Baker goes turtle while Gonzalez gets carried away

Debate showcases flaws in both candidates

IT COULDN’T COMPETE with the drama of the Astros-Sox game, but Wednesday night’s debate between Republican Gov. Charlie Baker and Democratic challenger Jay Gonzalez packed a lot of punch.

Baker went turtle several times, rolling up into his shell when he was confronted with issues or inconsistencies that he didn’t want to acknowledge. Gonzalez, whose frank and feisty attitude was refreshing, nevertheless overplayed his hand, vowing to spend far more than his tax plans are likely to yield over the next four years.

Baker has been dogged by his endorsement of the entire state GOP ticket – including big Donald Trump supporter Geoff Diehl for US Senate – and he has always tried to finesse why he is supporting a Republican he doesn’t agree with on many major issues.

Wednesday night Gonzalez put Baker on the spot and asked him if he would vote next month for Diehl, who is challenging US Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Baker bobbed and weaved as best he could, but then he said he hadn’t made up his mind yet, which opened him up to the charge that he was endorsing someone for office who he might not vote for himself. After the debate, Baker said he had misspoke and will vote for Diehl.

Baker’s other turtle was on whether he supports the construction of a new natural gas pipeline into the region, a litmus test issue for environmental advocates who say it’s unconscionable to prolong the region’s reliance on fossil fuels in the midst of accelerating climate change. Baker refused to say where he stood last week at a forum with Gonzalez put on by environmental advocates, and again last night he didn’t answer the question. Instead, he kept saying his focus would be on making the existing pipeline infrastructure safe and reliable.

In both turtle moments, Baker should have said what he really thinks and move on. It’s the hiding in his shell, trying to avoid taking a position, that gets him in trouble.

Gonzalez had his own problems. The Needham resident knows budgets (he’s a former secretary of administration and finance under Deval Patrick) but he often plays fast and loose with his numbers. For just about every problem, he says he has a solution – a plan to raise $1 billion a year from a tax on college endowments greater than $1 billion and another plan to raise $2 billion a year from a surtax on incomes greater than $1 million.

WGBH debate host Jim Braude tried to point out that Gonzalez’s plans were dependent on legislative action and, even if everything went his way, the $2 billion from the millionaire tax would require a constitutional amendment that would take at least four years to pass. Gonzalez expressed confidence the Democratic Legislature would give him everything he wanted and tried to move on.

But then Baker zeroed in and pointed out that Gonzalez’s numbers don’t add up. Baker said Gonzalez’s plans for early childhood education would cost at least $1 billion, his transportation proposals would add up to many billions of dollars, his education funding initiative would be another $2 billion, and so on. It was obvious that Gonzalez was using the same $1 billion over and over again, or he was counting on other taxes not yet named or relying on funding that wouldn’t materialize for a long time, if ever.

When the discussion turned to Gonzalez’s push for a single-payer health care system, the Democrat made an intriguing case. Pointing out that he used to run a health insurance company (just as Baker did), Gonzalez said Massachusetts needs to get rid of health insurers. “Most of what we did was facilitate a bunch of useless transactions,” he said, adding that the state is spending $61 billion a year on health care “in a dumb way.”

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Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

Baker didn’t address the merits of Gonzalez’s proposal, but instead underscored the Democrat’s tendency to seize on big ideas and ignore the cost and wrenching changes needed to achieve them. He pointed out that Vermont, which embraced the idea of a single-payer system, scrapped it after concluding the cost would be $30 billion. “They couldn’t even figure out how to get to a plan,” Baker said.

Baker suggested the single-payer proposal, as well as Gonzalez’s other initiatives, were all smoke and mirrors. “This is 100 percent trust me,” he said.