Charlie Baker: the vision thing

For Democrats hoping to unseat Republican Governor Charlie Baker in 2018, my advice is: hang onto your day job.  Would-be opponents will charge that Baker may be an okay manager, but he lacks  vision. Making the charge stick will be difficult, if not impossible.

Baker’s immediate goals upon taking office may have lacked rhetorical flourish. They were: rebuilding relationships with the Commonwealth’s cities and towns; working on what he calls “blocking and tackling,” that is, wrestling with priority management problems; and taking a collaborative approach with leaders across New England and in Washington. (As he puts it, it is “perfectly okay to be hard on the issues, but you should be soft on the people.”) But his effectiveness in implementing those goals says a lot about his values and, by implication, his larger vision.

Collaborating is a must  when you’re a Republican in an overwhelmingly Democratic state. But collaborating is also central to who Charlie Baker is.  As he recently told the New England Council, our Founding Fathers, having suffered under the heavy hand of King George, created a system of checks and balances, putting a premium on collaboration and compromise. In that spirit, Baker says, he works on the theory that “Today’s friend is tomorrow’s foe is tomorrow’s friend,” and fighting is counter-productive.

Baker’s father’s advice (after the boy had been in a fight) still rings in his ears: “Son, whenever people see two people in a fight, they’re pretty sure that one is an asshole. They just don’t know which one.”  For our Governor, the lesson drives him to seek common ground rather than dwell on differences.

Collaboration has worked for Baker across New England, in the example of a regional approach to energy, what he calls a “combo platter” bill, enhancing hydro, wind, solar and natural gas, improving our carbon footprint, generating a predictable supply of energy and ensuring  the region’s ability to stay competitive.

Collaboration has spurred a strategy for dealing with the opioid crisis, something Baker consistently heard about as he was campaigning for governor. He worked with others on  a bill including prevention and education, intervention, treatment and recovery.  State spending in this area has now increased by 50 percent. The law requires courses in pain management for health providers, and experts on opioid therapy have been placed on boards of registration. Much remains to be done. But Baker shared this approach with the National Governors Association. Forty states have embraced it, making us a national model. Recently, Baker was named to one of two gubernatorial spots on a national commission on the opioid crisis.

On justice reform, Massachusetts already has one of the lowest incarceration rates in the country.  But 40-50 percent of formerly incarcerated individuals return to prison, so the Governor is targeting recidivism,  providing new monies in the fiscal ’18 budget for support and training services.

He is partnering with the academic community on the growing problem of cyber security. Our primacy in the area has led to partnering with Israel, especially in the area of digital health.  A strong relationship with the Department of Defense is leveraging the state’s intellectual property, and, along with MIT, has brought in a $300 million grant that will have military as well as domestic benefits.  Because of Massachusetts’ innovation, academic and research sectors, Baker has been a leading spokesman against Trump curbs on H1b and H2b visas for skilled immigrants, which could damage our status as a global player.

Given the centrality of health care to our economy and the service needs of our residents, former Harvard Pilgrim CEO Baker is working with the 30 governors whose health care systems have negotiated some form of Medicaid waivers. He acknowledges that some improvements must be made in the Affordable Care Act, but the law and its  Medicaid waivers must stay.

Cities and towns have benefited from Baker’s legislation eliminating many archaic rules encrusting them in red tape. The Governor has eschewed a top-down, do-it-the-state’s-way approach. Instead, communities may choose from a menu of some 600 best practices, and the state will  offer assistance.  This new “compact” has sparked the engagement of 270 of the state’s 351 towns and cities.

The “blocking and tackling” has involved some of the Commonwealth’s most knotty problems: the Department of Children and Families (DCF), the Health Connector, the T, and the Registry of Motor Vehicles.  All needed fixing, and many still do. The T has become a more effective enterprise, but, because parts of the system are a century old, triage has been necessary to stop the bleeding and prepare to reduce the huge backlog of deferred maintenance. (Long-term, the T will need billions of dollars in investments in its core operating systems.)  In all these agencies, Baker says,  his administration has taken a “no drama approach” to carrying on their work.

All the good news doesn’t obviate challenges that still must be met, especially in streamlining T operations, improving DCF, creating affordable housing and clarifying the financial obligations of the state to its public colleges and universities.

Even after expending political capital by supporting two failed 2016 referenda, Baker still has an approval rating of 75 percent and is more favored by Democrats than Republicans. Inevitably the Democratic Party will back someone in an effort to defeat him. But partisans need to understand that “no drama” doesn’t mean no vision.  Put all of his initiatives together and you get a mosaic of values, priorities and achievements. Vigorous opposition is always healthy for a democracy.  But challengers should be under no illusion that it will be easy to make a strong case for upending the Baker administration.

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