In-person meetings could reset relations between Baker, lawmakers
Weekly confab returns amid growing tension
COULD THE RETURN of the “stale cookies” improve relations between Gov. Charlie Baker and legislative leaders?
For most of his two terms in office, the Republican governor appeared to have a strong working relationship with the Democrats who controlled the Legislature. Almost every week, Baker, Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito, the House speaker, and Senate president would sit down in one of their offices for an hour-long meeting. They would emerge to stand side by side in a State House hallway and answer questions from the press.
Like so much else, the in-person weekly leadership meetings were suspended during COVID-19, when they morphed into calls.
Speaking on GBH’s Boston Public Radio last month, Baker acknowledged that something had been lost. “The fact that I haven’t seen Karen Spilka and Ron Mariano in person except maybe at one event for a couple of minutes … and that we don’t sit down and eat stale cookies and drink bad coffee once a week, I think is a problem,” Baker said. “Human beings see each other as people when they spend time with each other in person.”
Mariano never actually had regular in-person meetings with the governor, since he took over from former Speaker Robert DeLeo in December 2020, during the pandemic.
Over the months, the strong relationship Baker had with lawmakers showed signs of fraying. Spilka and Mariano strongly criticized Baker’s vaccine rollout. At a recent hearing on the spending of federal COVID recovery money, there were a number of adversarial moments, as Senate Ways and Means chair Michael Rodrigues accused Baker of breaking state law by spending the money in an unauthorized way. That hearing topped two months of a dispute between Baker and lawmakers over who should control the money and what speed it should be spent at.
On Monday, with all four top leaders vaccinated and case numbers far down from their peak (although rising), the weekly leadership meeting was finally held in person. Baker, Polito, Spilka, and Mariano emerged from the meeting to speak with reporters in the Senate reading room. (The usual crowded hallway gaggle was replaced by spaced-out chairs and a podium, with everyone required to wear masks.)
The four did not agree on every policy. On Baker’s proposed two-month sales tax holiday, the governor said, “I think we agreed to disagree.”
On the speed with which American Rescue Plan Act money should be spent, Spilka and Mariano talked about the need to take time and be deliberative. “The experts all talked about the wisdom in waiting,” Spilka said.Baker pushed for more spending sooner, and said those same experts who talked about going slow in some areas “also said in a number of other areas it probably made sense to go more quickly.”
But rather than a war of written statements, or lawmakers lobbing questions at the governor over video, the in-person dispute took on a more civil tone, with Baker and the lawmakers finally standing side by side.