Politics

Could This Man Be Your Next Governor?

Setti Warren is handsome, charming, smart, and unabashedly progressive. But is that enough to dethrone Charlie Baker? By Saul Elbein

Photograph by Toan Trinh

On a warm Labor Day afternoon, Newton Mayor Setti Warren—youthful, good-looking, earnest—is delivering a speech to an audience of 200 people wearing pussyhats and “Make America Not Racist” shirts, all jammed together on a manicured Newton lawn. “This is a generational moment,” he shouts above the clinking of ice cubes. “I believe economic inequality is the greatest issue of our time.” Then he begins rattling off a list of policies that sound like a Massachusetts progressive’s letter to Santa: single-payer healthcare; bullet trains across the state; free, lifelong public college—all of it paid for by taxes on the rich. With each beat, the crowd seems to get more excited, more hopeful. When the speech is over, a young man with his hair in a bun walks up to Warren, eyes shining: “Man,” he gushes, “I fuckin’ love hearing you talk.”

Technically, Warren is here campaigning against two other Democratic gubernatorial hopefuls—but his real target is Governor Charlie Baker. The conventional wisdom, of course, is that Baker is unbeatable in 2018. He’s the most popular governor in the country, boasting a 70 percent approval rating. As the national GOP coalition fractures, Baker has played the likable Republican, quietly chastising Donald Trump, Paul Ryan, and Mitch McConnell and splitting from the national party’s policies. For Baker, “Don’t make waves” has been an effective strategy in a divisive climate: The economy is good, the governor is charmingly inoffensive, and the state isn’t in crisis. While few people may love Baker, it seems that almost everyone feels pretty darn good about him. As of October, he’d already amassed more than $6.5 million in campaign funds.

The GOP, of course, calls the attempt to take down Baker a fool’s errand. “As Massachusetts Democrats draw from the same old tax-and-spend playbook,” MassGOP spokesman Terry MacCormack said via email, “Governor Baker has increased funding for substance misuse prevention and treatment by 50 percent, increased state education spending by $346 million to a historic $4.7 billion high, doubled tax relief for over 400,000 working families, and seen state-of-good-repair investments at the MBTA reach over $811 million for the first time ever, all without raising taxes. With over 120,000 new jobs, the most people working in decades, and household incomes on the rise across the board, Massachusetts’ communities and residents continue to grow and thrive under Governor Baker’s leadership.”

Conversely, the line from the three Democratic contenders is that Baker’s invulnerability and accomplishments have both been vastly exaggerated. “It’s easy to be popular when you don’t do anything,” Jay Gonzalez, who was secretary of administration and finance under former Governor Deval Patrick, said on WGBH. Bob Massie, a longtime activist and entrepreneur, pointed at the “deep structural problems”—primarily income inequality and the environment—that threaten to sunder the state while Baker pursues mild-mannered business as usual. But no one plays the Democratic heir apparent quite like Warren, who claims that the way to beat Baker is to offer a bold vision in opposition to the governor’s middle-of-the-road political harmony. He’s promising more and wants to go further than any of the other contenders.

In an era of cynicism and progressive despair, Warren inspires a response that can be surprising: optimism and enthusiasm that stand apart from the politics of anger, distrust, and loathing that has oozed from Washington all the way down to the local level. It’s almost intoxicating. And Warren is counting on this wild, fragile inspiration to sweep him all the way to Beacon Hill, which is perhaps proof that he might be the biggest optimist of all. Yet while the odds may seem improbable, he and his team—some of the best and brightest in Massachusetts politics—are betting their reputations and careers on the idea that Baker is not so invulnerable as he seems, that he can be beaten. In fact, they think they’ve figured out a way to do just that.

On a Monday this fall, I’m driving
with Warren during a 12-hour stretch—which for him passes for a light day on the campaign trail. At 47, he exudes energy, seeming simultaneously relaxed and recharged by the rigors of campaigning. More than once, his aide Kevin Franck told me, he has stumbled bleary-eyed into Warren’s house early in the morning to find the mayor wide awake, having already worked out, showered, and dressed, and now eager to go through the day’s plans. Warren was literally born to be an officeholder, having grown up inside Massachusetts politics. His father, Joseph Warren, a respected African-American studies professor at Northeastern, was the assistant secretary of education under Michael Dukakis, who even as governor was famous for cadging rides from friends and aides. Which meant Warren spent much of his childhood in the back of his dad’s VW Rabbit, much like I’m riding with him now—and arguing.

“Dad would always ask, ‘What do you think?’” Warren says as the green hills of the Berkshires rise beside the car. “And he never gave us the answer—he always made us explain our positions. He’d be kinda harsh. ‘What do you mean? That won’t work.’” Eventually, Warren and his sister learned “to give a live, real answer about a person. And inevitably it would come back to our family story, our family values.”

To hear Warren tell it, this Socratic training honed his family’s story into a sort of civics lesson, starting with his parents’ experience rising from poverty and segregation into the middle class thanks to the New Deal and LBJ liberalism. His dad grew up in Harlem “on a block CBS called the worst block in America, full of drugs, gangs, violence,” Warren says, but enlisted in the Air Force, served in the Korean War, “and bought the house I live in now on the GI Bill.” Joseph Warren “always stressed: yes, we worked hard, but government plays a role for people willing to work hard and make a life.”

It’s not surprising, then, that Warren gravitated toward politics at a young age. He was class president at Newton North High School, student-body president at Boston College, and took jobs in the Clinton White House and with John Kerry’s presidential campaign. After 9/11 he joined the Navy Reserve and eventually served as an intelligence specialist in Iraq. That experience forms a crucial part of his stump speech: that though Americans of all stripes were on that base, “I realized that despite our differences, we had to work together.”

This is, of course, basically the Platonic ideal of a politician’s narrative, and he repeats it more or less verbatim at every stump speech. It plugs directly into Warren’s main message: He is running for governor, he says, in library basements and coffee shops and house parties, because this upward trajectory is something that no longer seems possible in America.

Warren believes his strongest résumé item is the work he’s done in Newton, where he’s served as mayor since 2010. “We need the government on Beacon Hill that I brought to City Hall,” he says. When he took office, Newton was running a $40 million deficit and Moody’s had downgraded the city’s credit rating (just like Standard & Poor’s did to the state’s rating in June). So Warren negotiated with all 17 public service unions, and they “worked together” to limit payroll growth. As reelection loomed in 2013, with the fiscal crisis still the foremost issue, Warren bet big: He put a referendum for a tax increase on the ballot, holding dozens of town-hall meetings to argue for the plan. It passed, and he won reelection—today, Newton is in the black, with about $20 million in a rainy-day fund and a Moody’s Aaa bond rating, meaning the city can get low interest rates to finance construction and infrastructure projects.

Warren often describes himself as a hands-on manager, and he set himself on a course to transform Newton and make development easier. He pitched a new housing strategy that called for fresh construction and moved to streamline the housing code and zoning laws to make it easier for new developments to go in. The plan resulted in two major building projects. This past September he endorsed Newton’s new charter, which would cut the council in half, impose term limits, and require all members to be elected citywide—a move, he says, that will help bring Newton the citywide solutions it needs.

But, as Warren himself admits on the campaign trail, Newton’s a microcosm of exactly the sort of dystopian economic inequality that afflicts America as a whole: The city has the second-highest number of millionaires in Massachusetts (after Boston), but 1 in 8 households make less than $25,000 per year. He uses this to talk about the importance of affordable housing and access to transit, and the importance of the Fair Share Amendment, or millionaires’ tax, to help pay for the Massachusetts he envisions.

While Warren touts his record in Newton as a guide for how he’d govern, it can read more like that of a pragmatic, pro-business centrist than a progressive fire-breather. As Newton housing prices have skyrocketed, with teardowns selling for $700,000, Warren has pushed for, at best, moderate reforms to the status quo. After an attempt to get an old firehouse transformed into a nine-unit affordable-housing development triggered a community backlash, for instance, Warren backed off. Instead, he has pushed to raise the rate of “affordable” units in new market-rate developments from 15 to 20 percent, with an additional 5 percent set aside for “workforce housing,” i.e., housing for the middle class—a solution that made some residents more worried about being priced out. His proudest accomplishment, in terms of development, was rehabbing a faded shopping center with a Starbucks and condos. A nice shopping center, to be sure, but it is hard to stand in the middle of a parking lot and believe you’re in the center of a New America.

When a public-access-TV interviewer in Pittsfield recently asked Warren who his hero was, he leaned in, smiling like no one had ever been considerate enough to ask that before, and said “JFK.” Who, he went on to explain, was a generational president, in a generational election, much like the one we’re heading into now. Warren likes this role: the leader challenging Americans to do more, to be more, to, as he says, “step up.” With a progressive wave on the horizon, Warren is offering a callback to the Great Society that could have been lifted from the Kennedys—a full-throated update for a classic vision of progressivism. In the face of the “Make America Great Again” history-halting impulse, Warren’s platform—and the ideals on which it is founded—retorts that we’re cribbing all the wrong bits from our past.

And yet for all of Warren’s talk about the ladder his father climbed into the middle class being broken, and what I take to be his sincere regret about the income divide in Newton, the fact remains: If people in his city can’t come up with about $1 million for a house, a lot of them are ultimately going to have to find a different place to live. He’s promising sweeping, progressive change if voters promote him to the governorship, but if Warren trades Newton City Hall for Beacon Hill, will he be able to follow through? For us to find out, he’s going to have to win.

 

Warren’s secret weapon against Baker isn’t a progressive agenda or a civic turnaround story or even his impeccable résumé. To knock off the man who is thought to be the most popular governor in the country, he’s counting on simple math. But while a WBUR poll in November has Warren leading the Democratic charge, he’s also more than 30 points behind Baker. So what does he know that we don’t?

“I’m not delusional,” John Walsh, Warren’s senior campaign adviser, told me. “We know that Baker has 70 percent approval ratings, and he’s going to have a $30 million war chest. That’s all significant. But we also think he’s going to need it.” Walsh lays out their calculation: Massachusetts Republicans have long made up for their low numbers with an animated, active base—they can reliably get out 1.1 million voters in an off-year election, which helps account for the fact that seven out of the past 10 governors have been Republicans (in addition to Ed King, an extremely conservative Democrat). “It’s a solid, consistent winning base,” Walsh said, “but it’s also a ceiling”—in a high-turnout election, those 1.1 million committed Republicans get swamped by lukewarm Democrats.

Warren likes to remind folks that Donald Trump got more votes here than Charlie Baker (1,083,069 versus 1,041,640), but was still soundly beaten by Hillary Clinton. His point: In a high-turnout election, that stable Republican base isn’t enough to hold down the governorship. And Democrats are anticipating 2018 will be a high-turnout election. Though it’s not a presidential year—as Warren explained to a group of older women at a house party in Northampton, grilling him about his ability to win—the left is fired up after Trump’s election, and a number of red-meat progressive issues are on the ballot (like a referendum weighing in on Massachusetts’ transgender antidiscrimination bill). Then there is the upcoming run of Senator Elizabeth Warren (no relation), whom Setti Warren thinks will turn out the base. “It’ll be Warren and Warren,” he told the women, laughing.

Also consider, Walsh says, the two liberal Democrats who have become governor in the past 40 years, Dukakis and Patrick: They touted progressive messages, mixed with bare-knuckled, on-the-ground organizing, a style that Warren is built for. He door-knocks with the best of them. In his campaign for mayor he claimed to have knocked on 11,000. He held those dozens of town halls in the lead-up to his proposal to increase Newton’s taxes. He promises to parlay that experience into the largest grassroots movement Massachusetts has ever seen.

Finally, Baker’s position might be more tenuous than his imposing popularity numbers suggest. Baker, Walsh points out, won in 2014 by only 18 votes per precinct, and he’s being attacked on his right by the Massachusetts Tea Party, which gives him little room to maneuver. Walsh thinks that leaves the Warren campaign with an easy, winning message: that where Warren pushes investment in the future, Baker has hidden in his office, running up a chronic deficit so big that Standard & Poor’s recently downgraded Massachusetts’ bond rating (which had been upgraded under Governor Patrick).

It’s a long shot, said Barney Frank, the former longtime Massachusetts Democratic congressman. “But I think Setti has as good a shot as any Democrat.” One problem, Frank points out, is that there’s a tendency in Massachusetts for people to see Democratic gubernatorial candidates as corrupt, patronage-oriented creatures of the political machine. Warren, though, like so many successful Democrats of the modern era, is painting himself as a nonconformist in the same way Dukakis—who endorsed Warren in December—was a conspicuous opposition leader, and Deval Patrick was a political outsider. It’s a strategy that Warren has used before, Frank said—in his run for mayor, Warren defeated state Representative Ruth Balser, whose political loyalty had forced her to stay close to former Speaker Sal DiMasi, a powerful liberal who was criminally indicted shortly thereafter. By breaking ranks with the liberal establishment, Frank said, “Setti was able to beat her.” Now he is running as a triangulator between the moderate and progressive wings of the Democratic Party, carefully effusive in his praise for both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton.

But in proposing to knit back together the Sanders and Clinton wings of the party, Warren is betting that old-line liberalism, updated for the 21st century, is still popular. One question will be whether the old dreams still motivate, a front his Democratic opponents will challenge him on in the coming primaries. “Setti is extremely well intentioned,” says Bob Massie, one of Warren’s Democratic challengers. “But he is a city manager, and what we need is transformational change. The systems we developed over the last century aren’t providing what we need anymore. Instead of, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll make the old thing come back’—because it won’t—we need to rack our brains and find something new.”

Warren will also be facing a hurt, disaffected Democratic base. At a rally in Pittsfield, near the end of my time with Warren, a woman named Cheryl Rose told him that his patter sounded good, but “all the candidates say the same thing.” Barack Obama, she said, had promised to fight for them, too, and look how that had gone. How did they know he would really stand up to special interests? Warren considered her gravely. “I understand the skepticism,” he said, “after all these decades of Massachusetts barely scraping by, not making investments—and Democrats going along with it. If I’m elected, I’m going to need you to hold me, to hold your legislators, accountable, make sure I’m doing my job.” It was a far cry from the optimism that ended the Newton rally. As Rose left the public library where the meeting was being held, I ran after her. “What did you think about that answer?” I asked. “Do you buy it?” She stopped. She looked stricken. She touched her hair and then spoke: “I’d really like to.”