Why I like Baker’s political playbook
Finding common ground more than a campaign slogan
GOV. CHARLIE BAKER’S announcement opting against an unprecedented third term in the corner office was handled in the same manner he has led the Commonwealth: thoughtful, human, calm, and without bombast or political malice. In other words, it was brimming with the characteristics that have enabled a Republican governor in an overwhelmingly Democratic state to reach and maintain such high approval ratings. It also represented all that is missing in our political discourse that has become so toxic at all levels.
Political talking heads and the media were buzzing about challenges awaiting Baker in a primary. Some speculated about his path as an independent candidate, while others were salivating at a potential marquee match-up with Attorney General Maura Healey.
Anyone who knows Baker – as I do from serving as his communications director from the beginning of the administration until earlier this year – knows his decision was, as always, the result of far deeper reflection.
For Baker, campaigns have always been a means to an end required to get to the real work of governing—and that’s where he shines. A self-professed and proud policy wonk, Baker relished diving into the nitty gritty of budget line items, data collection, and solving government problems.
To some, Baker is boring in a world where most politicians are focusing on who to dunk on next on social media or how to secure more cable interview appearances. But Charlie Baker is consistent. He wants to focus on the work and is understandably ready to hand over the keys after eight rigorous years in office. He takes the job seriously and is unusual in the sense that he has never signaled an ambition for higher office. Nothing but business as usual is exactly what we should expect of him until January 2023 when he takes his final walk out the front door of the State House.
Baker once said he and Lt. Governor Karyn Polito would make the decision to run again based on what they have achieved for the Commonwealth—and his body of work tells quite the story. Elected by a slim margin in 2014, Baker was sworn-in still wearing the reputation of being a staunch conservative. But for those who were paying attention, his first actions as governor-elect were to reach out to mayors and leaders who actively campaigned against him. He appointed several high-profile Democrats and Independents to cabinet positions —including Stephanie Pollack and Marylou Sudders. He proved early that bipartisanship would be the hallmark of his administration and it has been.
Left with little else to complain about, Baker’s critics accuse him of not being bold enough. Never mind the challenges a Republican governor faces in a Legislature with Democratic super majorities, but key moments defy this narrative. Months before the presidential Republican Primary in 2016, Baker was one of the first Republicans in the country to publicly say he would not support Donald Trump’s nomination. Throughout the tumult of the Trump years, Baker stuck to his guns, regularly speaking out against the administration’s more controversial actions. He also made historic advancements to tackle the opioid epidemic, deliver transformative industry changes for clean energy to our shores, and created a structure to productively address sensitive issues like police reform and racial injustice.
It hasn’t been without incident, but Massachusetts did not experience the same violence, destruction, and divisiveness that have plagued many other US cities during the summer of 2020. His commanding leadership played a significant role in this.
Lastly, Baker has been a transparent and forthcoming governor. While this is expected from elected officials, it is not common. Baker consistently offered regular media access, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic, and did not shy away from opportunities to speak directly with reporters—even on difficult topics. While members of the press corps may begrudgingly agree, it allowed for a more constructive and two-way dialogue with the residents of the Commonwealth.Through it all, Baker has remained one of the nation’s most popular governors for years—despite political headwinds. In Massachusetts political circles, this talking point has become practically stale despite its longevity.
Charlie Baker will be remembered for creating a space of civility, positivity, and pragmatic politics that gave voters confidence in their elected leaders. In a world of political chaos and uncertainty, there isn’t a much better legacy than that. It’s a playbook that too few politicians – on either side of the aisle – are willing to follow in Washington, DC, and that’s a shame.