By Brian Wright O’Connor | August 25, 2015 | People
Governor Charlie Baker takes over the state house, with lessons learned from a loss and a commitment to rule with kindness.
Governor Charlie Baker, seen in his State House office, learned from his parents how to disagree without being disagreeable—a tone he hopes to bring to Massachusetts government.
Sitting cross-legged on the grass, Governor Charlie Baker eyes a semicircle of fourth graders who are camping out overnight behind the protective granite walls of Fort Independence on Castle Island. A pigtailed blonde from the Condon Elementary School in South Boston tells the blue jeans–clad governor that she lives in Dorchester.
“Which parish?” he asks, not missing a beat, as American flags snap in the breeze blowing off Boston Harbor.
The answer—“St. Brendan’s!”—is less revealing than the question, which demonstrates the Republican governor’s schooling in Boston politics. In the shrinking precincts of white Dorchester, Roman Catholic parishes identify home turf as readily as street names or hills. In these highly Democratic neighborhoods, Baker did better than expected in last year’s election, helping him gain a slim margin of victory in a state where Republicans constitute less than 15 percent of voters and independents outstrip both parties.
Baker’s attention to parochial detail—along with not just a willingness but an eagerness to tell cornball ghost stories and unwind his lanky 6-foot-6 frame from the grass with a backward roll so he can roast s’mores with his pint-size hosts (his wife, Lauren, at his side)—says a lot about the Bay State’s chief executive, the campaign he waged, and the kind of governor he wants to be: engaged, enthusiastic, empathetic.
Governor Baker in his office.
“I’m a big believer in public service,” says the state’s 72nd governor during an interview in his State House office. “I’ve spent probably half my professional career one way or another in public service, and I hope people come away from any engagement they have with me feeling pretty good about public servants and what it’s all about.”
Baker’s infectious grip-and-grin style, punctuated by lots of highfives and exclamations of “Awesome!,” leaves little doubt that he takes to the job with all the fervor of a suburban dad volunteer. His eager plunge into the Twitterverse, full of selfies and attaboy exchanges, reflects the same can-do character.
As a former cabinet secretary under Governor William Weld and former CEO of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, Baker knows that state government is teeming with challenges—whether improving public transit or balancing Massachusetts’s $38 billion budget without imposing new taxes. Like many Bay State Republicans before him, Baker, 58, won the office on a platform of managerial expertise and social liberalism as a pro-choice budget hawk who backs same-sex marriage. But the broader public got to know him as the calm eye in the center of the snowicanes that battered the state during his first months in office. While the MBTA ran off the rails and drivers either slid off the road or battened down the hatches at home, Baker delivered the storm-center equivalent of FDR’s fireside chats. His reassuring tone and presence, coupled with aggressive efforts to address the public transportation meltdown, helped boost his favorability level to an astounding 74 percent.
“That was certainly a test, and I think we—and I would say ‘we’ because there were a lot of people who made a lot of decisions and did a lot of work—as an administration benefited from that,” says Baker, sitting beneath an oil portrait of former governor John Volpe. He ticks off a list of equipment brought into the state to help cities and towns with snow removal, adding that “I will be measured on whether or not we improve the reliability and dependability of the MBTA.”
In political terms, Baker’s path to the corner office passed through his 2010 defeat to the popular incumbent, Governor Deval Patrick. After Patrick declined to run for a third term, Baker ran again, this time defeating Attorney General Martha Coakley by 1.9 percent. Unleashing his inner Rotarian, Baker ran as a more genial, personable candidate the second time around—from awkwardly dancing to “My Girl” at a Roxbury barbecue to dialing back the fiscal hectoring that had grated on many voters’ ears four years earlier.
But in fact the stage had been set much earlier. The son of a businessman who served under Volpe during his stint as secretary of transportation in the Nixon and Ford administrations, Baker grew up listening to his conservative Republican father and liberal Democratic mother debate around the dinner table in a fashion that shaped his consensus-building approach to governance. “My parents were very good at disagreeing without being disagreeable,” he says. “They’ve been happily married for almost 60 years. And they don’t really agree on much of anything when it comes to politics. With them, it was always a conversation, and I would hope that most of the folks around here would say it’s a conversation—that we can disagree without being disagreeable.”
Raised in Needham, where he attended public schools and starred in schoolboy sports, Baker went to Harvard (and played on its basketball team) and then Northwestern, where he earned an MBA and met his future wife. Back in Massachusetts, Baker eventually settled in Swampscott, the old North Shore fishing village turned high-end suburb, where he and Lauren raised their three kids while he worked in the administrations of Weld and Governor Paul Cellucci before leaving to guide Harvard Pilgrim through a stressful period of receivership and recovery. “I like to sweat the details,” he says.
Along the way, Baker ran for and won a seat on the five-member Swampscott Board of Selectmen when the town was facing fiscal challenges. His decision to seek the office was opposed by Virginia Buckingham, a close friend who served as Weld’s and Cellucci’s chief of staff. “I read him the riot act,” she says. “He was taking a risk in running for a town office, because if he lost, he would tarnish the brand. [But] he stopped me cold. He said to me, ‘My town’s in trouble and I want to help.’ It was really a lesson for me: There are things more important than political opportunities down the road. That is who Charlie is.”
photography by Conor Doherty