There he was, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker, standing on the State House steps Monday, wearing a “Free Brady” T-shirt, and dumping a bucket of ice water over his head for charity.
It’s one of many ways Baker plays against the buttoned-up stereotype of a Republican businessman as governor — and a big reason why he’s been able to gain support across the partisan divide. The evidence was standing right there with him on the steps, as a trio of Democrats — Senate President Stan Rosenberg, Auditor Suzanne Bump, and Treasurer Deb Goldberg — hoisted buckets over their own heads.
Thanks to the bipartisan, inclusionary approach to government that Baker has adopted, sharing the stage with Democrats is no anomaly. In fact, it’s all part of his formula for success as a Republican governing a blue state.
Baker is a numbers guy. He knows that in Massachusetts, where Democrats outnumber Republican voters 3 to 1, you don’t get to a whopping 70 percent job approval rating by pandering to the 11 percent of the electorate registered as part of the GOP.
That’s why, during his campaign, he lined up support from Democratic mayors and hired Democratic strategist Will Keyser, best known for his work for the liberal lion of the US Senate, the late Ted Kennedy. Upon taking office, Baker kept it going by choosing a Democrat to serve as his chief of staff and by appointing Democrats to key cabinet positions and other posts, alongside more traditional partisan appointments.
One of Baker’s first acts as governor was to hold a press conference with Rosenberg and House Speaker Robert DeLeo, where the trio pledged to work together on problems. Many predicted the honeymoon wouldn’t last, but it has. Eight months later, they’re still singing Kumbaya.
Baker’s bipartisan strategy is paying off policy-wise.
He gained early support from DeLeo as he sought to establish an MBTA control board, effectively getting the Democratic Legislature to turn the public-transit system over to a Republican governor. He won a major coup by getting Democratic legislators to take on unions at the MBTA by temporarily suspending the sacred Pacheco Law, which made it hard for the agency to contract with private companies to perform any functions currently done by (unionized) T employees. Baker then laid claim to help-the-hard-pressed credibility by working with the overwhelmingly Democratic Legislature to approve an increase in the earned income tax credit for low-income families.
These are no small accomplishments for a first year in office, especially for a Republican in Massachusetts.
The risk of being bipartisan in today’s polarized political world is that those in your own party who expect you to be their partisan point person could question your commitment to their cause. But Baker has mastered that side of the equation, too, by making himself a regular presence on the fundraising circuit, enthusiastically supporting local GOP candidates statewide, and reassuring activists that he hasn’t forgotten about them. Most of the Republicans I talk to seem positively giddy about having a Republican back in the corner office.
If Baker can maintain the bipartisan spirit he has fostered, he may well be able to keep the governor’s office for more than just four years. With Democratic leaders so willing to work with the Republican governor — and bask in the glow of his sky-high approval ratings — it will be hard for them to become sharp or tenacious partisan critics if and when he runs for a second term.
Ultimately, in a game of numbers, that could prove to be the biggest dividend of all when it comes to Charlie Baker and his bipartisan approach.
Meredith Warren is a Republican political analyst and consultant.