All quiet for Baker on the DC front
Democrats in congressional delegation give him high marks
FOR RICHARD NEAL, the 15-term congressman from Springfield, the reopening in June of the city’s Union Station was a deeply moving moment. Neal, in 1977, had launched his first campaign for a seat on the Springfield City Council there and had at the same time promised to rehabilitate the decaying landmark.
It took a while, but years of scraping for funds, both in Washington and on Beacon Hill, had finally paid off. So it meant a lot to Neal, a Democrat, when Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, showed up for the reopening and lavished him with praise. “I wanted to be here to have an opportunity to congratulate all of you, especially the congressman,” Baker said.
Baker, Neal says, played a key role in securing state funds for improvements to the train station to make it accessible for people with disabilities. Neal keeps a coffee table book in his Washington office with photos of the reopening, including one of him and Baker admiring the new space.
Neal also applauds Baker’s efforts to extend broadband internet service to western Massachusetts. “When I call him, he calls back,” Neal says. “He is mindful that he can’t be just Boston-centric.”
No one would argue that Baker has particular cachet in Washington—he says he did not vote for Donald Trump and is far to the left of the GOP majority in Congress—but he has also approached the new administration diplomatically.
Trump, as a result, hasn’t cut off a fellow Republican with whom he doesn’t see eye to eye. “I think the Trump administration has to be careful, too,” in order to set Baker up for re-election, says Jim McGovern, the US representative from Worcester. “They would prefer a Republican governor over a Democratic governor, so I think there is still an open line of communication.”
There’s no better evidence of that than Trump’s decision in May to appoint Baker to a White House commission that’s seeking ways to combat the opioid epidemic. If the commission yields more funding for Massachusetts, it’ll help the state, which ranks fifth among all states in its death rate from opioid overdoses, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation analysis of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.
Having a Republican to advocate for the state, considering that Massachusetts’s all-Democratic congressional delegation has little sway with Trump or Republican leaders in Congress, is a useful thing so far as the state’s representatives and senators are concerned. “I’m hopeful that he can influence Donald Trump,” says Ed Markey, the US senator who has served in Congress since his 1976 election to the house.
It’s a reversal of fortunes that Markey hopes will work as well with a Republican president as it did when a Democrat, Barack Obama, was in the White House. Then, it was Baker who needed entrée to the administration to secure federal funds to cover costs from the state’s brutal winter of 2015. Markey and Neal set up a meeting for Baker with then-Vice President Joe Biden at which Baker requested federal emergency funds and received more than $120 million.
Baker has already helped some, says McGovern. The GOP effort to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, vehemently opposed by every member of the Massachusetts congressional delegation and Baker, fell, in part, because Republican senators balked at slashing federal funds used to expand the Medicaid insurance program for the poor.
McGovern gives Baker credit for joining governors such as John Kasich in Ohio and Brian Sandoval in Nevada in opposing the GOP health care bill. “I think it sends a signal to people all across the country that thoughtful Republicans think this is a bad idea,” he says. Baker’s position as vice chair of the National Governors Association’s Health and Human Services Committee has also offered him a platform to influence and motivate other state chief executives.
With big budget cuts on the GOP drawing board, Markey says now is not the time to pick unnecessary fights with the governor. “We as a state are advocating at a time when a lot of what we stand for is under assault,” he says.
Baker also enjoys a better rapport with the Massachusetts Democrats in Washington than some past Republican governors, such as Mitt Romney, because he’s approached the job differently.
“I think he has been extraordinarily non-political,” says Frank Micciche, who ran Romney’s Washington office. “It seems to me he does everything he can to avoid taking shots, political shots, and it’s not all out of the goodness of his heart. It makes sense. It’s not to his advantage to snipe at Democrats, either nationally or locally.”
Micciche points out that Baker has perhaps learned from Romney’s failed 2004 effort, dubbed “Team Reform,” to increase GOP representation in the state Legislature. (The Republicans lost seats that year despite Romney’s efforts.)
“Romney was running against the system. Baker hasn’t done that,” says Micciche. “He’s made himself part of the system. He’s working with [House Speaker Robert] DeLeo and [Senate President Stan] Rosenberg. His idea is to improve the brand for the party by getting results and not being super political.”
One area where there could be friction between Baker and the Washington delegation is over the MBTA. The T’s machinists union has enlisted the congressional delegation in its fight to stave off privatization of their jobs. At one event in Jamaica Plain in August, union officials specifically blamed Baker for the privatization effort. But US Rep. Michael Capuano, who appeared at the event, avoided mentioning Baker during his remarks. Asked about the omission after the event, Capuano acknowledged he wasn’t interested in bashing Baker, saying sometimes more can be gained with honey than vinegar.
Part of the reason Democrats are holding their fire is self-preservation. Baker, like state GOP governors past, has demonstrated a strong appeal to the more-than-half of the state electorate that is not affiliated with a political party, and he’s shown crossover appeal to Democrats, particularly urban Catholics.
“That independent voter he appeals to, they hate the hyper-partisanship,” says Neal.
And the reluctance of high profile state Democrats to jump into the gubernatorial race—US Reps. Katherine Clark, Seth Moulton, and Joe Kennedy, as well as Attorney General Maura Healey have ruled out runs—indicates the widespread view that Baker’s prospects for another term look good. “It looks like it would be a losing battle,” says Peter Ubertaccio, a political science professor at Stonehill College. “You risk losing your seat to wage battle against a fairly popular governor. It could be the end of your career. They are thinking they will try four years hence when it’s probably an open seat.”
There’s also no recent history of a Massachusetts lawmaker in Washington going on to the governorship. You have to go all the way back to Democrat Foster Furcolo, who won the governor’s race in 1956, to find someone who served in Congress ascending to the position. And Furcolo didn’t do so directly, having served as state treasurer in between. His predecessor, Republican Christian Herter, was the last to make the leap directly, having served in the House before his election as governor.
Baker declined an interview request. His spokeswoman, Elizabeth Guyton, provided a list of Baker’s efforts to defend the state’s health care system and to win federal funds for opioid treatment. Those efforts have borne some fruit, in the form of a $12 million grant from the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration this year to help treat people addicted to opioids.
But that’s a modest accomplishment, so when Baker starts campaigning, he might look to the Democratic congressional delegation for character references.
“He’s really an independent in the manner in which he’s administered the state,” says Neal.
“His work with our office has been very strong,” adds Kennedy, citing back and forth between his office and Baker’s on legislation that came out of the Energy and Commerce Committee establishing clear lines of authority between the states and federal government on regulation of self-driving cars. “He has been helpful and we expect he will continue to be,” says the Brookline lawmaker.The coming year, of course, will bring a renewed focus on politics. As the days tick down to the election, and especially after Democrats select a candidate to take Baker on, the niceties may well give way. But that time has not come yet.
“I’m not averse to criticizing people when we’re at odds,” says McGovern. “But on a lot of the stuff very important to me—economic development issues, transportation issues—where we need to have a close working relationship, we do. I’m a Democrat, but look, there is a time for elections and there’s a time for governing.”