Baker’s creative friction

Governor may seem like a Dem at times, but he’s creating GOP value

IS CHARLIE BAKER STILL a Republican? Lately, many Republicans have come to believe he has been co-opted by Democrats. They recently saw Baker sign legislation to increase taxes for paid leave and to increase the minimum wage. They also wonder why Baker didn’t seek to maintain the MBTA’s crucial exemption to the Pacheco Law, which expired quietly in July. He signed the Transgender Accommodations bill without complaint. He doesn’t support the president, he isn’t pro-life, he doesn’t veto new gun regulations, and Democrats like him a great deal. So what are Republicans – and everyone else in this state – getting out of having a Republican governor?

When asked what value he brings to our state politics as a Republican governor, Charlie Baker sometimes says there is “creative friction” between him and Beacon Hill Democrats that produces better government for everyone. But how does it work? And is it still working?

While Republicans complain about legislation, the friction Baker talks about is usually about other things: people, priorities, and how to frame government problems.

The “people friction” inside his administration was there from the start, by design, as he brought several Democrats into the highest levels of his administration. Appointees such as Jay Ash, Stephanie Pollack, and Chrystal Kornegay make every discussion about economic development, transportation, and housing far better. They make the actions of the administration more effective, and build political capital. State and local legislators are also more likely to respect the administration’s proposals because they know people they can trust had scrutinized them. This is far more important than the public realizes. The governor doesn’t just dictate what he wants, as Baker often reminds people that any big change requires dealing with many stakeholders, legislators, and experts.

Republicans might not see what they get out of having Democrats in the room. But Baker brings Republicans into the room, also. For example, under former governor Deval Patrick, the weekly leadership meeting was just him sitting down with the Democratic leaders of the House and Senate. But under Baker, Minority Leaders Bruce Tarr and Brad Jones are also included. This kind of inclusion, plus the fact that Baker’s staff is so diligent, raises the bar for proposals across state government in a way that prevents Democratic overreach.

This makes Baker a gatekeeper that Beacon Hill Republicans appreciate, even if ordinary Republicans do not. Poorly-thought out ideas from Democrats, such as the infamous, quickly-repealed 2013 technology services tax, would never survive meetings with Baker administration officials today. Epic management disasters such as the Health Connector Exchange project are not going to happen. Beacon Hill Democrats appreciate that Baker runs the government well and, in exchange, aren’t asking him to support everything progressive activists are demanding of them.

Another area of friction with Democrats is in framing problems. The most radical thing Baker did with the MBTA was to see it as an organization of thousands of people, instead of a set of infrastructure liabilities, which is how progressives always frame the MBTA conversation. He believed better management and more leverage with labor unions over costs and processes would be better long-term investments than new revenue. Therefore, his management choices did not need to be credentialed transportation experts. With this mission, former MBTA chief administrator Brian Shortsleeve, through incredible perseverance, uncovered a litany of costly management problems and scandals that might have escaped notice if the entire focus was on infrastructure and revenue. Much new revenue was found – inside the existing budget.

We have seen this Republican framing elsewhere. Baker and Pollack decided that regional transit authorities needed to reform and innovate, not simply ask for more money, even though many Democrats disagreed. Also, improving education across the state was not primarily about funding, but instead focused on reforms such as empowerment zones and increasing the number of charter schools.

There are also Baker’s priorities, which are often not the same as those of the Legislature. Baker is more willing to reform parts of state government where heavy unionization has made them unattractive projects for Democrats, as public sector unions are a powerful constituent group. Reform ideas compete against union-established work rules across all of state government. We have seen results at the Registry of Motor Vehicles, Bridgewater State Hospital, the Department of Children and Families, and MassIT.

Another area of friction is between local and state government. Baker and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito have put a lot of resources into supporting local governments, and improving their transactions with state government. Polito has even been to all 351 cities and towns in the state, and Secretary of Housing and Economic Development Jay Ash can’t be too far behind in the count. Many mayors and local legislators, regardless of party, support these administration efforts, and their upward pressure on Beacon Hill about the impact of state policy is much stronger than before. Republicans favor local over state solutions, and it is not an accident that Baker and Polito, both former local government officials themselves, have encouraged this pressure, which quietly shapes legislation in ways that do not make the headlines.

Finally, there is legislative friction. This is where Baker has the least amount of leverage, and he must be clever. At the start of his term, his biggest legislative success was with the MBTA. He got two things that Beacon Hill Democrats were not enthusiastic about: a financial management control board, which would oversee reforms, and a five-year exemption from the Pacheco Law, a set of rules for outsourcing government services. Legislators reluctantly agreed, but reduced the exemption to three years. Since 2015, the control board has convinced many initial doubters of its value, and the Pacheco exemption provided necessary leverage in difficult negotiations with the MBTA’s unions.

Another big legislative win of his, and one of the most important successes in his first term, was the reorganization of the state’s technology capabilities. Instead of a poorly-performing part of the administration and finance secretariat that had no hope of straightening out the state’s technology problems, it is now its own secretariat, capable of overseeing billions of dollars in capital IT spending that have never been managed properly. Baker filed the bill to created the secretariat under Article 87 of the state constitution. The Legislature had to review the proposal and could have stopped it within 60 days. Legislators declined, so it quietly became law, and is one of the most important changes in how our state government operates.

Baker’s legislative efforts don’t always succeed. For example, he never gets everything he wants to combat the opioid crisis. The Legislature has also resisted Baker’s tough-love MassHealth reform proposals, and his budget vetoes are usually overridden.  And sometimes, as we saw with the Grand Bargain, legislation he would never have proposed passes with veto-proof majorities. Rather than complain, he negotiates for small changes, and signs these bills, to the dismay of Republicans.

Many Republicans want Baker to stand firm, and veto many bills on principle. What they might not understand is that friction requires direction and movement. Since it is the Democrats and their special interests that are the immovable establishment on Beacon Hill, it is Baker who must add friction to policy debates. He must engage wisely. He can push hard on such issues as charter schools and MBTA reform, and yield on issues such as transgender rights or an increase in the minimum wage.

Meet the Author

Ed Lyons

Political writer and Republican activist
Baker’s application of friction has produced great results in his first term, even if they aren’t satisfying to either Republican or Democratic activists. It will be interesting to see if his fall gubernatorial campaign indicates how he would do this in a second term, and then, if elected, whether or not it will continue to produce good policy for Republicans, and for everyone else.

Ed Lyons is a political writer, longtime Republican activist, and a regular contributor to WBUR.