A Conversation with Charlie Baker

charlie baker

Photo by Dina Rudick/The Boston Globe.

David S. Bernstein: There’s this whole narrative surrounding your campaign this year, that it’s a new Charlie. That it’s this new Charlie, it’s this nicer Charlie, it’s whatever – which is essentially a way of saying “Charlie Baker may not be as big an asshole as you thought he was four years ago.” What’s it like to be the guy that narrative is being built around? Do you think there’s something to that? Are you doing something different this year?

Charlie Baker: It’s hard for me to know the answer to that question, because I’m just me, OK? But one of the things I did after the 2010 race was over, was I talked to a lot of people, people who covered it, people who were friends of mine, just people. And one of the messages that came through pretty clearly from people who have known me forever was they just said I don’t know that guy. That’s not the guy I know. And they all had different takes on it. Some of it was sort of the in-and-out nature of media coverage, and some of it was, who knows. But the long story short was most people who worked with me over the years, considered me to be a pretty optimistic but at the same time pretty hard-headed but pretty big-hearted guy. They just didn’t think they saw me. And if you hear that from a lot of people, it starts to stick. So I spent a lot of time thinking about that in the context of whether or not, or if, Lauren and I were to get back into this again — and I think some of it was first-time candidate, some of it was… I think a lot of it was first-time candidate. But Lauren and I did talk about the fact that, if we did this again, at the end of the race we really wanted our friends to think they knew the guy they saw.

DB: Is there anything specific that you look back on and think “I did this that I shouldn’t have done,” or “I was doing this this way that I shouldn’t have done”? Is there anything specific to point to?

CB: So, one of the things I used to hear over and over again from people was “Charlie you didn’t smile at all in 2010. You smile a lot in real life. You didn’t smile at all.” I thought that was a pretty interesting observation. So I’m trying to have more fun.

DB: Well it seems like you’re having fun. From a distance, and when I’ve seen you in person, you do seem to be more relaxed. I think that the first time someone runs, especially in a big race, you get inside your head a lot. What have I been told to do, what am I trying to do – you’re inside your head more than in the moment, and you seem to be in the moment more this time.

CB: Jim O’Sullivan, who writes for a competitor of yours, had a really interesting line. And I don’t know if he thought of it, when he said it, as a metaphor for the campaign or not, but he talked about the fact that when I was out at the Big E, I got a lot of shit from people in the media about the fact that I embraced this big rat that’s kind of the big symbol-

DB: For the union?

CB: No, the mascot for the Big E – it’s like a big stuffed squirrel. The guy came at me, I gave him a hug, my wife took a picture, I tweeted it and I got a lot of grief for it. But O’Sullivan said to me “Why did you do that?” I said “The guy was coming at me, he was going to give me a big hug, what was I supposed to do? I gave him a big hug.” And O’Sullivan said something like “When the big rat moves to give you a hug you should just go ahead and embrace it.” Which I thought was an interesting metaphor for running for office. Instead of thinking you can control and manage the whole thing, adapt to what’s going on, and accept the fact that’s kind of the way it works.

DB: The big issue four years ago was jobs and the economy. What grade would you give Deval Patrick? You portrayed it as a difference, that if we continue on the same path we’re not going to get the jobs back; I’ll go on a different path that would. What would you give him in terms of a letter grade for the second term, of handling jobs and the economy?

CB: Well, it’s not over yet.

DB: So far.

CB: Well, I don’t grade people – I’d give somebody an incomplete. My big concern for a while in respect to Massachusetts generally has been that we talk a lot about the things that are great – and there are a lot of them – but we don’t talk so much about the things that aren’t, and if you don’t talk about the things that aren’t, it’s hard to acknowledge them and face them. We are a very complicated state. Probably more complicated than we need to be. We’re an expensive state, maybe more expensive than we need to be. We talk a lot about what I would describe as the knowledge economy. And we like talking about the knowledge economy, because it’s a big part of who we are and what we’re all about, which is fine. But there are a lot of people out there who need us to talk about and think about, welders and pipefitters and machinists and HVAC guys and plumbers, and manufacturing, and retail, and other sectors of the economy that in a lot of parts of Massachusetts really matter. Fishing – the lobstermen. The scallopers. And I think it’s important to be willing not just to talk about the stuff that is great but to be willing to talk about the stuff that’s not working for people, and what we need to do to make it better.

DB: Is there anything you would point to that you would have done differently in that regard over the last four years, that would have had an effect?

CB: Forward, Dave! We’re thinking forward! As governor, I would be very interested in putting more attention, effort, time, money into career and technical education. There are a lot of parts of Massachusetts that are actually desperate for skilled workers. Where there are real jobs where people can make a real living. And we don’t talk much about that at all. And we should. I mean if we talk to most folks in the bio-tech community they’ll tell you that most of them have waiting lists, most of them have pretty solid relationships with a lot of employers and unions and others, and there are a lot of opportunities out there for kids who want to go that way. But we don’t talk much about that. We should talk a lot about that. And we should support it.

DB: At the risk of looking backward yet again with one more attempt-

CB: I’m going to work pretty hard to- I did my looking backwards; you asked me what I heard from people after the last race

DB: Well, but this is important, because this was what you campaigned on four years ago, was “I would be better to bring us out of this recession than he would.”

CB: That’s no longer relevant. It’s not relevant.

DB: I think it’s relevant-

CB: The real question is, who’s best suited to lead the Commonwealth from this point forward given where we are, right?

DB: Let me ask you this specifically. You called for, four years ago, you said you would eliminate five thousand state jobs, through attrition and so on. Do you still think that it would have been the right thing to do?

CB: I don’t think about it that way, because we’re not there any more. We’re in a very different place fiscally, and a very different place economically. And by the way, I was running for governor, so any proposal that I would have made with respect to anything, then or going forward, I would have to sell to the legislature, and make the case for.

DB: But isn’t it relevant, I mean you’re going to be governor potentially for eight years maybe-

CB: I was thinking more like twelve.

DB: Maybe twelve, who knows. We haven’t had a lot of experience with governors lasting that long.

CB: I’m kidding, I’m kidding. I don’t think the public is interested in having a governor that long.

DB: That’s probably true. But, you may be governor during a period when the state goes through some bad times, and if they disagreed with your approach to helping us through bad times then, isn’t that a relevant thing in choosing a governor going forward, how is he going to approach things for the various different situations that come along?

CB: I’m a very big believer that the primary focus for any organization at any point in time should always be smarter, better, faster. And I’ve said during this campaign that the three places I would start with respect to that is: number one, Commonwealth of Mass., not counting construction, purchased about five billion dollars worth of goods and services, and it’s a very complicated process. And I think we leave a lot of people on the sidelines who would choose to do business with the Commonwealth if we made it a little easier and simpler to do it; and we would probably get better pricing and more competitive procurements.

I’ve also talked about the fact that I think almost everything about the way we do business on the Web needs to be updated. We still do a lot of downloading of pdfs and then people fill out the form and then they mail it in to somebody. This is 2014, most folks have figured out how to get almost all that kind of stuff done in a purely online fashion. This is Massachusetts, we’re supposed to be one of the tech centers of the world. We have MIT within walking distance of the state house. I think it is great – I think it is awesome that the mayor decided to do a hackathon, with respect to some of the issues around permitting. I think we should be doing hackathons all day long, with respect to a whole bunch of things about the way state government manages its relationships around permits and licensing and regulatory policy and all the rest. All the b-to-b [business-to-business] and b-to-c [business-to-customer] stuff we should be chasing and chasing hard.

I talked about this in 2010: the registry, the lines are still out the door and down the street, and for all the talk about how much we’ve moved as a Commonwealth to create online opportunities around that stuff, we still haven’t done some of the basic things I think we should do. Like figure out a way to make it possible for people to conduct transactions sometime other than between nine o’clock in the morning and four o’clock in the afternoon Monday through Friday. Most people who work, and get paid by the hour, can’t take three or four hours off to stand in line somewhere. And yet there’s very limited access to anything on the weekends. And I said four years ago: we should have kiosks and small shops available in supermarkets and shopping malls, places you can actually go at nights and on weekends, so the people who work can get this stuff done somewhere else. The whole customer-centric thing, making this thing work for the people who actually engage with the commonwealth – I think we should be a lot more focused on that stuff. And I think in the end, not only will we get a better product, we’ll have much happier taxpayers, and people getting fees and permits and licenses and all the rest – and I also think we’ll have a happier workforce if we do that. I was always very proud of the fact that Harvard Pilgrim went from bankruptcy to the number-one customer-service provider in its industry for seven years in a row. That’s something I’m pretty focused on.

And by the way, one of the things I talked about in 2010 was not cutting local aid. Local aid’s been cut by 600 million, and we have 15,000 fewer people working in the public sector at the local, municipal level today than we had six or seven years ago. Nobody seems to talk very much about all the teachers and firefighters and DPW workers and police officers that have lost their jobs.

DB: The last couple of things that you’ve said lead into something I’ve wondered about, watching your campaign. It says on your web site, no new taxes. No cuts to local aid, and local aid should increase with the increase of the overall budget. But a lot of things that you – I’ve been making a list; there are a couple of dozen, at least, I’ve come up with, things like setting up little kiosks for weekend hours in malls, that costs money…

CB: Maybe. Maybe. In some states, some of the folks that have done this sort of work, they either split or they absorb the cost of putting the kiosk there, because they want the foot traffic. It doesn’t necessarily cost as much as you might think.

DB: My question is, I look at all of these things that you talk about, or agree that we should do: we should put more resources into DCF; you talk about homelessness, your strategy includes beefing up resources to some of the regional-

CB: But don’t you think on homelessness, that is a great example of where we are doing everything wrong, from a programmatic point of view, but also from a financial point of view. We were spending $50 million on emergency services when the governor took office; now we’re spending $350 million. That’s a great example, in my opinion, of where if we were smarter and more aggressive about how we went about this, I think we’d actually end up with a better product and we’d probably spend certainly no more, and probably less than we spend now. We didn’t spend anywhere near this kind of money in the 1990s, when we got this thing down to zero. We had a pretty solid- we won awards for what we were doing with homelessness in the 1990s, national awards.

DB: But this has been a different time, this was a major recession.

CB: Did you see the story in the Globe yesterday? The one about the fact that Massachusetts has the highest homelessness rate of a whole bunch of- the other states that we were competing with on that are very different than we are, except for maybe New York.

DB: So you don’t think- some of what my impression has been, is that it’s a “have your cake and eat it too” campaign: you’re not going to have to pay new taxes, you’re not going to lose any local aid, we’ll take care of DCF, and we’ll take care of homelessness, and whatever you’ve got, we’ll do it better. But you’re not going to have to pay another dime for it. Isn’t that a little bit-

CB: I don’t know, Dave, I’m basically the guy who’s been saying that- we’ve been making all kinds of real policy proposals on a lot of this stuff, and I don’t think we’ve made any promises we can’t keep. But put that in contrast to- I mean, we have been very measured about a whole variety of other initiatives that Martha Coakley and Steve Grossman and some of the others have said, “well yeah sure,” that are billion-dollar ticket items, and no-one’s pushing them on whether or not they’re going to raise taxes, how they’re planning to pay for all of those. I mean, I actually think we’ve been pretty disciplined about what we’ve talked about, and tried to put everything in the context of what we think is possible. I don’t think this is have your cake and eat it too. I think we’ve been pretty clear about how we believe the frame of this ought to work, and what we think we can do inside that frame. And I would argue we’ve been more disciplined about that than the others have. I mean, they put two and three billion dollars of new spending on the table, and no-one has said to them, how do you plan to pay for that?

DB: Well, I actually have put it to them; I haven’t written about it yet-

CB: Well all I know is what you’ve written.

DB: But I have put it to them, and the truth is – much like when you were running last time, everybody kinds of understood that Deval Patrick was going to have to raise taxes if he was serious about doing all the things, and you kept saying that, and he kept hemming and hawing. And the same thing is happening this time. I asked them at a forum, a little while back, to essentially prioritized which revenue sources they were going to have to go to, so I got a little bit of an answer out of them.

CB: OK, good.

DB: I have to say, we’re a little bit accustomed to this, and it’s a little frustrating, that from both sides of the aisle, when people are running for governor, saying that you can have it without taxes, and I can improve this, and sure I’m going to do better on that, and not say that there’s going to be revenue somewhere, or cuts somewhere.

CB: I think we’ve been pretty good about striking a balance around this stuff. We haven’t made any wild promises or commitments, I don’t think.

Will Keyser, campaign manager: Local aid is the only thing that costs money.

CB: That’s like $150 million out of a $40 billion base.

WK: But everything else has been programmatic changes, not promises. I don’t believe.

CB: I agree with that.

WK: Health connector’s gonna save money.

CB: That is really- you should watch that one. Every month, at the beginning of the month, you should ask them what their new number is for paid claims. Because it went from 90 million to 170 million in about 45 days.

Tim Buckley, communications director: Grossman and Coakley have both endorsed universal pre-K and longer school days; put those together, it’s like $2.5 billion. So it’s apples and oranges to say, a little bit of extra funding into regional offices for homelessness.

DB: It’s one thing to make the comparison of who’s being more irresponsible-

CB: Ouch!

DB: But, you’re the bean counter.

CB: And I think I’ve been pretty good about counting the beans.

DB: So, speaking of Martha Coakley, who is your most likely competitor in four weeks, Martha Coakley has been Attorney General for close to eight years. What’s your letter grade for her, on the job she’s done as Attorney General?

CB: I guess I would say that, I’m running for governor, and I think I would be, based on my experience and my skill set and my vision, the right guy to be governor in Massachusetts. I’ve, I guess I would say about Martha’s- I don’t really think about it that way. I think about the way the candidates who are running would perform as governor, because that’s the job we’re all interested in. Yeah. I mean.

DB: OK. Let me ask it a different way. I saw your speech, your nomination speech at the convention in March. You put a very heavy focus on what I would call the competency/efficiency/management aspect of running the state government.

CB: Professional and personal experience. Local government, state government, health care, small business, large business.

DB: Specifically saying, the current government, the current administration, has screwed up managing DCF; screwed up managing-

CB: The health connector

DB: -the health connector; I don’t know if you mentioned Annie Dookin and the crime lab, but that one; I think you did mention the welfare rolls they had the problem with at DTA. If one of the big pitches is, you need me, a proven manager, to run that stuff, to get that stuff in shape, and be the turnaround guy on that stuff, is there anything about Martha Coakley’s experience to suggest she’s not a good enough manager to do that?

CB: I think the bigger issue is just the one party versus two party piece. I think there’s tremendous power in having both teams on the field. I mean, I certainly felt during the Weld/Cellucci years, when I was there, the push-back that took place between the legislature and the governor’s office was healthy. And I think the one-party rule thing is just a bad idea. I think it creates a sense of entitlement and arrogance, and it manifests itself in a lot of pretty crummy ways, like the probation stuff. Like the fact that, we wouldn’t even know that the state had spent $175 million on claims for people who are part of that 250,000 group that’s supposed to be covered by private insurance, but instead is being covered by MassHealth, because Republicans led the charge on the floor and fought to get that into the final budget. There’s value in checks and balances. And there’s value in having independence in the governor’s office with respect to the legislature.

DB: But nothing specifically that you would point to about Martha Coakley?

CB: I’d rather talk about me than talk about her. I’ve served in local government; there’s nobody else who’s running who has done that – other than Karyn [Polito], who’s also served in local government. I ran the two biggest secretariats in state government, for Bill Weld and Paul Cellucci. I turned around a health plan that was basically bankrupt, and as we talked about before, made it the number-one health plan in the country. I think I’ve got a track record and an experience brief that I’ll put up against anybody’s.

DB :You’ve talked about that the way to control costs in health care down the line is transparency; getting the providers to be more transparent. Is that something that you were in a position to do more about in your previous job?

CB: Well I talked about it when I was at Harvard Pilgrim, pretty much. I wrote an entire annual report about it in 2004. And I just felt like the state always got right to the very edge of this and just never was willing to go all the way, and I don’t know why. Actually the AG’s office did, I thought, a couple of really compelling reports on this stuff, where they kind of threw the reports out there and then didn’t do anything with them.

DB: Do you think that her handling of the Partners mergers—

CB: You mean the South Shore and the Melrose-Wakefield stuff?

DB: Yeah, you know John McDonough, formerly of Health Care For All, has basically described it as her blinking in the face of pressure.

CB: What I said when it originally came out was, I’d like to read it, OK. Which apparently makes me a flip-flopper by the way, because I want to read it.

DB: Well I’ve noticed that you are a flip-flopper, and you are an extreme conservative, and you refuse to take positions. All of the above.

CB: When I finally got a chance to read it what I said was, it’s unbelievably complicated. I think it’s going to be really hard to enforce. I proposed what I thought was a much simpler and less complicated alternative. And I say that recognizing that I’m Joe Q. Citizen, this is a formal food-fight that is going on in a court of law, and the whole thing at this point is a matter of law more than it is a matter of policy. But I made a proposal that I think was a lot less complicated, and would be a lot easier to enforce. And I am concerned about the 550 docs, which basically gave them permission to add 550 docs to the network. That’s the part of the whole proposal that I view as the most destabilizing.

DB: Let me ask you quickly about the Market Basket situation; do you think it says anything about the state of anything today?

CB: My position on this was: family business, we normally as a commonwealth don’t get involved in family feuds and family businesses. The only reason this one was a little different is because it’s so big.


Read David S. Bernstein’s feature: Charlie Baker 2.0