Analysis: Half-Time for Charles in Charge, but in Charge of What?…
Governor Charlie Baker, an arm hoisted skyward, smiled and merrily snapped one of his famous selfies with the pols and construction workers at the CRRC railcar plant topping-out. The August scene was classic Baker, happily schmoozing and riding high on heady polling numbers that yielded, if nothing else, a fearful legislature and largely non-confrontational media save cheeky, but less significant blogs.
Yet 2016 greatly exposed Baker’s weak points. Despite practically retreating to MEMA’s fallout shelter in Framingham to safely sign the transgender bill, he has been decent on social issues. But what earnest problem solving he desires has been undermined by a forest of hacks in his administration, unsupportable ideology on revenue and his party’s grassroots rebellions.
Innocuous events like the one at CRRC recall his ideological refusal to pursue increased revenue for infrastructure. Perhaps most damningly, the election exposed his approval polling as little more than a high school popularity contest.
While Republicans scored surprise victories across the country last month, Baker’s political labors yielded barely anything. Question 2, the expansion of charter schools, went down in flames while Bay Staters rebuffed his opposition to marijuana legalization and decided to light up.
A commitment of money and Baker’s time yielded almost nothing in the legislature. Republicans picked up only one House vote, an open seat on the Cape. Republicans poured big money into the Cape’s open Senate seat to support a retired Air Force General Anthony Schiavi. They still lost it to 30-something Julian Cyr by a larger margin than the comfortable wins of some incumbent Democratic senators.
It would seem love for Charlie is nontransferable.
To make matters worse, House Speaker Robert DeLeo, either tired of warring with Stan Rosenberg’s Senate or keen to avoid perpetuating a split within the party and perhaps one day his caucus, has left an opening for new revenue. It was the camel nose under Baker’s tent the governor had long opposed.
DeLeo will likely resist any dramatic revenue increases—just enough to keep the budget from coming apart—Baker’s preemptive budget cuts this year took the speaker by surprise. Yet that leaves a surge in much-needed investment off the table until voters can implement the millionaires tax in 2018.
Despite legislators’ taxing fears, the election emboldened state Democrats now unafraid of Baker’s popularity or eager to challenge Donald Trump by proxy.
For example, Democrats like Longmeadow Senator Eric Lesser are showing zero fear in persisting with East-West rail. Baker vetoed a related study this summer, but Lesser will file the legislation again next month. The Senate is also expected to renew its legislative agenda and that DeLeo is even considering taxes suggests a paradigm shift in the House.
The political incentives for Baker to be bold are stacked against him. Restive parts of the Massachusetts GOP right-wing create a pressure point. Party chair Kirsten Hughes, a Baker ally and an apparatchik from the party’s moderate wing is in the right’s cross hairs.
Angered by the state party’s minimal success this year, the rebels have made noises about dethroning Hughes. She will probably survive, but it is telling that an insurrection is even plausible within the 80-member Republican state committee. Such fights seem comparatively rare in the sprawling, hundreds-strong Democratic State Committee or are at least dealt with, for better or worse, privately.
Moreover, the right was already sore at Baker for trying to purge their committee members earlier this year. Baker won a “majority” on the committee, enough to dump social conservative troublemakers like Chanel Prunier. Still, not everybody on his own slate has appeared reliably pro-Baker.
Even if lawmakers avoid major revenue increases, the historical pattern of a Democratic House and Senate reducing the governor to prime minister, if not the Queen of England, could return.
Though immensely popular, Bill Weld seemingly became bored as governor and resigned after his nomination as ambassador to Mexico ground to a halt. His successor, the late Paul Cellucci, was elected to his own term of office. He left two years later for a high-stress job as ambassador to Canada. Jane Swift might have stuck around, but Republicans shunted her aside for Mitt Romney. He (rightly) feared compromising with Democrats would prove too disastrous for national political success.
Nor is it clear Baker is doing well much closer to home. This year revealed the dangers the governor has sown within his own administration and inner circle.
There have been rumblings of concern about Baker’s appointments since he took office. However, it was easy to paper over them given solid picks like Stephanie Pollack at Transportation, Jay Ash at Economic Development and some sub-cabinet posts like Katie Stebbins as an assistant secretary of innovation.
But his picks at Energy and Environmental Affairs proved disastrous. Department of Conservation and Recreation staff—an EEA subunit—spent taxpayer money on a private party. Before that EEA staffers, including the office’s now ex-chief operating officer Michael Valanzola, allegedly schemed to bully Jerome Parker-O’Grady out of a senate race by threatening the job of the candidate’s fiancée.
The scandal, once broken by The Boston Herald, prompted a stern response from the governor. Nevertheless, he largely sidestepped the fact that his shoddy appointments—and poor handling thereafter—were responsible.
Questions about the motives of Baker’s closest advisors have also surfaced. Sources say Baker may have been unaware how uncompetitive some races into which he was investing time and money were. His staff was telling him a story that did not match the facts on the ground. Meanwhile, Baker avoided what was perhaps the most competitive senate election—Democratic Senator Ann Gobi versus Republican James Ehrhard—for months. He did not endorse his party’s nominee until October, far later than other GOP candidates.
Notably Gobi narrowly beat Valanzola in 2014. Republican observers have pointed out Baker’s staff kept the governor away from a seat Valanzola might want to seek again. Ehrhard’s success would not have been helpful for the ex-EEA staffer.
Despite stiffened Democratic spines, pressure from the right and landmines of incompetency laid throughout his administration, Baker is an excellent position for reelection. His polling numbers, whether actually personal or performance-based, are high and the state’s economy is good.
But unless things change dramatically over the next 22 months, Baker will run for reelection with few tangible achievements. His business and government management experience were supposed to, ahem, make Massachusetts “great.” Instead, presiding over decaying infrastructure, debatable bureaucratic performance and unnecessary, internal political scuffles, Baker seems less a transformative leader reviving a once revolutionary company than one resigned to managing an institution in decline.