Charlie Baker has been a good governor — and he could be a great one.
The Globe endorses him for reelection on Nov. 6 and urges him to take some of the criticism he’s heard during this campaign season to heart and aim higher over the next four years.
What makes the 61-year-old Swampscott Republican good at his job is his enthusiasm for wrestling with the state’s toughest challenges. What would make him great would be a willingness to throw everything he could at solving them — to swing for the fences, even at the risk of striking out.
Too often Baker is on the hunt for the safe middle ground. That he’s taken such a cautious approach isn’t altogether surprising. Baker — a former health insurance CEO and two-time cabinet secretary in the Weld and Cellucci administrations — ran in 2014 pledging to be a sound manager and consensus builder. Baker won by a slim 40,000-vote margin — hardly a resounding mandate. But working with a Democratic Legislature, he’s become a national leader on opioids , put in the hard work to create a brighter future for the MBTA, shored up the state’s finances, instituted significant reforms at Bridgewater State Hospital, and hired 350 new social workers to help ease an overloaded Department of Children and Families.
In an interview with the Globe editorial board, Baker said the biggest thing he learned since taking office “is you think the job may be about one thing and it turns out to be about something else.” That was certainly the case with the crisis that unfolded at the MBTA shortly after he was sworn in. Fixing the T was not on his agenda during his last campaign. But when the public transit system crashed after a historic snowfall in early 2015, he pressed for a series of fiscal and management reforms that have put the MBTA on the right track. Baker can now talk about railroad ties and signals with more authority than any governor since Michael Dukakis.
Baker’s passion for getting into the weeds of government also showed in two opioid-related bills. Overdose deaths have leveled off on his watch, partly because of wider availability of overdose-reversal drugs. Baker can also take credit for jump-starting offshore wind, which could be a transformative industry for Massachusetts, and championing hydropower imports from Canada.
The governor has turned out to be the bipartisan consensus builder he said he would be. The fact that so many Democratic mayors have endorsed him speaks to his ability to reach across party lines. Baker certainly isn’t your typical Republican; he favors abortion and transgender rights, opposed efforts to repeal Obamacare, and didn’t vote for Donald Trump.
The accomplishments of his first term have been real. But the state still has urgent challenges in housing, transportation, and education, as Baker himself acknowledges. His Democratic opponent, Jay Gonzalez, argues that the persistence of those challenges reflects Baker’s lack of ambition and vision. But we see that unfinished business as an agenda for a second term. And the last four years provide confidence that Baker is capable of delivering — if he puts political capital behind it.
Spending political capital means making bold bets on the future of Massachusetts. Here’s one recent example: Deval Patrick created a $1 billion program to fuel the biotechnology industry, a visionary move that helped cement the Commonwealth’s reputation and economic strength as a global leader in life sciences. What should the state double down on next to support and nurture our future economic strength and diversity?
Transforming transportation should be a top priority in Baker’s second term. On his watch, the MBTA is better managed, but it will take at least 15 years to upgrade all of its crumbling infrastructure from stations to parking garages. Baker needs to lay out a plan to heavily invest in the system to fix the T faster. The fiscal conservative doesn’t like to raise taxes, but during this campaign he has edged closer to acknowledging the T may need more money to meet the demands of a bustling region. He says he has told Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack many times,“if you need me to help you figure out ways to generate additional resources to do that, I will help you figure that out.”
On education, Baker backed a initiative petition to dramatically expand charter schools, only to see it fail at the ballot in 2016. Since then, he has tried unsuccessfully to push the Legislature to create empowerment zones for marginal schools, freeing those schools from some district directives and union-contract constraints. Getting that done will require dedicated effort in a second term. So, too, will resolving a deadlocked attempt to rebalance the school funding formula to help poorer districts. Baker can do this. Over four years, his administration has increased Chapter 70 education funding by more than $500 million. It’s not enough that Massachusetts boasts the best public schools in the country; the state has to close the achievement gap between rich and poor districts.
And though his administration has undertaken creative initiatives to reduce the cost of college at a time when it is becoming unaffordable for even the middle class, Baker should invest more in public higher education. The Massachusetts economy depends on the ability of the state to produce an educated workforce.
As for the scandals within his administration, Baker can’t keep distancing himself from them. He needs to take ownership — full stop. For example, the overtime and payroll abuses in the State Police are outrageous, as was the agency’s effort to destroy payroll and personnel records. The culture at the agency needs to change; doesn’t matter if the bad behavior started before Baker’s time. The governor must continue to push for reforms, including lobbying the Legislature to let him and future governors hire a leader from outside the department. Baker in his endorsement interview said the idea “is certainly worth talking about.”
Then there’s the high cost of housing, which Baker described as the top issue he’s heard about on the campaign trail. But as governor he has answered the problem with the policy equivalent of two aspirin. Baker put a miniature version of zoning reform on the table this year, because he believed that’s what had the best chance of getting through the Legislature. But he ceded too much at the outset: Yes, it’ll be heavy-lifting politically, but he needs to get behind more expansive zoning reform and expend political capital to make it happen.
The governor should also be more of a fighter for the soul of his party. This election season, Baker walked an awkward line and endorsed the GOP ticket, which includes hard-core Trump backer Geoff Diehl. In a second term, Baker can and should speak out more forcefully against the president’s ugliest pronouncements and, if a centrist GOP challenger emerges in the New Hampshire primary, lend his political support. Baker, who says he’s not interested in running for higher office, has a platform. He should use it.
Gonzalez, a former health insurance CEO and cabinet member in the Patrick administration, is running a spirited campaign with limited resources, an irony in a state heavy with Democrats. He deserves credit for being willing to challenge Baker, who polls as America’s most popular governor. Gonzalez has been effective in pointing out the state’s Achilles heels, especially the glaring inadequacies of the public transportation system. His sense of urgency about the T, along with his call to more deeply invest in education and other government services, will resonate with many voters. But Gonzalez hasn’t made a convincing case that he can do better than Baker.
Like all politicians, Baker has benefited from a strong economy. But his success is more than good luck. In broad strokes, Baker has delivered what he promised in 2014. It’s a strong enough record that he deserves the chance to do more in a second term. If Baker can reach his potential, so can Massachusetts.