Meet Charlie Baker: The Man Destined to Become Our Next Governor
Today Charlie Baker is going to declare that things in Massachusetts have got to change, and as his tour bus rolls through Worcester’s battered downtown square of empty storefronts.
WORCESTER. CITY OF ETERNAL DISAPPOINTMENT. It’s bad here in the flush times, worse in the recessions.
Today Charlie Baker is going to declare that things in Massachusetts have got to change, and as his tour bus rolls through Worcester’s battered downtown square of empty storefronts, boarded-up buildings, and check-cashing outlets, it’s clear that he has come to the right place to deliver his message.
Baker and a busload of his supporters are here for one of two speeches the Republican nominee for governor will give today, part of his brand-new “Had Enough?” bus tour of Massachusetts. The motor coach pulls up to Worcester City Hall and campaign workers begin hauling colorful signs out of the luggage hold, lining them up against a wall. It’s an overcast morning in mid-May, and as people file off the bus, the empty sidewalks only add to the sense of gloom. Besides those on the coach, just 10 or so people have shown up for the event, and it looks like they, too, have been brought in by the campaign. Everyone from the bus grabs a sign and marches over to the public green. Baker, with his long, brisk strides, leads the way.
This tour is a kind of message reboot for Baker, an attempt at a clean start for a candidate who’s just fired his campaign manager after weeks of getting knocked around by bad press and worse polls. The idea is for Baker to recharge his candidacy by traveling to cities and towns all across the state for rallies with fed-up voters who’ve “had enough” of Governor Deval Patrick. Today it’s Worcester and Lowell.
The podium for Baker’s speech has been set up outside City Hall. Nearby is an “I’ve Had Enough” banner signed by 30 or so people. A speaker blares David Bowie’s “Young Americans.”
The rah-rah bus tour is a curious choice for Baker, a sober man who’s spent his entire career behind the scenes, digging into spreadsheets and thinking up clever accounting maneuvers. Baker is the kind of person who actually enjoys the mundane details of government, the drilling down into policy minutiae. When he was elected to the Swampscott Board of Selectmen in 2004, he was working as the CEO of Harvard Pilgrim, the state’s second-largest health insurance company, and he’d once been the most influential adviser to Governor William Weld – the “heart and soul” of the administration. Yet far from commanding a leadership role on the local board, Baker was largely content to work in the background, busying himself with the details of the town budget.
Still, here he is, tall and trim, leading a bus tour. He’s standing right now in front of the podium, making small talk with a few of his supporters in the moments before his speech. A woman carrying an infant in a BabyBjorn walks up to the group and shares a laugh with the candidate. Someone, sensing the opportunity for a classic campaign photo op, calls out, “Awww, you’ve got a baby to kiss!” The mother is beaming. Baker leans forward to kiss the child. But then, for some reason, he pulls back, awkward and uncertain. Finally, he reaches out his arm and pats the baby respectfully on the shoulder.
IT WASN’T THAT LONG AGO that Charlie Baker was looking very much like our next governor. He was the man who’d single-handedly rescued Harvard Pilgrim, the sinking health insurance giant; the guy who’d balanced every budget and made the tough choices to turn Massachusetts around in the administrations of Weld and Paul Cellucci. A fiscal conservative and self-proclaimed social moderate (pro-choice and for same-sex marriage), he also had the benefit of challenging an incumbent governor with approval numbers so dismal even his supporters were all but conceding defeat. And he was a member of a party on the move. Scott Brown’s victory in the special election for Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat had upended everything we thought we knew about politics in this state. Blue as it was, it turned out that Massachusetts was no different from anywhere else – sick of incumbents, sick of business as usual, ready for change.
And Baker was going to deliver it. He’d been borrowing from a Republican playbook in vogue back when Bill Weld was in office, painting Patrick as a typical tax-and-spend Democrat who’d “let the budget get away from him.” He attacked the governor for failing to make Massachusetts a more affordable place to do business, and for breaking a promise not to cut the local aid that the state gives to cities and towns. He pledged that, once elected, he’d reduce taxes and eliminate the waste in the state budget. The bell had yet to even ring and already Charlie Baker had knocked Deval Patrick out.
That was the thinking, anyway. It turns out that Patrick is not nearly as cooked as everyone had assumed. A ferocious campaigner, the governor has made few mistakes during his reelection bid – while taking advantage of opportunities to look like a confident leader during the flooding problems and drinking-water emergency of the spring. Then there’s state Treasurer Tim Cahill, the former Democrat whose campaign has been competing directly with Baker for the anti-Patrick vote.
But the real challenge for Baker hasn’t been his competition. It’s been Charlie Baker. What he has not shown, more than a year after announcing his intention to become the state’s next governor, is any real talent for campaigning. What he has shown is a troubling inability to connect with voters.
On the drive to Worcester, a campaign worker had explained that the job of everyone on the bus was to be as vocal and excited as possible at the rallies today. “So we’re all going to say how great Charlie is,” she instructed, “how he’s going to be the savior of the commonwealth!” Now the savior is ready to begin his speech outside Worcester City Hall, and he’s going to need all the help he can get.
Baker is standing at a lectern with his supporters lined up behind him on tiers of cement steps. But because the turnout is so dreadful, there’s almost no one left for him to address. As he begins his speech, he’s talking to just a handful of staffers and journalists. There are 13 people sitting at the tables and chairs that occupy the square behind City Hall, but their curious looks make it clear they haven’t come for the speech. “These are all his people,” a photographer from the Worcester Telegram & Gazette keeps saying. “There’s no public here.”
The stump speech is like kissing babies. Campaigning 101. It’s a formula that’s rarely tinkered with…for the simple reason that it works. You keep your sentences short and crisp, pause at your applause lines, jab your finger for emphasis, and maybe even throw in a foot stomp or two to get the crowd howling. Done right, the stump speech sets you up as someone worth listening to (a helpful illusion, since what’s said is rarely worth paying attention to at all). Done wrong, however, the stump speech can make you look like an amateur, someone not worth wasting a vote on. Done wrong, in fact, it looks very much like the rambling lecture Charlie Baker is now delivering outside Worcester City Hall.
Baker is going on and on about Patrick’s local-aid promise, about how the high cost of doing business in Massachusetts is costing the state jobs. He seems to be under the impression that, rather than stirring up the base with a few standard-issue fighting words, the purpose of this rally is to tackle the big, important issues of the day. “Think about it for a minute,” he’s saying, looking out at the small group in front of him but apparently addressing the supporters behind him. “Do you believe that Deval Patrick and Tim Cahill, both of whom have supported all kinds of tax increases over the past few years, are gonna deal with the impending budget disaster without going back to the taxpayers in the cities and towns for more money to balance the budget?”
No one seems to be sure if they’re supposed to holler Yes! or No! So no one says anything at all. Turning his head to the group behind him, Baker snaps, “That’s a question!” Half of his supporters then roar Yes! before realizing they’ve got it backward. Anxious to give him what he needs, they quickly correct themselves, but by now the whole thing has dissolved into a half-hearted no. Charlie Baker is somehow losing an audience the campaign bused to the event specifically to cheer for him.
Baker presses on. “We are gonna cut spending and reform state government, period,” he declares. “That’s the only way that makes any sense for Massachusetts. We’re too expensive, too complicated, and too inefficient to do it any other way.” A lone person responds with a “Hoo!” and three sad claps. Baker stops, mid-sentence, nods at the man, and says, “Thank you.”
EVERY TIME BAKER TURNS AROUND these days, somebody else wants to know why the hell he isn’t following the Scott Brown Blueprint for Massachusetts Electoral Success. Hadn’t Brown, tearing through Massachusetts in his pickup, shown the way? Hadn’t he hacked out of previously impassable terrain a sure-fire path to victory for Baker? “It’s incredible,” Boston University professor Thomas Whalen exclaimed in the Herald, “that in the wake of Scott Brown’s upset victory, [Baker] would find himself in third place in the polls. It’s pathetic.”
Far from helping Baker, Brown’s victory has created a problem for him. It’s raised expectations to an unhelpful degree – and an unfair one, too, given the differences between the two races and, especially, the two men. Brown’s victory, while impressive, may have said less about the state’s current taste for Republicans than it did about his opponent’s dreadful campaign. Baker, in contrast, is challenging both a sitting governor renowned for his talents on the campaign trail and a twice-elected state treasurer. And where Brown, affable and charming, sparkled in campaign settings, Baker can seem downright embarrassed when people are chanting his name.
On the bus, Baker acknowledges that he’s yet to bond with the public. He prefers to think of his campaign persona as a work in progress. “Learning how to communicate to big audiences, and how to frame a message in a way that works in a sound-bite world, that for me is very challenging,” he says. “This is a humbling experience in a lot of ways. And there are plenty of times when I’m pretty far outside my comfort zone.”
For Charlie Baker, who is 53, being outside his comfort zone at all is, in many ways, a new experience. After graduating from Harvard and earning an M.B.A. from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, Baker, barely into his 30s, helped found the Pioneer Institute, the influential Boston think tank with a libertarian, free-market orientation. In 1991 Bill Weld hired him as his undersecretary for health. Soon, Baker was running Weld’s entire health and human services office. Eventually, he became Weld’s secretary of administration and finance – budget chief to a governor for whom the budget was everything. At age 42, Baker was in charge of Harvard Pilgrim, one of New England’s biggest health insurance companies.
Baker, who grew up in Needham, is the son of a Republican father who served in both the Nixon and Reagan administrations, and a liberal, Democratic mother. That combination of influences, he often says, helped him learn to see both sides of an issue. Family dinners consisted of heated political discussions, and even as a boy Charlie could hold his own. “They really did discuss politics around the kitchen table,” says Mindy d’Arbeloff, who has known Baker since they were kids and their fathers were close friends. “My two brothers and I would sit at that table and really not have very much to say, and in the car on the way home my father would say, ‘What’s the matter with you kids? Why can’t you all be as smart as the Baker kids?’ So we actually came to dread those dinners.”
Terry McCourt, who served in the Weld administration with Baker, recalls the governor’s notorious morning staff meetings, when Weld would go around the table grilling cabinet members about what they were working on. Those foolish enough to respond, McCourt says, were subjected to “withering” cross-examination.
“You’re dealing with people that are very well accomplished and self-confident,” McCourt says. “The majority of the time the person would say, ‘I pass.’
Then he would get to Charlie, and Charlie would literally have a stack of files with him and would proceed to talk about these policy initiatives he was thinking about or to describe some sort of budgetary issue he was grappling with, and he would present it in such a compelling manner and with just this incredible sense of logic but also clarity….Everybody would just be kind of in awe, even all of his peers, watching him in action.” Doing away with pretenses, Baker eventually just sat right next to the governor at the meetings.
“He’s the most able guy I’ve ever met in public life,” says Weld. “He really became the one guy that I would look to gut-check just about any decision I was making…. He was so knowledgeable that he could set the table on almost any issue.”
It didn’t take long for Baker to prove the value of his ingenuity. “The way we were able to balance the budget the first year was just some creative thinking in the Medicaid area,” Weld says. Baker and his team discovered that, because of the amount of free care delivered by the state’s teaching hospitals, Massachusetts was entitled to a significant increase in what’s known as a disproportionate share adjustment. “Charlie and his people thought that up,” Weld says, “and it wound up being worth $600 million to the state. That was real money, and that’s just brainpower.”
Baker says his run for governor is motivated in part by what the Weld and Cellucci administrations were able to accomplish at a time when the state was in great trouble. “We walked into a situation with high unemployment, big budget deficits, the savings and loan crisis, and a big credit crunch,” he says. “It looked and felt a lot like today feels to a lot of people. Over that eight-year period of time, we balanced every budget, cut taxes, reformed workers’ comp and welfare and healthcare and education and criminal justice…. You could get stuff done, and a lot of it was stuff people said we’d never get done.”
To critics, however, the Weld and Baker reforms were essentially slash-and-burn cuts to social programs, cost savings carried out on the backs of the needy. The state’s housing budget was cut by more than 40 percent during the Weld years, and the portion of the state’s borrowing limit dedicated to housing programs was reduced from $202 million to $62 million. Weld’s administration also did away with 10 of the 11 state programs for homeless prevention, tightened the restrictions on homeless families getting into shelters, closed nine facilities for the mentally impaired, and eliminated the general-relief welfare program for some 20,000 poor people. Weld and Baker also outsourced many state-run social programs to private contractors.
Phil Johnston, secretary of health and human services in the Dukakis administration, says these moves amounted to “trashing poor women and children.” Johnston does acknowledge, however, that a friend of his, an “iconic” figure in child welfare, recently told him that she’s working hard for Baker. “What?” Johnston exclaimed. “Well,” she responded, “Charlie was good to us.” When it comes to private, as opposed to public, providers of social services, Johnston says, “You’ll find some support for him because of his ability to kind of sit down with people and try to work things out.”