Downing, Vennochi voice concerns on Baker

Say he needs to think bigger, be accountable for mistakes

MASSACHUSETTS VOTERS GIVE Gov. Charlie Baker very high marks in general and for his handling of the COVID-19 crisis, but two guests on the CommonWealth Codcast criticized him for failing to think bigger, to take responsibility when things go wrong, and to use his political capital to address some of the more difficult challenges facing the state.

Former state senator Ben Downing and Boston Globe columnist Joan Vennochi both said that Baker has done a lot of things well, but they nevertheless criticized him on a number of fronts.

Vennochi said she was troubled with the administration’s response to the spread of COVID-19 in nursing homes and the governor’s refusal to take any personal responsibility for giving final approval to a political appointee to run the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home. That hire, according to a report commissioned by Baker, contributed to a breakdown in leadership during the COVID-19 crisis that cost 76 veterans their lives.

“He’s never really owned the process that put that in place,” Vennochi said, adding that the governor has acted similarly when scandals erupted at the Registry of Motor Vehicles and the State Police.

“To me that’s the frustrating thing about him because he has so much political capital,” Vennochi said. “With that much political capital, he could just step up and say, ‘You know what, that one’s on me.’ That’s what I’m waiting for.”

Downing criticized the governor for failing to use his political capital to push through plans to address climate change, the state’s transportation infrastructure, and even major elements of the COVID-19 crisis. “If not for that, then for what?” he asked.

“Gov. Baker has clearly done better than many other leaders, many other governors, certainly better than our current president,” Downing said. “But better than bad is not good enough when it comes to this crisis.”

On COVID-19, Downing said, “the governor has been too slow to move in response to many of the troubling trends that we saw at the earlier stages of the crisis and I think he’s making similar mistakes now.”

The former senator also faulted Baker for failing to more quickly address the economic and racial disparities of the COVID-19 crisis. “It’s easy with 20-20 vision, but it’s also important to have leadership that is making decisions with those communities and their historical context front of mind,” he said.

Vennochi said the governor’s approach to COVID has been good. “I think he did show a steady hand and steady the ship in doing all the right things,” she said. “If there was a lack of leadership, aside from the nursing home situation, I think the administration showed kind of a lack of leadership on the school issue. Like where’s the voice of the administration on what cities and towns should do about returning to school? I feel like there’s been a real void there.”

Downing agreed that schools seem to be heading in all sorts of directions with little guidance from the state.

Just after the recording of the Codcast on Friday, Baker, in response to a reporter’s question, weighed in strongly on the school issue, insisting most can reopen this fall with some sort of in-person learning. He said it was crucial for students in lower grades who need in-person learning to read.

Downing said he wouldn’t go along with others who try to tie Baker to President Trump, either for failing to criticize the president or not criticizing him enough. “Charlie Baker couldn’t be further from the president and we’re all lucky for that,” Downing said. “He’s a good man who I disagree with on policy issues. I think where the focus ought to be is less on what party Gov. Baker falls into and more on his actual record.”

Transportation was one issue highlighted by Downing. “No governor has had the united control of the transportation agencies that Gov. Baker has had for north of five years and we can see little positive progress,” he said.

Downing said many in the public are nervous now about returning to public transit. “The work that needs to be done right now is, quite frankly, rebuilding the public’s confidence, faith, and trust in the system,” he said. “And I think that is no small task given what is not just a failure by Gov. Baker but what is a 30- to 40-year failure across Massachusetts and of both parties to invest in that system.”

Vennochi agreed. “2020 obviously was supposed to be the year of transportation and the T,” she said. “COVID-19 has completely knocked the wind out of that and made people think about a reset.”

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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.

Vennochi said Baker came around to investing in the T after the snowmaggeddon of 2015, but she was frustrated by his refusal to get on the T and ride it. She said Baker has another opportunity now to restore confidence in the T.

“Why not get on the T with your mask or the commuter rail and say, ‘Folks, it’s safe, this is what they’re doing,’” Vennochi said. “He calls that virtue signaling. I call that leadership.”