Governor Charlie Baker’s life is a balancing act – a Republican in an overwhelmingly Democratic state, a reasonable and enlightened moderate while the top of his party is anything but. With an entirely blue Congressional delegation, he will be, for better or worse, this state’s interlocutor with a potentially vengeful Trump administration.
He took a rhetorical stand in his state-of-the-state address. Its high point – and the one that drew the most sustained applause – was when he decried the character assassination and misrepresentation that today passes for political dialogue. He emphasized his obligation to put progress and results ahead of partisanship. His job, he said, is “to represent Massachusetts to Washington and not Washington to Massachusetts.” That was as explicit as he got regarding any fealty he might have felt to the leader of his party in the White House.
Unlike Donald J. Trump, Baker extolled the value of compromise, “a sign of strength,” yielding another enthusiastic round of applause. This was the part of his speech where he seemed most comfortable and energized. The rest may have been substantive, but his delivery was rather flat.
Despite that, if you’d landed here from Mars, you might think that Charlie Baker was another in a long line of Democratic governors. He made the listener feel pretty lucky to live in Massachusetts notwithstanding the cold weather. We have among the strongest state economies in the nation, job growth that has spread even to struggling cities like New Bedford, leadership on climate change and clean energy, six straight years of our schools being #1 in math and reading. While we’re not perfect, we’ve had success reducing homelessness, tackling opoid addiction, improving services at the Department of Children and Families (though he spoke of the need to expedite adoptions.)
He spoke of accomplishments that highlighted his skills as a middle-of-the-road technocrat: cutting red tape, closing a budget gap and stopping the tendency to borrow inappropriately from the Rainy Day Fund. He also bowed to his fiscally conservative Republican values of opposing broad-based tax increases. His proposed budget, however, includes some pretty hefty specific taxes, like the one on employers of ten or more who don’t provide their workers health insurance. Baker also wants to extend the existing hotel tax to high-volume air BnB’s.
The budget also includes new money for social initiatives. Much remains to be done, especially regarding the schools. Some pundits speculate that Baker will be hurt in his 2018 reelection bid by having been on the losing side of the charter school and recreational pot legalization referenda. I believe that substantively he was on the right side of those issues and that his positions won’t hurt him measurably two years down the road when he’s likely to run for reelection.
If anyone wants to challenge, he or she will need a strong rationale beyond personal career advancement. Some critics lament his failure to show up at the Women’s March event last Saturday, especially given his support of the issues raised at the event. While he had to be at the Mass. Municipal Association meeting that morning, he still could have put in an appearance or, at a minimum, sent a high-level member of his administration to represent him. But let’s face it: he has a good record on rights for women, reproductive rights, gays, pay equity. He will be judged by how he deals with the Trump administration on substantive matters, using his GOP credentials to protect Massachusetts (including, among other things, access to health care, the state’s Medicaid waiver, funding the Green Line extension, NIH research grants and more). His symbolic participation in what was a largely Democratic event could have cost him leverage in Washington.
Setti Warren is widely believed to be planning to challenge Baker in 2018. The Newton Mayor certainly lacks traction at this stage in the electoral cycle, and you’d have to say he is a heavy underdog. So, too, with former Administration and Finance Secretary Jay Gonzalez. Some supporters of Attorney General Maura Healy want her to get in the race, and she’s the only one now who could make it somewhat interesting. I think she and the state would be better served if she runs for reelection. Baker has higher favorability ratings than any other politician in Massachusetts, including Healy and even Senator Elizabeth Warren. Support for Baker is strong among Democrats and Independents as well as Republicans.
We live in challenging times, times that require leaders with backbones along with the ability to compromise and to administer. Finding the right balance is important for Baker. His fellow Republicans are still in a spineless go-along-to-get-along mode, a posture that will not work well for the highly popular Baker, now or over the long haul.
I welcome your comments in the section below. To be alerted when a new blog is posted, click on “Follow’ in the lower right portion of your screen.