When, over 200 years ago, our Founders took the risk of submitting public office holding to the choice of voters, it was not yet a given that that method of choosing would best serve the needs of a State or nation. After all, the ideals of what public service should be had been bruited since the days of Periclean Athens, since Plato wrote his Republic, and since Aristotle, in his Politics, examined several methods of arranging a state, without settling upon any one as best. Few States and nations in the 1780s were thus arranged; yet our Founders took the risk that voters would exercise diligence and duty and elect the best men available.
In 2014, electing Charlie Baker Governor, and re-electing him two to one in 2018, the voters of Massachusetts proved our Founders right. They elected the best candidate available, and they re-elected him because he was in fact the best.
That will be his chief legacy : an exemplar of what the best voter-chosen candidate should be.
Baker from the outset declared his purpose : “at the end of the day, people want their State services delivered without fuss and as effectively as possible.” (I am paraphrasing, but in his inauguration speech he did say almost this.) It was criticized as a not very ambitious mission, or bold; but Baker did not care for dram then, nor has he since (until his dramatic announcement two days ago that he would not seek a third term). Drama and noise may be the norm in Washington, but Baker intended to govern a State : a polity with almost 7,000,000 residents dependent on State offices for their driving matters, court appearances, public safety, tax collection, civil rights, children and families interventions, business development, hunting licenses, boating safety, transportation and roads, 100s of State-administered parks and trails, safe water, higher education a workable energy mix.
Merely to enumerate the various pubic commitments demonstrates the breadth thereof and the immensity of the task entrusted to a Massachusetts Governor. Baker let it be known early that that breadth was task enough for a governor and that he would avoid anything, of whatever source, that would compromise his attending to the State’s business.
Never once did he take the baits dangled his way by constituencies that urged, even demanded, his taking up their causes, rhetorically. He scorned Trump, but rarely by name : even to name Trump would be a distraction from the job at hand. He did not take the stage at protests, not even when called out by name at them. There was enough to do, and doing these things would become divisive were he to take a side in our various street-level embroilments. How could he, as Governor, divide, when all 7,000,000 of us are united in being potential users, and equally, as contemplated in State laws, of this or that State agency ?
Baker was lucky in one regard : he is very tall, with college boy towhead looks even at age 65. When he enters a room, you notice him. He has a physical presence that everyone who comes near to it feels — and likes, because almost always that presence comes with a smile, or an aw-shucks face, and twinkly eyes which say that there’s a good guy seeing by them. Because he has this presence — and not surprisingly became known everywhere as “The Big Guy” — he can speak on this or that matter knowing he will be very closely listened to. I have seen it time and again : when baker speaks ex cathedra, as it were, people LISTEN.
Yet so does he. In one of his State of the State speeches, he said “if there’s more than one opinion in a room, you may learn something.” He listens to many; and thereby has managed to forge new policies and laws which he maybe hadn’t realized he would embrace. In his eight years in the corner office, State policy has moved forward on almost every front, from child care to energy, justice administration to schools funding, civil rights to transportation innovations. The T, for example, is almost an entirely different system than it was in 2014, and as many snags and setbacks as have befallen it, so there have been s many overcomings and expansions.
Moreover,. the reforms achieved during Baker’s eight years have stuck. they will never be repealed or reversed. Why ?> Because they have been established by consensus. hardly any reform, since 2014 has taken place with less than unanimous legislative consent. When everybody buys into a reform the chance of it being reversed are almost nil. isn’t that how we want reform to be done ?
Admittedly Baker has had the absolutely best legislative partner on this reform road. Speaker Robert DeLeo and Baker rarely clashed on anything; and if each man understood that partnership between them was the sine qua non of reforms that would stick, it is to Baker’s credit as well as DeLeo’s that each accepted what they understood they ought to do.
He has not satisfied the “progressives” and he has often alienated the die hard conservatives; yet few even of them have moved to unseat him. Here, however, we find Baker’s one failure : he has never been able to convince the Massachusetts Republican party’s state committee to make his priorities its priorities as well. You might think that a party committee that has a hugely popular, effective governor — for Baker is a Republican by birth and inclination — on its side would become 100 percent Baker; yet that is not what the “magop” has done. it has, instead, operated more like a one-issue, radical insurgency than like a broad party committed to electing those who seek Republican nominations. Disconnect was already there long before Baker took off ice, but the coming of Trump, and the insistence of Baker to do the public’s business innovatively made the breach irresolvable. Baker leaves office disliked by at least half the “magop.”
Perhaps that too is as exemplary as the rest of his service. Our Founders distrusted “faction” and set up what they could to impede the establishment of political partisanship. Yet where public policy is at issue, people will of necessity disagree : and disagreement readily becomes a system that all too often takes us away from reform, or onto wrong pathways. Baker has asked our State to work together on the matters we can agree on, and leave those on which we disagree until more propitious times — by which time perhaps we might come to agree after all ? It is a path that not many electeds take these days, in which single issue pressure groups torture the decisions of public people. Yet we are the better for it.
The great Athenian magistrate Solon was asked, after his years in office, “did you give the Athenians the best laws ?”
Solon answered “I gave them the best laws that they would accept.”
That, in one sentence, is Charlie Baker as Governor.
—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere