Catching Up with Charlie Baker

After a year in the State House, Massachusetts’ favorite square with a perfect head of hair dishes on Mayor Marty Walsh, his family, and why the North Shore rules.


Photograph by David Yellen

Most people know Governor Charlie Baker as a policy wonk—the man elected to tackle our deadly opioid crisis and never-ending problems with the T. So far, his approval rating is north of 70 percent—the highest of any governor in the country. But he’s also a family guy with deep local roots, crediting his wife, Lauren, with winning the election in 2014, and confessing he thinks that residents on the North Shore have it better than those living south of Boston Harbor.

It’s unseasonably warm outside as Baker and I leave his office at the State House and head toward Downtown Crossing. As we trek through the city, Baker recalls his first 12 months in office. Dressed in a dark suit with no overcoat, he walks slowly but purposefully, most people failing to recognize their governor on Boston Common.

How would you describe your relationship with Mayor Walsh? Some people in the media have described it as a bromance. Is this a myth, or is this a real thing?

[Baker laughs.] We talk a lot. We talked a ton during the storms last winter—it was where we really spent a lot of time with one another. He knows I want the city of Boston to succeed, because the success of the city of Boston is really important to the commonwealth. He feels the same way about the state of Massachusetts. I really like the guy, and I’ve found him to be an open-minded and independent thinker, somebody whose advice on a lot of issues is really, really good. I am glad he is there and I appreciate the opportunity to work with him.

Twenty-five years ago you worked in [the State House] during the [William] Weld administrati—

Thank you so much! Ha! Did you have to put a number on it? Ugh.

How has that experience [as secretary of Administration and Finance] and in various other departments shaped your time now as governor?

I think the biggest thing is it gave me a really important understanding of communication: keeping open lines of communication, communication with all kinds of people who you might not normally choose to talk to and communicate with is a really important element of your ability to lead.

I used to talk to folks in the legislature and local government and in the provider-and-advocacy community all the time when I was at A & F and Health and Human Services, and I used to watch Weld and [Paul] Cellucci do the same thing. I made it pretty clear to everybody in my administration from the beginning that I was going to be spending a lot of time reaching out to other people, and I would expect them to do the same thing.

I think I said this early on: My greatest fear is I end up being the ivory-tower guy, the guy who sits up in my office, the governor’s office, and has a bunch of people like Lizzy [gestures toward Lizzy Guyton, one of his press secretaries] sitting around telling me what I want to hear, and meanwhile there’s a real world going on outside the building and I am not in tune with what’s on people’s minds and what’s happening.

Is that way of thinking, hiring people who tell you what you don’t want to hear, is that—

By the way, that hasn’t been a problem. There are very few people who work for me who are afraid to tell me what I don’t want to hear.

I know you’re governor, but how is the building different from when you were there during the Weld administration?

Well, my universe before was A & F when I was A & F secretary and it was HHS when I was there. My universe now is all of it, plus, all the political stuff and all the relationships associated with that. That was kind of disorienting at first; now I am getting used to the fact that that’s just how the job works.

Disorienting because of the scale?

Yeah, and the public face of it all. I would say I was pretty much a behind-the-scenes guy when I was there before, and now I am at the front of the line. And that certainly is different.

You’re a guy who worked in the public sector and the private sector. A lot of people like to say, “The government needs private-sector leadership.” But we had two governors who were overwhelmingly private-sector guys, and they didn’t understand the nuance of the building when they entered it as governors. Is there something about the culture of state government that does not exist in the private sector?

The biggest difference between the private sector and public sector is in the private sector, there’s a sense of urgency because you have customers and you have competitors. Whereas in government, one of your major objectives is to not make any really big mistakes.

Do you think people understand how complex the labyrinth of state government is?

I don’t know. Most of the people I talk to really appreciate that we haven’t been engaging in a lot of partisan name-calling and like the fact that we seem to be focused on the work. That says to me that most of them would prefer to see less of the yelling and screaming and more of the just-get-it-done stuff. I think anybody who has spent time serving local government or been a town-meeting member certainly gets a sense for the complexity of the way you make policy, but I think people expect—I guess what I would say, Garrett, is people get the fact that there are lots of points of view, but they would like to find a way to get those points of view to work collaboratively and constructively, not destructively. I would contrast what I see going on in Massachusetts between Democrats and Republicans with what I see going on in Washington with Democrats and Republicans.

I think a reason a lot of people here feel like we’re doing a lot of the right things is as much about tone as it is about anything else. You shouldn’t be able to use the fact that it’s a labyrinth as an excuse to never get anything done, and you shouldn’t get up every morning just trying to figure out how to whack your opponent in order to look good on the 6 o’clock news.

In the late ’80s and early ’90s, we had the crack cocaine epidemic. The approach to policy and dealing with it then seems very different from how we’re dealing with the opioid crisis now. Do you feel like there are any lessons we’ve learned since then?

I think the answer to that is yes. The approach to the two epidemics is different.

I think part of it is—several of the recommendations that came out of our task force deal with prevention and education. There was no real prevention or education strategy associated with the epidemic in the 1980s. I also think treatment and recovery were not a big part of the approach people took in the 1980s.

I think one of the things that’s moved a lot in the course of the intervening 20 to 25 years is this idea that you have to work on helping people avoid becoming addicted in the first place, you’ve got to have treatment options that are supported and can work.

There’s certainly a role for law enforcement, but it’s not the primary role, and I certainly think that’s a big difference between how we dealt with the crack stuff in the ’80s and ’90s. If you’re a bigtime drug dealer we should still be doing everything we can to get you off the street, but there are things we can and should be doing to help people deal with the opioid issue.

The other thing that makes the opioid issue a little different, if not significantly different, is that many of the people who wind up addicted to opioids or heroin started with a prescription that was written for them by a doctor or a dentist or another healthcare professional. I think as a community, the healthcare community and the rest of us, we wildly underestimated the outside consequences of overprescribing with the way we use pain medication. That’s a huge piece of what’s driving this epidemic. Which is why so many of my reforms have to deal with that particular issue.

On the campaign trail in 2014, you said you never visited a place where someone wasn’t directly affected by the opioid epidemic. Is there a story you heard that sticks with you more than any other?

Boy, there were a lot of stories, Garrett. The ones that stuck the most were the ones that involved moms and dads who literally walked you through this litany of horrors associated with their battle with the addiction that was literally stealing their child from them. And watching these loving, strong people just melt before your eyes is—you know I am a father, I got three kids—it could have been me sitting in those chairs having that conversation.

I had two kids who played football, sustained injuries, playing sports generally—those stories stick.

In an August interview you said, “I will be measured on whether or not we improve the reliability and dependability of the MBTA.” Are you going to be the transportation governor when this is all over?

I hope when I am governor and it’s all over, I am a governor who underpromised and overdelivered. Government has the tendency to overpromise and underdeliver. I want to be the guy who at the end of my term, people say, “He took on some issues nobody else was willing to take on and were critically important to the public and he kept his promise on ’em and stayed with ’em despite the fact that change is hard. And many of these are really complicated organizations, but he didn’t let go and he and his team worked them to a better place. Whether you’re talking about the T or the Registry [of Motor Vehicles] or [the Department of Children and Families] or the Connector or the opioid crisis or the economy in other parts of Massachusetts or charter schools and education.” What I want people to say is, “This was somebody who stayed with stuff.”

How’s the first year been for the first lady?

My wife, Lauren, is a remarkably good sport and one of the most adaptable personalities I’ve ever met. I think the fact that our kids are older has been a really good thing. I think this would have been pretty rough on both of us if we still had kids at home. I know she’s enjoyed a lot of the stuff we’ve done together and she’s talked to many of the previous spouses that had this job and they said, “Wait for your pitch, find something that makes sense for you and then choose to get into it. Be patient; don’t feel like you need to find something right away.” I think that’s the approach she’s taken, and I think that’s the right one. Lauren is a remarkably accessible and friendly person, and I continue to believe there’s a lot of votes in that 40,000-victory margin we had that were people voting for her.

What’s it been like for your kids?

My oldest lives in Virginia, our middle son lives in New York, and our daughter goes to [Miami University in Ohio], so they’re out of town. They follow the administration through Google Alerts and stuff like that. Every once in a while I get emails and text messages from them about something they came across that they thought was funny that showed up on it. I think they’re mostly bemused by the whole thing. At the same time I think they’re proud of both Lauren and me for losing the first time [to Deval Patrick in 2010] and getting back on our feet and giving it a second shot.

You’re a North Shore guy. What is the biggest difference between the North Shore and the South Shore, in your eyes?

Well, the commute. I think we have a better commute than folks on the South Shore do, although they have the boat. The South Shore always felt a lot longer—we’re a little more compact before you hit the New Hampshire border. I think there is a lot to the notion that a lot of the people who live on the North Shore come from families that grew up in East Boston, Chelsea, Revere, and places like that. A lot of the folks on the South Shore grew up in families that grew up in Dorchester and South Boston and places like that. I really do think to some extent that whatever side of the city your grandparents or great-grandparents started on, that’s pretty much where you started out. I’ll tell ya, the first time I ran for governor I was shocked by how many people I met on the South Shore who when I said I was from Swampscott—the way I usually described it was, “I can watch your fireworks and I do every year. I watch your fireworks in Hingham, I watch your fireworks in Scituate, wherever.” And I got people looking at me going, “Really, where do you live?” “I live in Swampscott, I see ’em across the big Boston Harbor.” And they say, “Swampscott, where’s that?” I say, “It’s 12 miles north of Boston, north of Lynn and south of Marblehead.” And they go, “Oh, North Shore. Never been there.”