Charlie Baker is being true to Charlie Baker — and to Massachusetts.
The governor didn’t attend the Boston Women’s March Saturday; instead, he attended a wonky municipal conference. Meanwhile, his State of the State address Tuesday was devoid of passion for anything but bipartisanship and common goals.
In that spirit, the governor gave a shout-out to an unprecedented seating arrangement in the House chamber: James O’Brien, the president of Boston Carmen’s Union Local 589, sandwiched between Brian Shortsleeve and Joe Aiello, the top two managers at the MBTA. Despite a venomous history, management was able to reach agreement on a new contract with its largest union. A “win-win,” said Baker.
Everyone knows what’s sexier. Rallies — not signing off on work-rule reforms that will help modernize a troubled transit system. But what matters more to Massachusetts?
The women’s march was a mega-media event, staged by Democrats and partisan interest groups to embarrass President Trump. Mission accomplished. But Baker, a Republican governor who is already on Trump’s bad side, has a different mission. He needs $1 billion in federal funding for the Green Line and many more billions for Massachusetts health care. Why antagonize a demonstrably vengeful president any more than he already has?
In Tuesday night’s speech, Baker didn’t mention Trump by name, although he did make an apparent reference to him. “It’s one thing to stand in a corner and shout insults at your opponents. It’s quite another to climb into the arena — and fight for common ground,” he said.
Hot rhetoric has its appeal, but Baker’s trying another approach: cool reason. The job, he said, “is to represent Massachusetts to Washington — and not Washington to Massachusetts.
That doesn’t please partisans on either side. But competence, not ideology, got Baker elected, and he’s sticking with the formula. Governor Jerry Brown, a defiant Democrat, used his State of the State address to attack Trump policies that could undercut California law regarding health care, the environment, and immigration. Massachusetts faces the same risks under Trump rule
But Baker’s in a very different position. He’s a moderate Republican in a blue state. On Election Day, Hillary Clinton won 60 percent of the vote in Massachusetts. But one million Massachusetts voters still backed Trump, the candidate Baker declared unfit for the presidency.
Sensing political vulnerability, Massachusetts Democrats put out a press release lambasting Baker for remaining “silent on the Trump agenda.”
There’s a lot at stake for Baker, but also for Massachusetts. A mercurial president just took up residence in the White House. He has a long memory and a penchant for revenge. How does it benefit Massachusetts to get into a running war with him? If the state loses federal funding, we all lose. Baker isn’t talking appeasement. “We will advocate. We will engage,” he said.
Strategic engagement can be a path to common ground.
It worked with the Carmen’s Union. Hostility ran so deep that seven union members, including O’Brien, were arrested while protesting Baker’s plan to privatize the system’s “money room” or cash handling system. But Shortsleeve, the T’s acting general manager, said that he and O’Brien “never stopped communicating.” As part of the agreement, union drivers will keep all their bus routes — a big victory for 589. But the T is privatizing operation of its money room and is outsourcing work at its inventory warehouse. Of his first time at a State of the State address, O’Brien said, “It was great to hear the governor give a shout-out to the Carmen’s Union.” The two sides got by the rough time “at the negotiating table,” he said. The T’s problems are far from solved. But now there’s a better chance of addressing them. That’s important for everyone.
Those protesters, after all, needed reliable public transportation to get them to the Boston Common, where the women’s march began.
In the end, results, not rallies or rhetoric, are what Baker should be judged on.