Governor Charlie Baker and his wife Lauren traveled to Martha’s Vineyard Saturday, his first trip to the Island since his election, to visit friends and attend a private fundraiser. He interrupted his schedule to speak with The Times about his connection to the Vineyard, his efforts to form a broad-based administration built on skills and not party affiliation, and a view of state government gleaned from his experience on the Swampscott board of selectmen and town committees.
Among other things, he said, he wants to make sure that local officials and local governments “have the kind of support and access to state government that they need to do the important work that they do on behalf of their community.”
The Times spoke to Governor Baker during a stop in West Tisbury, where he grabbed an iced coffee at 7a, a popular bakery and sandwich shop, and greeted well-wishers who recognized him. Tall, athletic-looking, and wearing a white sweater, Mr. Baker easily blended in with the throng of summer visitors standing in line, and might easily have been mistaken for a visiting collegiate basketball coach.
Across the road, sitting at a picnic table on the grounds of the West Tisbury library, Governor Baker said he and Lauren have visited the Island many times, but this was his first trip as Governor. “It’s a great place, and we have a lot of friends who spend a lot of time here and have houses here, and are psychologically and physically connected to the Island.”
‘Not by accident’
Mr. Baker is the former CEO of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, and served as a cabinet official in the administrations of Governors William Weld and Paul Cellucci.
He also served one term on the five-member Swampscott board of selectmen, and the town’s school building committee and search committee for its first town manager. He said jokingly that he served on the board of selectmen because he didn’t have the courage to serve on the school committee: “That’s really tough.”
His experience at the town level, he said, helps him understand what town officials are up against when dealing with state government.
“It certainly gave me an insight into what local officials mean when they talk about unfunded state mandates,” he said. “It gave me a good look at how long it takes the state, many times, to process what I don’t believe are very complicated decisions for local government.
“And this is something I hear about from my friends who are in local government all the time — It took six months to get a permit to do X; the fact that it took six months meant that we lost the season and also increased the cost of the project by 30 percent — just lots of stuff like that.”
Mr. Baker said Lieut. Gov. Karyn Polito is a former Shrewsbury selectman, and his economic affairs secretary, Jay Ash, is the former Chelsea city manager.
“We have local-government people all over our administration, and that’s not by accident,” Mr. Baker said. “I wanted people who knew what state government looked like from the outside, and would be able to relate to a lot of the folks who have to make day-to-day decisions on the ground in their communities.”
Bridging the political divide
In the November election, Martha’s Vineyard voters overwhelmingly chose Democrat Martha Coakley over Republican Charlie Baker, 4,457 to 2,469, while the rest of the state propelled Mr. Baker to victory. The race was decided by less than 2 percent, or 40,000 votes, statewide.
Mr. Baker was elected with 48.4 percent of the vote, compared with 46.5 percent for Ms. Coakley.
With an overwhelmingly Democratic state legislature, Mr. Baker’s success in achieving his legislative goals will rely in large part on how well he is able to work with Democratic members of the state Senate and House of Representatives. “So far, so good,” he said; the relationship has been positive.
“We’ve been pretty explicit about wanting to work on a bipartisan basis,” he said. “If you look at our major leadership positions as an administration, I didn’t spend a lot of time on who’s a Democrat and who’s a Republican and who’s an independent.”
Elections are contests, but once the contest is over, he said, it comes down to the work. Fundamentally, he said, positions were filled based on needed skills. “Governing is about the work, and that means being able to work with both sides,” he said.
Asked if he had any advice on bridging political divides for President Barack Obama, who begins a two-week Island visit on August 8, Governor Baker declined to give the president any pointers. “That’s a really, really tough job,” Mr. Baker said.
Mr. Baker said he is focused on state government and the opportunity to serve Massachusetts. “I have no aspirations beyond that,” he said. “I’m a homegrown guy.”
He and his wife have three children, an 18-year-old girl, and two boys, 21 and 24 years of age. He says that although he and his wife are on the verge of becoming empty-nesters, he misses the activity.
“Truthfully, I would much rather have them around, eating us out of house and home, breaking our furniture, making messes, not picking up after themselves — I would so much rather have that than the silence that comes when they’re gone.”
‘All there on cable’
Seven months into his new job, Governor Baker said he liked the interaction with voters when he served on town boards. Small-town government, he said, provides no anonymity, no distance. People know who you are, and they stop you at the market or on the street to talk about local issues.
“There’s really no place to hide,” he said. “So if you have to make a tough decision on something that involves a local issue, there’s no closing the door and walking away. You are going to need to own it and stand up for yourself, and it’s all there on cable. I really loved that about local government; it’s so accountable, and such a direct line to the people who put you there in the first place.”
Asked if there are any frustrations that go along with his new job that he had not anticipated, Governor and Mrs. Baker said they miss the spontaneity they had as private citizens.
“My life is scheduled to within an inch; I don’t really love that,” Governor Baker said.
“You turn your schedule over to another person,” Lauren Baker said. “You’ve made it to adulthood scheduling your own life and planning your own life, and all of a sudden everything we do goes through central scheduling. It’s an adjustment.”
Mr. Baker said there are no last-minute decisions to catch a 4 pm movie.
The transition from private citizen and businessman to governor affects all aspects of life. Security and time must be considered.
For example, he is asked not to walk in the front door when he has a speaking engagement.
“I want to walk in the same way everybody else does, and through the crowd, and see my friends and people I know, and talk to them and say hi and all the rest, and I get really snippy when these guys [his administrative aides] basically drag me through the back and don’t let me to talk to anybody, and their argument, which is reasonable, is if we do it my way it’s 30 minutes on the front end and 30 minutes on the back end, but I like the interaction.”
He and his wife agree, getting out and meeting people “is the fun part.”
“That does energize you,” Lauren Baker said of her husband.
What he is hearing
Asked what he is hearing as he moves around the state, he said in the greater Boston area there is a lot of anxiety in both directions about the Olympics.
“A lot of people still talk to me about the winter and the snow,” he said. “A lot of people are hoping we will be able to make the T [MBTA] run better.”
On the South Coast, people want help developing the region. The same is true with respect to Worcester and Springfield. Manufacturing is a concern in the Merrimack River Valley.
The cost of energy is also a concern. Governor Baker said he is working with other New England governors to increase access to Canadian hydroelectric power and access to Pennsylvanian natural gas, both of which would create a more stable pricing environment and reduce reliance on coal.
Asked about the Wampanoag tribe’s effort to build a bingo hall in Aquinnah, Governor Baker said standard policy is not to discuss issues before the court. “What I would say is I support the direction of the previous attorney general and the previous governor’s decision to litigate this issue,” he said.