Brrrr. A very chilly Charlie Baker returned to the debate stage Tuesday night in his bid for a second term as governor.
Looking stiff — and likely annoyed at missing the start of the Sox-Yankees game — Baker tried to freeze out Democrat Jay Gonzalez with a barrage of coolly delivered factoids about his track record as governor.
As if, like Queen Elsa of “Frozen” fame, he could banish Gonzalez to eternal political winter.
But Gonzalez did not turn into ice. He fought back, raising legitimate concerns about the state of transportation, education, and energy policy in Massachusetts.
The optics of this showdown presented a tall iceberg of an incumbent, taking on a diminutive Democrat, who says he’s fighting for the little guy and humorously describes himself as one. Gonzalez continues to lack details on how he would deliver — except for a pledge to raise taxes on the wealthy and a much-criticized plan to tax endowments of the wealthiest college. Still, his critiques of life in Massachusetts under Baker ring true.
He called the public transit system one of the worst in the country. He pointed out huge disparities in the quality of education delivered throughout Massachusetts. Citing the recent gas explosion tragedy in the Merrimack Valley, he called on Baker to hire more inspectors for the Department of Public Utilities. And he questioned Baker’s handling of ongoing State Police scandals.
Baker’s approach to governing, said Gonzalez, adds up to “small-ball, status quo stuff.”
To which Baker delivered the response he has no doubt been faithfully practicing between assorted ribbon-cuttings, where he’s usually flanked by appreciative Democrats: “I simply do not buy for a minute that we’ve been a status quo administration.
“If I was a status quo governor, there’d still be thousands of homeless families living in hotels and motels in Massachusetts — there aren’t,” said Baker. “If I was a status quo governor, we wouldn’t have a huge offshore wind and hydro program going on to replace a third of our fossil fuels with clean, renewable energy.”
It was an effective parry, particularly as Baker also cited spending cuts to education and children’s services made by Gonzalez when he served as budget chief under Deval Patrick, Baker’s predecessor. But it didn’t address the other quality-of-life issues raised by Gonzalez that cry out for more and quicker state investment.
Baker lost his first bid for governor to Patrick in 2010, during a race in which he was basically out-charmed. After that defeat, he dropped some of his more dismissive attitudes and showed voters a less cranky side. During a 2014 debate with Democrat Martha Coakley, he famously choked up when he recounted a meeting with a fisherman who supposedly told him a story about how federal regulations were ruining his industry and destroying his sons’ future. The fisherman was never identified, but Baker’s emotion over his tale helped soften his image.
He took office showing a warmer side. However, with polls showing him with a landslide lead over Gonzalez, not to mention his most-popular-governor-in-the-country status, he’s getting comfortable again with his colder CEO personality. That’s especially true concerning topics he doesn’t want to address, or believes he understands better than everyone else.
One of those is the T. It’s another problem Baker said he inherited from Patrick. Yet he also likes to claim it as a signature issue, and loves to get into the weeds of talking signals, switches, and assorted track improvements.
During their debate, Gonzalez said Baker should listen more to commuters.
“With the lack of urgency and the fact the system hasn’t been fixed, I’m surprised commuters haven’t revolted and started a petition to change the name of these T passes from CharlieCard to ‘Where’s Charlie Card,’ ” said Gonzalez, while holding up a T pass.
Baker has stubbornly refused to actually ride the T, saying he doesn’t need to do that to understand the problems. It comes across as very clinical.
He has probably done enough not to be tainted as the “status quo” leader that Gonzales is trying to tag him with. But no matter how big a lead the polls say he has, there’s still plenty to passionately debate when it comes to the future of Massachusetts.
Let it go, governor, let it go.Joan Vennochi can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.