The Massachusetts Governor was halfway through his second term. While things were going reasonably well, he was still dogged by dramatic shortcomings in the Department of Children and Families, fraud at the state drug lab, and incompetence with the online state health insurance system, and a growing unease among the public that, despite his personal charisma, state government was not living up to promise. The Governor was Deval Patrick.
Today, it’s the eminently likable Charlie Baker who presides over a government system equally noted for continued troubles at the Department of Children and Families, especially in the foster parent system, terrible public transit, rogue behavior at the state police, massive failings at the Registry of Motor Vehicles and a continuing frustration that state government is just not doing its job.
Yet, despite the manifold troubles, Charlie Baker continues to be the nation’s most popular governor, with favorability rating at 73 percent, that according to The Morning Consult Poll of Massachusetts.
It’s rather jaw-dropping. Just 16 percent disapprove of Baker’s performance, and it’s not just in this one poll. In a range of national polls over time, Baker has consistently been at or near the top. Maryland Governor Larry Hogan ranks second, with 68 percent approval. Vermont Governor Phil Scott is third, but was the first Republican governor to support impeachment proceedings. Baker was second. Interestingly, nine of the ten most popular governors are Republicans.
Unsurpassed as a campaigner, Deval Patrick as governor, with a pack of agency scandals, failed in gaining a Baker-like widespread public embrace. A year before the end of his second term, Patrick was viewed favorably by just 52 percent of the public. (This actually represents an increase over his first term, when, thanks in part to the downturn in the Great Recession, his favorability rating was just 36 percent.)
Some have speculated that Republican governors, especially in blue states, are appreciated for the contrast they provide with Donald Trump and their willingness to speak out against him. But the contrasting poll numbers of Baker and Patrick speaks more to their brands: Baker, the corporate executive with proven management skills (despite substantial agency mismanagement), and Patrick, an inspirational leader with less managerial capacity.
Baker certainly lacks Patrick’s warmth and rhetorical flourish. As I wrote years ago, Baker’s immediate goals on taking office were rebuilding relationships with the Commonwealth’s cities and towns, a process he dubbed “blocking and tackling.” He’s prioritize management problems and work collaboratively with leaders across the state and beyond. (Collaboration is central to survival in a one-party Democratic state.) And he’s equally at home with the nuts and bolts of identifying and pursuing solutions as he is in the feel-good ceremonial parts of the jobs. Often criticized for lacking big bold vision, he is also praised for his practical incremental improvements.
There’s talk of Baker seeking a third term. Attorney General Maura Healey would be the strongest Democrat to take him on. But there’s a long list of terrific Massachusetts attorneys general who have reached for the corner office but stumbled on the threshold. (If they’re doing the job right, as in, Bellotti, Harshbarger), they often alienate support needed for moving up.)
While I wouldn’t rule Healey out, I wouldn’t rule out a Charlie Baker third term either. Massachusetts residents seem to like split government, a moderate Republican (think Frank Sargent, Bill Weld and Mitt Romney before he turned right to run for President) balanced by our overwhelmingly Democratic legislature. 2022 is a lifetime away, but, at this early date, I don’t see any evidence that Charlie Baker wouldn’t be able to prevail again. He has time to iron out the wrinkles in the state police, RMV, DCF and be on the way to getting the trains and buses running on time.
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