The yin and yang of Baker
An MBA’s focus and a surprisingly emotional touch make for a strong start for the Republican governor.
Photographs by Mark Ostow
CHARLIE BAKER IS getting worked up about “queueing theory.”
He’s sitting at a conference table in his smaller “working office” in the governor’s suite at the Massachusetts State House. The space, last occupied by Deval Patrick’s chief of staff, is where Baker has opted to conduct most business, eschewing the ornate official governor’s office for everything but big meetings and ceremonial occasions.
“The waiting lines are literally…just…disappearing,” he says, his voice rising and cadence slowing as he pounds the table three times in sync with the last words. “People are getting in and out of these places in 10 minutes. Maybe most people would say that’s not very aspirational. If you’re the person who gets paid by the hour and loses half a day, you probably think that’s pretty cool.”
For the wunderkind of Republican administrations in the 1990s, nothing is more satisfying than digging into the workings of government and coming up with a fix for broken systems.
After a failed run for governor in 2010 in which he came off as angry and stridently partisan, Baker hit the reset button when he launched another run four years later, fashioning himself as a bipartisan problem-solver.
It’s much closer to who he actually is, say Baker and those around him. Clearly, it was closer to what Massachusetts voters wanted in a governor—or at least enough of them for Baker to eke out a narrow victory over Martha Coakley in an increasingly Democratic state.
His focus on getting the basics of government right, while dismissing talk about grand visions, echoes an approach that proved very successful for a certain long-serving Boston mayor. He shares another quality with the late Tom Menino that may help immunize him against the wandering-eye hazards that can come after the excitement of the first years in office have faded: A singular interest in the position he now has.
“It’s the only job he’s really, really wanted,” says Will Keyser, the chief strategist for Baker’s 2014 campaign, who calls that fact an important part of the “secret sauce” that has made for such a strong first year in office.
Some of the bigger things Baker has taken on in his first year were not part of any big agenda, but he’s had a hands-on approach to crises that dropped in his lap.
He’s also shown a knack tempering the serious business at hand with an amiable lighter side.
He’s been a good sport for good causes, submitting to a buzzcut as part of a fundraiser for the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and taking the ice bucket challenge to raise money for ALS research. (He aced the optics of that by getting drenched in a “Free Brady” t-shirt to spotlight the star quarterback’s “Deflategate” travails.) He banters on Twitter, and has become the state’s reigning king of the selfie.
To judge by his poll numbers, Baker seems to have hit all the right notes. In November, a survey of voters in all 50 states reported that Baker was the most popular governor in America, with 74 percent of Massachusetts voters giving his performance a favorable nod and just 14 percent saying they disapprove of the job he’s doing.
But it may be more than just the fix-it focus and everyman moves that explain Baker’s high marks. For a data-driven MBA, who made his early mark in state government as a budget whiz with a famously short fuse, Baker has displayed a surprising comfort with showing emotions of a different sort.
Ironically, that nearly sent his 2014 campaign off the rails. In the final televised debate of the race, when he and Coakley were asked to recall the last time they had cried, Baker wept again in the retelling as he described a heartrending conversation with a New Bedford fisherman who felt he had ruined his sons’ lives by convincing them to turn down college scholarships in order to work with him in what has proven to be a dying industry.
When reporters were unable to track down the puddle-provoking angler, the Coakley campaign pounced on the mystery, sensing an opening in the race’s closing days to shift the storyline from Baker’s big heart to questions about his honesty.
Baker wound up claiming that the encounter occurred in his 2010 campaign—he said he had retold the story at a private event days before the debate and that he may have had some of the details wrong. But the details seem to have mattered less in the end than the human side of himself that Baker showed.
Brian O’Connor, a longtime aide to former congressman Joe Kennedy, heard Baker speak at a ceremony in June when the “Wall that Heals,” a half-size traveling replica of the Vietnam War memorial in Washington, DC, made a stop in Gloucester. “He broke down in tears, and it was not fake,” says O’Connor, a hard-boiled Democrat whose father died in the Vietnam War. “He’s obviously smart and steeped in policy, but that talk showed another dimension—his willingness to bare his heart and emotions.” That is “extremely unusual and very appealing to voters.”
His managerial know-how has always been Baker’s calling card, and it may have been what convinced voters to hire him for the governor’s job. His ability to not only roll up his sleeves and tackle problems, but to also strike a surprisingly human chord along the way may help explain why he’s proving so popular now that he’s in it.
A FIX-IT FOCUS
Baker has a straightforward answer when asked how he explains poll numbers that would make him the “it boy” at a gathering of US governors.
“We’ve tried to be pretty consistent with what we talked about during the campaign, which was wanting to be bipartisan, wanting to collaborate, wanting to get stuff done and focus on the work,” he says.
There’s nothing flashy in that, but a “focus on the work” may have been particularly appealing after a string of management failures that marred Deval Patrick’s second term. From the costly failure of the Health Connector website to the state drug lab scandal and botched rollout of the state’s medical marijuana law, it sometimes felt like the wheels were coming off the bus of state government.
A guy whose big claim was fixing broken systems, whether in state government as human services secretary and then budget chief under Bill Weld and Paul Cellucci, or at Harvard Pilgrim Health Care as it teetered on the brink of bankruptcy, may have been just what the doctor ordered.
“I think there was a hunger for a hands-on governor. Not a big thinker, not a great speaker, but a mechanic,” says Dan Payne, a veteran Democratic strategist. “Dukakis was very good at that,” he says of the state’s longest-serving governor. “Baker probably comes at it a little differently, but I think it’s the same sense of, let’s just keep the trains running on time, which is literally the case with the T.”
Keeping the trains running on time, of course, has taken on a good deal more urgency in the wake of last winter’s epic collapse of the MBTA’s subway and commuter rail systems.
It’s a task that now falls most squarely on Baker’s secretary of transportation, Stephanie Pollack. In trying to fill out a cabinet that would reflect his pledge of bipartisanship, nothing caused more heads to turn than Baker’s selection of the whip-smart policy expert and strong public transit advocate.
Pollack spent years at the Conservation Law Foundation. She helped broker agreements with the state which, to stave off lawsuits, committed to several big-ticket transit projects as mitigation for added car pollution expected from the Big Dig.
The liberal-leaning Pollack would appear to be an odd fit for a tax-averse Republican administration, something she and Baker were both acutely aware of at the time of their initial conversation about the job.
Pollack acknowledges the differences in their political makeup, but says there is common ground, too. “There’s an interesting place where people who see themselves as fiscal conservatives and those who see themselves as progressives meet,” she says. “And that is in a belief that government has to do all that it can as well as it can.” The state’s transportation agencies, Pollack says, “are not being run nearly as well as they can be run.”
Following the T’s meltdown, the Legislature approved creation of a gubernatorially-appointed control board, which now has complete authority over the transit agency. It also agreed to a Baker administration proposal to suspend for three years a law that makes it more difficult to privatize services at the T.
The administration earmarked $82 million over the summer for third-rail and switch upgrades designed specifically to head off any repeat of the problems experienced last winter. It’s too soon to gauge the broader impact of any systemic changes being imposed by the control board.
One thing, however, is clear: The Baker administration now owns the long-troubled MBTA, and will get full credit—or blame—for its performance.
The new administration faces an equally daunting management challenge at the Department of Children and Families, the state agency charged with protecting children and investigating allegations of abuse and neglect.
In a series of cases over the last several years, children under the department’s watch died or suffered severe abuse because of shortcomings in the system for tracking and handling cases and overseeing the work of department social workers.
Baker vowed to reform the workings of the agency. Bringing coherence to the ungainly child protection bureaucracy may be the ultimate state government management challenge, but the stakes are anything but dry managerial matters, involving perhaps the most vulnerable members of society.
An initial set of changes was rolled out in November, revamping the intake policy governing how cases are initially handled and establishing clear policies for supervision of social workers—something that had never existed.
Baker says he wants to hold DCF employees accountable for the safety of children in the state system, but has said it is unfair to do that if they don’t have a clearly defined system and a set of procedures—a “playbook,” he calls it—to work from.
That won him the appreciation of the department’s frontline caseworkers, who say they have been the easy fall guys for years, taking the blame for systemic problems state government has been unwilling to address. Not only did the new administration acknowledge there were systemic shortcomings that needed to be fixed, development of the new policies involved not just the input of state administrators but also that of the union representing some 2,900 frontline social workers and supervisors.
“It was a very different process than has taken place in previous administrations, and not just the most recent administration, but going back a long time,” says Peter MacKinnon, DCF chapter president for SEIU Local 509. “It really was a back and forth, where we’re both bringing ideas to the table. Let me be clear: DCF is not fixed by any stretch. But we have a foundation. I really believe that.”
“The kids who are served by DCF,” says Baker, “they’re kids just like everybody else’s kids except they are among the most vulnerable and it’s imperative that we as a Commonwealth recognize that and work to get it right.” They need “the support, the infrastructure, the love, and the sense of security most other kids have. When you’re a kid, there’s nothing more important than that. We just have to do a better job there.”
HEAD AND HEART
Not long after he lost the 2010 race for governor, Baker paid a visit to the Phoenix Charter Academy in Chelsea. He had been put in touch through a mutual acquaintance with the school’s founder, Beth Anderson.
Anderson lives with her wife and two kids not far from Baker in Swampscott, and they met one Saturday afternoon at his house and had a long conversation about the school, education issues, and, says Anderson, “what it takes to make change in the world, but not in a fluffy sense.”
Anderson, a self-described “social justice Democrat” who had just voted for Patrick, says she was surprised to find that she clicked with Baker immediately.
An unusual charter school, Phoenix targets one-time dropouts, teen mothers, and others on the margin who traditional public schools have largely given up on. Baker, who has had a long interest in education issues and is a big charter school supporter, told Anderson he’d like to visit the school.
“Everyone says that,” she says. “Only 50 percent of them do.”
Within a week, Baker was at Phoenix, which is housed in a timeworn former Catholic parish elementary school, and sitting in on an US history class.
“It’s pretty interesting to have a guy who ran for governor visiting your class,” Anderson says of the students’ reaction. Of course, the race hadn’t exactly gone the way Baker was hoping. Rather than glossing over that fact, she says, he seized on it in speaking to the students.
“He said, ‘I failed,’” says Anderson. “And he said, ‘I know this school is about success, but it’s also about knowing what failure is and how to get back up. Watching you inspires me to get back up.’”
Baker’s 2010 loss may have been the only big setback he’s faced in a charmed life of advantage and privilege, while setbacks and disappointment have often been what’s marked the lives of Phoenix students.
Anderson insists nonetheless that Baker connected. “My kids know a mile away if you’re being authentic or not, and they definitely felt it in him,” she says.
Anderson eventually convinced Baker to join the school’s board of trustees and was a strong supporter of his 2014 run, tapped afterwards to co-chair his transition education committee.
“I love the guy more than any lesbian should love a Republican,” she says.
For his part, Baker says he is wowed by the work Anderson does. “Phoenix is just a game-changer for the kids at that school,” he says. Baker refers to Anderson as the “the catcher in the rye,” saying she grabs kids before they head over a cliff.
The students at Phoenix were hardly the only ones Baker talked to about the travails of losing the race for governor. He buttonholed practically anyone who would listen, going on what one Baker insider calls “the what-went-wrong tour,” meeting with policy experts, political pros, and reporters who covered the race.
The biggest takeaway, he says, was, “I learned that people want to vote for something at some point. That means they want to know what your positive vision for the future is.”
That led him, when he decided to mount a second run, to cast off the harsh edge he often projected in the 2010 race. He also ditched some hard-right positions—most notably his previously professed agnosticism on the causes of climate change, which had seemed politically tone-deaf, not to mention entirely at odds with Baker’s wonky claims to be “a data guy.”
His other big lesson from the 2010 race was that a candidate has to figure out how to “have a conversation with a whole bunch of people who would never actually be sitting across the table from me or next to me.” He says he never found his voice in the race or mastered what might be called the paradox of effective political communication: conveying a sense of intimacy and familiarity to a large audience of strangers.
The “big theory” of the 2014 race was simply “to let people see the real Charlie Baker,” says Keyser. “And the real Charlie Baker is a fiscally conservative, socially moderate, big-thinking compassionate person.”
What that meant, along with the much more positive tone, was balancing his vows of fiscal restraint with making sure voters, especially independents and persuadable Democrats, understood he was pro-choice (a campaign ad pairing him with his daughter covered that) and pro-gay marriage (an ad with him talking to his gay brother checked that box).
Now that he’s in office, it has meant being willing to show in public the emotions that those who know him say are just part of who Baker is.
In early October, Baker was a featured speaker at an event on health care at Massachusetts General Hospital that was part of Hub Week, a series of events spotlighting the region’s strengths in science, art, and technology.
The subject of Baker’s talk was “value-driven health care,” a topic at the intersection of health care innovation, costs, and outcomes that, with his earlier background in state government and at Harvard Pilgrim, was right in his wheelhouse.
When it came time to take a few questions submitted from the roomful of high-powered health professionals, the first index card handed to him veered sharply out of that health management sweet spot. “The question is, what do we do regarding educating to embrace aging and death,” Baker said, reading the card aloud to the audience.
“If they’re all going to be like this, I got places to go,” he said, as the room broke into nervous laughter.
Baker then quickly pivoted back on topic, but not with the generalities one might have expected about the need for more health care services or infrastructure to deal with an aging population.
“This is a tough one for a lot of reasons,” he said, after pausing to gather his thoughts on a question he clearly had not anticipated. He mentioned the overall ambivalence people have about addressing the issue. “And I deal with this in a very real way with my own parents,” he said. Baker’s mother has had Alzheimer’s disease for about 10 years, he said, something she and his still robust 87-year-old father have faced “with an enormous amount of grace.”
Then he got even more personal. “There’s a ton of history in her family on this one,” he said. “I mean, I’m virtually certain that at some point it’s going to be an issue for me. I look like her, I sound like her, I am so cut from her side of the family, and this affected literally everybody on her side of the family.”
The room of several hundred of the biggest medical minds in Boston fell silent.
Baker went on to talk about conversations he and his wife have had about this, and spoke about the need for baby-boomers to make end-of-life conversations something people are more comfortable talking about.
Baker’s candor about his mother’s health, and especially about what that may ultimately mean for his own, was jarring. But one doctor in the audience took it in stride.
“He’s always done that. He uses anecdotes about his family and about himself,” says Dr. Thomas Lynch, who recently took the reins as CEO of the Mass. General Physicians Organization.
Lynch, a lung cancer specialist, has spent his entire career in Boston, except for a six-year period when he held a top position at Yale. His time in New Haven coincided with both of Baker’s campaigns for governor, so Lynch’s perceptions of Baker are shaped almost entirely by more personal dealings when they served together for about 10 years on the board of the Schwartz Center for Compassionate Healthcare. The center, named for a former patient of Lynch’s who died of lung cancer in 1995, promotes practices and policies to make compassion as valued in patient care as the cutting-edge treatments available at places like Mass. General.
“I didn’t know him in the public arena, but I saw that about him beforehand in board meetings,” Lynch says of the openness Baker showed at the MGH talk. “His ability to do that publicly, I think, provides an important connection that is not always easy for politicians to have.”
Asked later about the question on aging and death, and his decision to be so forthright in answering it, Baker says, “Part of this job is about connection. And I can’t think of a better way to connect with somebody or an audience than to speak as frankly as I can about some experience I’ve either had directly or have participated in indirectly. I definitely do way more of that than I used to.”
Lynch alludes to a well-worn description of Baker, one that has been both his blessing and, at times, his curse. “People are always suspicious of someone who comes across as the smartest guy in the room,” he says. “By sharing some of his personal vulnerabilities with people, I think he’s overcome a lot of that.”
Showcasing a mix of management smarts while also finding moments to speak more from the heart may have helped Baker achieve the remarkable popularity he enjoys in a strongly Democratic-leaning state. But he has not always hit the mark when going with his gut.
In November, following the terrorist attacks in Paris, Baker took heat when he said he didn’t want Syrian refugees coming to Massachusetts until he received more information about the vetting process for their admission to the country.
Boston Globe editorial writer Alan Wirzbicki said Baker’s “‘data guy’ act is starting to wear just a little thin,” and criticized him for ignoring available information on the thorough vetting process already in place. By following the “national GOP herd” on the issue, Wirzbicki wrote, Baker risked damaging his reputation as a “fact-driven” practical thinker, which helped him win election in a heavily Democratic state.
“I have questions,” Baker said about refugee vetting the day after his initial comments, while also pointing out that several Democratic officials in the state had sounded similar concerns. “I would just like to have some of them answered, and I don’t think that’s unreasonable and I don’t think it lacks compassion.”
It wasn’t exactly Emma Lazarus, whose famous sonnet adorns the pedestal of the Statute of Liberty. But it was hardly Donald Trump either.
“A guy like me most of the time thinks the answer to questions like that are pretty nuanced,” says Baker.
There was no nuance to fall back on, however, when Baker was asked in June about the shooting at a black church in South Carolina by a white supremacist, who killed nine worshipers. Baker initially punted on the question of whether the Confederate flag should continue to fly over the state capitol there, defaulting to boilerplate conservative talking points.
“My view on stuff like this is that South Carolinians can make their own call,” he told radio host Jim Braude. Within hours he had reversed course and called for the flag to come down, telling the Globe, “I abhor the symbolism and the history of that flag as much as anybody.”
It was a revealing moment in which a reflexive support for state’s rights and local control seemed to blind Baker to the larger moral dimensions of the issue.
“I would hope I would be somebody who people believe will listen when other people tell me I’m in the wrong place,” he says. “I was in the wrong place on that one.”
PUSH COMING TO SHOVE?
In his 2002 race for governor, Mitt Romney, the last Republican before Baker to win the corner office, vowed to “clean up the mess on Beacon Hill.” He painted the Democrats who dominate state government as a profligate and untrustworthy bunch. Baker has offered a decidedly milder version of that. The strongest language he used in his campaign felt more like civics book cliché—his often-repeated refrain that things just work better “when you have both teams on the field.”
Baker often personalizes that belief in bipartisanship by talking about how the family dinner table when he was growing up in Needham was its own civics class, as his Democratic mother and Republican father went at it over the issues of the day.
“One of the things I learned is nobody has the corner on all the right answers, and it’s possible to disagree without being disagreeable,” he said in a December talk to the state newspaper publishers association. “My parents, most of the time, were having a conversation and a discussion. They weren’t just trying to score points or win a debate.”
Baker called the dinner table debates the “single most formative” experience that shapes how he thinks about politics and public policy. “It’s very easy to get trapped in a particular perspective or point of view and to stay there. The hard part is being willing to consider a lot of other points of view,” he said.
As far as the Legislature’s top Democrats are concerned, Baker has thus far followed word with deed.
“He’s very easy to work with,” says Stan Rosenberg, the liberal president of the state Senate. “So far it’s been very collegial. He listens. He’ll debate you. If he’s got data that you don’t know, he’ll put it on the table and be pretty forceful about it, but respectful. But he’ll also listen if you’ve got a forceful argument.”
House Speaker Robert DeLeo says he delivered one message to Baker in their first meeting: “My only wish is that you look at me as an equal partner in government. He said, ‘I don’t think I’ve got much of a choice. I’m going to need you if I want to get anything done.’ And we had a good laugh, and that’s the way it’s been.”
Baker had to work hard to win passage of his MBTA reforms, which ruffled union feathers, but he started out with a pretty willing partner in DeLeo. An increase in the earned income tax credit that he pushed for took some negotiating, but more over details than the broad-brushstroke aim of putting money back in the pockets of lower-wage households.
Overall, it was a year of relative comity on Beacon Hill. Some say that’s because there hasn’t been all that much to fight about.
Baker deployed most of his energy setting up his administration and addressing the problems with the workings of government at places like the T and the Department of Children and Families.
“The first whole year was mostly about management and mechanics, and it is really hard to be partisan about the mechanics and management,” says Rosenberg. He says that’s likely to change in the new year when the debate turns to charter schools, taxes, and other issues on which there will be sharp disagreement.
For some, the ease with which Baker seems to have charmed his way through his first year is more a source of frustration than admiration.
Mara Dolan, a liberal radio talk show host and former Democratic State Committee member, describes Baker as “Reaganesque,” and she is not paying him a compliment.
Dolan says there is a disconnect between Baker’s affable bearing and his policy predilections. “He’s likeable and he loves to tell stories just like Ronald Reagan,” she says. “Charlie Baker seems like the guy who’d give you the shirt off his back, and God bless him. But where does he leave us in terms of the environment or worker safety?” she says, raising concerns about an executive order Baker issued to have all state regulations reviewed, with none retained that go beyond standards required by the federal government.
“He’s a good guy, but it’s not about electing a good guy,” says Tom McGee, a state senator from Lynn and chairman of the Massachusetts Democratic Party. “What’s the real vision of this administration?”
McGee points to talk about service cuts and fare increases on the T. “That’s just the wrong direction,” he says. And while Baker’s biggest play in education policy so far is a call to raise the cap on charter schools, McGee wonders about overall state funding for schools, which has fallen nearly $500 million behind schedule because of health care and special education costs, according to a report released in October by a state review panel.
A lot of the differences with Baker will likely come down to spending and taxes. Even some big areas of his focus on management and mechanics won’t be able to escape that debate.
“Eventually we’re going to have to pay for the T,” says Rosenberg.
“For a governor who is very smart and data-driven,” says former state transportation secretary Jim Aloisi, it should become clear that all the MBTA reforms and efficiencies in the world “can’t solve a $7 billion problem”—the price tag of the so-called state of good repair improvements needed to get the system up to snuff.
At some point, a revenue push may come to shove, challenging Baker on what it takes to adequately deliver the transit services residents—and businesses—count on. Or he’ll face an issue involving kids—a topic on which Baker says he can’t help but get emotional—in which a spending line he draws seems at odds with the compassion he has come to so publicly evince.
Baker insists he can balance his vows of fiscal discipline and caring governance. “Why do you have to be either a bloodless technocrat or a bleeding heart?” he asks.
Baker has no appetite for new taxes, but that may make him as much a bellwether in the current climate as an outlier. House leaders have already said they have no plans to take up tax proposals in the coming year. Rosenberg, on the other hand, says “governing from the center” shouldn’t mean the door to new taxes is permanently bolted shut, even if that’s not the first recourse in response to an issue.
Baker suggests his second year will see more “forward-looking” proposals, but he has yet to lay down a marker on any signature new initiatives he has in store for 2016. Looking at the governor’s first year, Payne, the longtime Democratic strategist, says, “Baker usually tries to bunt rather than hit a home run.”
Some of that may be a belief, dating back to his days as director of the Pioneer Institute, which embraces “limited and accountable government,” that the fewer the grandiose government plans the better. It’s also hard to imagine swinging for the fences with a decidedly Republican initiative in a state where Democrats dominate.
Still, it seems there should be room for some big ideas that “challenge the status quo,” as Baker vowed to do in his inauguration, while staying true to his vow to be a bipartisan problem-solver.
In education, more than two decades after the 1993 Education Reform Act directed billions of dollars in additional funding to schools in exchange for a commitment to new standards and accountability, could there be a new “grand bargain,” perhaps one that allows for more charters while steering more money strategically to districts that are willing to adopt reforms based on we’ve learned since 1993 about improving schools?
Someone with Baker’s appetite for policy innovation and appreciation for scaling things that work should be open to rethinking how government works in big ways, not just fixing what’s broken.
In the meantime, he’s hit on an approach that is working pretty well, and insists there is nothing small-bore about getting the basics right.“Government has this horrible tendency to overpromise and under-deliver,” he says. “And I know why it happens. Because people like to aspire and all the rest. But for me, working with [the social workers’ union] 509 and the folks at DCF to actually improve the way that place and that organization operates may not be rhetorically soaring, but to some of the most vulnerable citizens of the Commonwealth, it’s pretty damn important. And if you’re somebody who really needs the subway or the commuter rail or bus service to go to work or get to the grocery store or wherever you need to go, again, you don’t really care about the rhetoric coming out of the governor’s office. You care whether the damn thing works.”
“If three years from now,” he says, ”what people say about me is, Charlie Baker just makes stuff better, thereby making my life better and my family’s life better and my community’s life better, I’m going to be fine with that.”