A smart politician knows when not to say what he’s thinking about a controversial issue, especially one that will land on his desk, especially when talking to a reporter with his notebook out and his recorder running. Gov. Charlie Baker is a smart politician.
But, gifted politicians can also send signals with a wink or a smile - a silent fist-bump.
Baker’s fist-bump came near the end of a wide-ranging interview this week in his working office, which is well down the hall from his ceremonial digs in the Statehouse. The office with the big desk and the antique fixtures is for signing bills. The working office is where Mr. Fix-it drinks his coffee, rolls up his sleeves and works the mechanics of government. It’s where he’s comfortable, and it’s what he’s good at – not making inspirational speeches before large crowds but repairing systems and solving problems.
The problems Baker dealt with in his first year aren’t ideological: Fixing mass transit so the trains run on time even when it snows; making sure at-risk kids under state supervision are safe; stopping the spread of opioid addiction and reducing overdose deaths. They will continue to be priorities, he said, because you don’t fix big problems by making speeches and signing bills.
“I believe that sustainable change, most of the time, happens through focus and working smart and staying the course on something,” he told me.
Baker understands that political grandstanding makes tough problems harder to solve, so he steers clear of it. He appoints working groups and task forces to clear bureaucratic hurdles and spread responsibility.
He doesn’t badmouth in public the people he must work with to get things done. He doesn’t expect the Legislature to give him everything he asks for, and he doesn’t let disagreement on one issue get in the way of reaching agreement on others.
Baker is doing exactly what he promised during the 2014 campaign. A Republican, kept his pledge of a bipartisan administration by naming respected Democrats to key positions. He promised to be a pragmatist, to focus on problems, not politics, and that’s what he’s done.
And, it has worked. A Suffolk University poll in November gave him a 70 percent approval rating. One survey ranked him the most popular governor in the nation. It’s not surprising. The partisan warfare in Washington has soured a lot of people on politics in general. Ideology has become an obstacle to an effective government.
“I don’t hear a lot of people in Massachusetts who come at any of the issues I deal with day in and day out with a big ideological bent,” Baker said. “They may get excited about some of the stuff that passes for political dialog these days, but that’s not really how they judge what their government is doing.”
Can the honeymoon continue?
It will be tougher to avoid the politics in a presidential election year, Baker acknowledged, but he shows little interest in getting into the partisan fray. It will be harder to finesse ideological divides on other issues waiting in the wings, like taxes, education policy and criminal justice reform.
Then there’s the fist-bump. I mentioned that I’ve expressed some skepticism about the Green Line Extension (GLX), a long-planned project that would bring light rail system running 4.3 miles.
The project was included in a Big Dig-related legal settlement decades ago, but there’s never been a serious discussion about why increasing mass transit service in a prosperous community already well-served by mass transit should be the state’s top transportation priority. Projected costs for the GLX have now ballooned to $3 billion.
In my last editorial on the topic, I asked how Baker could justify spending that kind of money on another Boston transportation boondoggle.
It was an editorial Baker had obviously read, and as soon as I noted my skepticism he smiled and held his fist up to congratulate me. But, he spoke more carefully. The GLX has momentum and some powerful backers, notably U.S. Rep. Michael Capuano, who has great clout over transportation funding in Congress and still acts like the mayor of Somerville.
At $2 billion – half of it in federal funds already committed – you could make a cost-benefits case for the project, Baker said, but at $3 billion you’d be diverting money the MBTA desperately needs to bring the rest of the system into a state of good repair.
Baker could make a big splash by abandoning the GLX entirely. Gov. Frank Sargent’s 1971 decision to kill the proposed Inner Belt, a highway that would have butchered neighborhoods in Boston, Brookline, Cambridge and Somerville, is now considered an act of great vision.
But Baker is Mr. Fix-it, not Mr. Stop-it. Working through the MBTA fiscal watchdog board he created, Baker is more likely to scale back the project and, he said, find a way to make the developers who will profit from it pick up more of the tab.
That’s Baker’s style: keeping an eye on the details, keeping the debate civil, keeping spending within bounds and keeping the promises he’s made.
What voters care about is government performance, not politics, he said. The jury is still out on the government’s performance, but Baker’s politics seem to be working just fine.
Rick Holmes writes for GateHouse Media and the MetroWest Daily News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Like Rick on Facebook at Holmes & Co., and follow him @HolmesAndCo.