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.

Another controversy from Baker’s time in state government involves his role in the financing of the Big Dig. In March, when the Globe‘s Brian McGrory asked Baker about the decision during the Weld administration to pay for a large portion of the massive public-works project by borrowing against future federal highway funds, Baker maintained that he was “one of about 50 people” with input on the decision. Subsequent reporting by the paper, however, found that it was primarily Baker himself who crafted the plan to fund construction via heavy borrowing, the repayment of which would fall to future administrations. Besides calling Baker’s honesty into question, the story undercut his assertions that the Weld administration, and by extension the one he would lead if elected, was all about taking responsibility, about solving today’s problems today.

When Weld is asked about his administration’s role in the public-works fiasco, he says it was actually his lieutenant governor, Paul Cellucci, who oversaw financing of the Big Dig. “I didn’t remember much Baker on the Big Dig,” he says. “But Paul Cellucci was in charge of a group that met monthly on the financing of the Big Dig. Paul and I were like alter egos. And I absolutely laid that one off on him because I knew it was going to be complex.” Cellucci chuckles when told Weld’s version of events. He says Weld asked him to chair “an interagency group” charged with keeping construction moving forward. “We really didn’t focus on financing too much,” Cellucci says. “The financing was more the governor’s office and the legislature.” The Big Dig is the Afghanistan of Massachusetts politics, an ugly, bottomless, legacy-destroying mess, passed from one administration to the next, owned by no one.

A final major criticism of Baker’s time in the Weld administration was his work to deregulate healthcare. True to their free-market instincts, Weld and Baker undid many of the state controls over how much hospitals could charge. Deregulation, they argued, would save money and improve services for everyone. Instead, says former Governor Michael Dukakis, “It’s been a disaster. We’re paying billions because of hospital deregulation. The market does not work in healthcare. Never has, never will. And when the market doesn’t work, you’ve got to regulate it. Charlie’s a very bright guy. But Charlie is largely responsible for the mess.”

Ironically, Baker himself would soon feel the pain of his own deregulation work. When Weld resigned in 1997, Cellucci became acting governor and asked Baker to be his running mate on the 1998 ticket. Baker declined and instead left state government. In 1999 he was named CEO of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care – an enormous company that, following years of mismanagement, was in serious jeopardy.

“The plan was in big trouble,” Baker recalls. “People were concerned about its ability to pay its bills.” Baker instituted a series of cost-saving measures – outsourcing administrative functions, reorganizing the provider network, changing the pharmacy benefit manager – that normally might take three years but were carried out in just 90 days during the summer of 1999. Baker also made the decision, which he calls one of the most difficult of his career, to pull Harvard Pilgrim out of Rhode Island, a move that left 1,000 people without a job and 200,000 others in need of new health insurance.

Amid this furious restructuring came a discovery in January 2000 that turned an already bleak picture critical. Baker’s staff uncovered an accounting error of nearly $59 million, which inflated losses to an unmanageable $227 million. Baker had an emergency meeting with Attorney General Tom Reilly. They agreed on a plan under which Harvard Pilgrim was granted a form of bankruptcy protection and placed under state control for five months. The company then remained under state supervision for the next six years. Baker’s critics like to point out the irony in one of Massachusetts’ great free-market warriors requiring state intervention to save his company, but there can be no doubting the competence, creativity, and flexibility Baker displayed during the episode.

“Charlie Baker saved Harvard Pilgrim,” says Paul Levy, president and CEO of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, where Baker once sat on the board. “Charlie arrived at Harvard Pilgrim to find the place was a disaster and was almost out of business, and he had to lead them out of that.”

But there was one challenge for Harvard Pilgrim that even Baker couldn’t overcome. Thanks to the recently deregulated healthcare market, hospitals were free to pursue higher payments for their services, which meant higher costs for Harvard Pilgrim and other insurance companies. In fact, it wasn’t long after healthcare deregulation that Brigham and Women’s and Massachusetts General Hospital founded Partners HealthCare, the largest and most powerful healthcare provider in Massachusetts. Partners began wringing much higher payments out of insurance companies than other providers could get for the same procedures. In 2001 Partners reportedly demanded increases of 25 to 35 percent over four years. Harvard Pilgrim insisted it couldn’t pay that much without raising premiums and taking on even more losses. Partners prevailed. “He was part of the administration under which what had been a highly regulated healthcare system became less so,” says Levy, who is supporting Baker’s run for governor. “Charlie, ironically, ended up being a victim of that at Harvard Pilgrim because they were able to beat him up as a result of their market power and demand higher rates. It was not the way he probably anticipated it, and I think he’d be the first to admit that.”

Perhaps he would, but he certainly isn’t admitting that hospital deregulation was a mistake. “Generally speaking, hindsight’s a great thing, and people can always look back and draw their own conclusions,” Baker says. “But what I would say about this is that as times change, policy needs to change, too….People should think about this as an ongoing narrative in which over time different policy approaches are going to be more appropriate than others based on whatever else is going on.”

AS BAKER’S TOUR BUS
prepares to depart Worcester, a campaign worker named Debbie Drinkwater tries to shake the supporters out of their slumber. For the day’s second rally, the campaign is desperate for a better showing. “Make some noise for Charlie!” Drinkwater urges. “Don’t be afraid to interrupt him!” Baker climbs aboard a few minutes later, takes a seat at the front of the bus.

The poll in April that showed Baker in third place made it clear that something was going to have to change fast. From the day he got in the race, Baker has been highly successful at raising money, bringing in more than $2.5 million by February (about 10 percent of it from people with connections to the healthcare industry), which left him with significantly more cash than Patrick. And since announcing his candidacy in the summer of 2009, he’s done approximately 500 events – reportedly spending nearly $200,000 on catering and room rentals alone.

Yet no one seems to know who he is. And he keeps making the kind of silly political blunders that lead you to wonder about the advice he’s getting. One example: In March, he stunned observers by announcing that he would skip the annual St. Patrick’s Day breakfast in South Boston. Even if you accepted his explanation – that months earlier he’d committed to attend a different St. Patrick’s Day event – you had to question how much of a threat any politician for statewide office could be if he wasn’t prepared to mix it up at the annual Southie roast.

Baker often touts his talent for turning around troubled organizations. After his dismal showing in the polls, it was his own foundering campaign that was in need of remaking. In typical Baker fashion, he acted quickly. The overhaul started a week after the poll was released in April. Baker fired his campaign manager and made the curious decision to replace him with Tim O’Brien, the man who had overseen Kerry Healey’s run against Patrick in 2006.

After taking over, O’Brien called a series of meetings with the campaign’s leadership team. Out of those meetings came the Baker’s Dozen list of 13 proposals to get the economy moving again, generally by cutting taxes, lowering spending, and eliminating waste. The centerpiece of the new effort, though, was the “Had Enough?” tour. Baker’s media office was sending out real-time press releases after every event, and had set up a kind of social-media war room right on the WiFi-enabled bus, blasting out updates every few minutes via Twitter, Facebook, blogs, and the like.

As the bus hits the highway, the media team is hammering away at laptops and cell phones in the back. The goal of this frenzied effort is to fill the Twitterverse with the campaign’s talking points about Patrick and his tax-and-spend soul. The team has just discovered that Lowell’s Pollard Memorial Library, where Baker is going to deliver his speech, is the same spot where Patrick once proposed raising the Massachusetts gas tax to generate revenue for the state’s crumbling bridges and roads.

“Do you want me to tweet something about the gas tax?” asks Jay Altschuler, a campaign social-media specialist. “It says here that’s why we’re going to Lowell. We can retweet the hell out of that for the next hour.”

“Yeah!” says Rick Gorka, Baker’s press secretary. Then Gorka calls campaign headquarters. “Hey,” he says, “it’s true that Patrick’s never submitted a budget without a tax increase, right?” Hanging up, Gorka starts banging out a tweet on his phone. Three minutes later, the message, posted under the name CB_CommsDir, appears on Twitter: Heading to the same library in Lowell where Patrick called for a huge increase in the gas tax.

Gorka’s followers on Twitter – some of them campaign workers – immediately begin retweeting the post. Gorka, who headed up the West Coast communications operation for John McCain’s 2008 presidential bid, starts in with another message: Deval’s never submitted a budget w/o a tax/fee increase and has never met a tax he didn’t like, MA’s had enough. Between tweets, Gorka, who is 30, and his team trade lines from various Chris Farley movies and 1990s rap songs. “I wish I was a little bit taller, I wish I was a baller!” Gorka calls out. “I wish I had a girl who looked good, I would call her!”

“I wonder,” says one of the media guys, “if it’s just our little world that does this.”

“It is to some extent,” replies Altschuler. “What you have to understand is it’s not so much the tweets that go back and forth, it’s the information that’s exchanged. You’re changing what people know.”

Here in the back of the bus, the governor of Massachusetts is changed into someone who seeks to raise taxes every year simply because he likes to.

THE ATTEMPT TO PAINT DEMOCRATS as financially irresponsible may have been an effective tactic back when Baker was in government, but it’s simply the wrong attack on Deval Patrick. That’s never really been the knock on him. In fact, as dismal as these economic times in Massachusetts have been, the state has weathered the recession comparatively well. Job losses were less extreme here than in other parts of the country, real estate has held its value better, the state has continued to earn sterling marks from the bond rating agencies, and job-creation data indicate that Massachusetts has already begun to emerge, however slowly, from a recession that remains dire elsewhere.

The actual rap on Patrick, his genuine point of vulnerability, concerns something that should be quite familiar to Charlie Baker, because it’s the same thing that was said of his old boss Bill Weld: He’s just not all that interested in being governor. Patrick spent the early part of his first term tangled in a series of mini controversies that share one common theme – his apparent preference for the trappings of the office to the job itself. He spent exorbitant amounts on his drapes. He flew the governor’s helicopter everywhere. He ordered an extra-fancy state-issue Cadillac. Two years ago, Patrick skipped town only hours before the legislature took up the controversial casino bill he had championed. While lawmakers were voting down the proposal, Patrick was in New York shopping his memoirs. A truly stinging attack on the governor might go something like this: Is he really the man we want running the state in these dangerous times?

Such a recalibration would also allow Baker to ditch his disastrous Scott Brown impersonation. Though recent polling has found Baker closing ground on Patrick, it has also revealed that, a year into the high-profile businessman’s campaign, a surprisingly large percentage of the electorate still has no idea who he is. When Weld is told how awkward and self-conscious Baker can look on the campaign trail, the former governor says, “That’s Charlie. He’s in some ways a shy guy.” Which is to say that Howie Carr has it exactly backward when he writes that “Charlie Baker should be spending some time with Sen. Scott Brown – in the truck, on the road. And he should be taking notes.” On the contrary, Charlie Baker should be embracing his inner wonk. It’s who he is and, more to the point, there’s at least a plausible argument that what Massachusetts needs at this moment is a governor who’s going to be personally tossing and turning every night, fretting about our fluctuating disproportionate share adjustment.

Baker himself seems to get the fact that a guy with his skills could be a useful Massachusetts governor right now. What appears to have escaped his notice – and that of the people around him – is that he hasn’t actually been running as a guy with those skills. Instead, he’s been running the campaign of a…a…well, what, really? “One of the things you search for here,” he tells me, “is some way to define what you want to be about relative to your competitors.”

What’s with all this searching just a few months before election day?

It’s pretty clear what Baker is about. “What would I like people to think of as representing the Weld administration?” Weld asks. “It would be Charlie Baker’s intellectual capacity, broad approach, and seriousness of purpose.”

Those are qualities not often associated with Scott Brown. They are qualities, though, on which you can build a campaign.

THE MOTOR COACH PULLS INTO Lowell. Baker’s speech is being held in a small room in the public library. The ceilings are low, and it’s dimly lit in here. Again, not many people and not much media. But there’s undeniably more energy than in Worcester. Only some of the Had Enough! Had Enough! chanting this time is coming from campaign staff.

Baker looks much more comfortable in this setting. The small room enlarges his presence. His suit jacket is off, and his sleeves are rolled up. It’s going to be a town hall meeting this time, so his supporters are arranged all around him, meaning he actually has someone to talk to. He keeps his statements short in this less formal, more conversational format. He’s clapping his hands for emphasis. His fundamental wonkishness has him coming across as reassuringly competent instead of intolerably dull.

Someone says they’ve had enough of the Registry of Motor Vehicles, and Baker tears into the subject. Faced with budget cuts, he says, Patrick simply closed a bunch of branches. Other states have gone with low-cost ATM-type kiosks in malls and stores that allow residents to conduct registry transactions at their convenience. “Instead what we get is the closing of all the registries, longer lines, no creativity around how to deal with the lines…. That’s the wrong way to do this! We’re all about doing it the right way!” The audience explodes.

“What else have you had enough of?” he hollers.

Wasteful spending!

Health insurance costs!

IN WORCESTER HE COULDN’T wait to wrap things up. Here, he keeps calling for “one last question,” and then taking another one. There’s no cheerleading to be done here, no babies to kiss or reporters to hassle with. It’s just Charlie Baker and his ideas for making government work. He’s come alive. And he’s got them howling.

Baker at last takes his final question, and then launches himself into the crowd, eagerly shaking hands. He’s glowing. Then a staffer in a corner starts in with Charlie! Charlie! The room picks up the call. As Charlie Baker looks around him, an embarrassed smile spreads across his face.

  • dina

    I happened to be near Worcester City Hall when Baker made stop, and it was clearly a press conference opp to get his message out;staged, yes, but considering he did not announce it ahead of time, per folks I talked to, not surprising there was no crowd. Never people in courtyard until summer!

  • M

    The author seems too harsh in the first part of the article, but then he gets it right toward the end. True, Charlie’s not great at giving sound bite answers to complex questions and delivering applause lines, but these superficial qualities shouldn’t be held against him at a time when we need someone with executive skills at the helm. That said, I do agree with the author on two things– 1. the most salient criticism of Patrick is that he is not in the game (seems more interested in his book deal than the job), and 2. Charlie is not and should not try to be Scott Brown– Charlie’s got a totally different set of assets and opponents, and comparisons of the two (such as Howie Carr often makes) are pointless.

  • shaun baran

    He is a republican moron, who would deny children food stamps to get the Koch’s Money. He will never be our Governor, no way no how. We can’t afford him, nor can our children afford a selfish Millionaire, with his smug grin. He lost like five times. Please go away, Mr. Managed Care No one want’s you, or your Managed Care straitjacket.