The key to Charlie Baker’s narrow gubernatorial victory on Tuesday night was simple: He learned the lesson from his defeat in 2010. That year, Baker ran as an angry opponent of taxes and welfare, and voters rejected him soundly. This time, he toned down his act, abandoned the divisive rhetoric about EBT cards, and built his campaign around a promise to make government perform better. Now that voters have endorsed that vision, Baker should govern in that reformist spirit.
On the trail, Baker successfully tapped into anxieties about Governor Deval Patrick's managerial record, which has included embarrassing lapses at the state crime lab, the Department of Children and Families, and the Health Connector website, among other troubles. While Patrick is personally popular, and his policies enjoy widespread support, he seemed to place a lesser emphasis on implementing them, and voters noticed.
Baker promises to change that, and his successful record as a health insurance executive helped convince a plurality of the electorate he'd be more of an improvement than his Democratic opponent, Martha Coakley. His party affiliation may have helped, too; Massachusetts has a long history of electing Republican governors as checks on the heavily Democratic Legislature, and the same impulse seems to have been in play this year. In Washington, divided government has been a recipe for gridlock, but history suggests it doesn't have to be that way in Massachusetts. Indeed, the fact that Baker doesn't owe Beacon Hill Democrats anything politically, and that most state legislators don't feel any political allegiance to him either, may actually free both branches to tackle needed reforms.
The central promise that Baker made was to govern better, which will mean hiring good managers at troubled agencies like DCF and steering clear of some of the hiring practices that clouded Patrick's record, especially in the governor's second term. Although he ran as an outsider, over eight years Patrick sometimes sounded like an apologist for patronage hiring. Among other questionable moves, his administration installed a political supporter, rather than a traffic safety expert, as the state's highway safety director, and named the son of a corrupt Chelsea powerbroker to a state board. It's easy to minimize each individual case of patronage hiring, but taken together, such decisions do grievous harm to public confidence that government is efficient, fair, and serving the public.
As he prepares to take the reins, Baker should set the tone by early by telling politicians (of both parties) not to bother sending him resumes. The slender margin of Baker's victory, and the power of Democrats in the Legislature, means he'll undoubtedly have to compromise many of his policy positions to get anything done. But elections do matter. Baker promised a clean break from Patrick's managerial practices, and voters should expect him to deliver.