, he still makes a curious case for tears.

It wasn’t that the fisherman’s sons didn’t have the money to go to college. That would be cause for melancholy. Instead, their father stopped them for reasons unrelated to finances as he blamed federal regulations for the demise of the fishing industry.

Different things move different people. The Derek Jeter Gatorade commercial makes me cry every time, along with old baby pictures of my children. If a fisherman’s tale like this brings Baker to tears, then so be it. Perhaps the pressure of a high-stakes debate made an old story easier to dredge up. But it does make you wonder why a more recent campaign event failed to trigger water works in the candidate.


Baker has been fighting critics who say he cares about numbers, not people. So, it’s understandable he would want to dismantle the image of a cold-hearted CEO, who is willing to cut jobs in order to save the bottom line. The question he was asked — when is the last time you cried — presented such an opportunity. Any politician would seize it. In response, Democrat Martha Coakley talked about attending a memorial service that day for a union organizer and supporter who died of leukemia, as her mother did.

Anecdotes like that are fine. But for a governor, empathy means more than sobbing over one person’s hard luck story. It’s about coming up with programs and policies that help many people. Baker has yet to fully explain how he defines the role of government in the lives of ordinary citizens, including the most vulnerable.

He is clear about not wanting to raise taxes and making government work more efficiently. But to what end? And, without new revenue, under what restrictions?

In 2010, Baker was an angry candidate. In 2014, he has worked to be a gentler one. For the most part, the new packaging held together. But as the campaign wore on, the mask started to slip. Flashes of anger and impatience broke through when he was challenged by Coakley or even by debate moderators. Some might go as far as to suggest he has a temperament problem.


Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.