It’s hard to find anyone who doesn’t like Charlie Baker. Since he took office as governor of Massachusetts two years ago, the Republican’s approval ratings have consistently been in the 70 percent range. He’s earned those numbers in what now seems like an old-fashioned way: finding common ground whenever he can with a legislature dominated by the other party. “We have a political climate these days where people seek differences because that’s where the bite is,” Baker says. “I spend most of my time doing just the opposite. I’m looking for places where we can find agreement.”
But the deals he’s been able to get through haven’t been mushy compromises.
With Boston’s transit agency in trouble, Baker convinced Democrats to break with their union allies on an agency overhaul package and suspend a state law against outsourcing. Next year, he’ll have his sights set on the agency’s pension plan.
Despite these moves and his interest in expanding charter schools -- something voters failed to approve in November, giving him a rare defeat -- Baker isn’t reflexively anti-union. During his State of the State address this year, he thanked labor for helping him revamp the state’s troubled child welfare agency -- the first time in memory any Massachusetts governor had singled out unions for praise in that setting.
Baker hasn’t just said nice things about members of the opposing party -- he’s given them top jobs in his administration. “He appointed a lot of Democrats because he wanted to signal that he did want to work with them and he wanted to find the best people,” says Jim Stergios of the Pioneer Institute, a free-market think tank in Boston.
The 60-year-old Baker has a reputation as a technocrat, but he hasn’t limited himself to fixing problematic programs. As he was campaigning for the statehouse in 2014, he kept hearing stories about an issue that hadn’t been on his radar: opioid addiction. He had his staff run some numbers and he was appalled by what he found. Two-thirds of patients admitted to Massachusetts hospitals were prescribed pain medication, with unacceptably high percentages of them still taking the drugs months after they’d been released. “He’s a data-driven guy, but he’s not a robot,” says Maurice Cunningham, a University of Massachusetts political scientist. “He really cared about the people suffering and that pushed him to take action.”
In March, Baker signed a law that, among other things, limits new pain prescriptions to a week’s supply, sets up screening and education programs for kids, and requires doctors to check a state database to make sure patients aren’t getting pills from multiple sources. While working on reducing the opioid supply, Baker has approved millions of dollars for treatment and used his bully pulpit to limit the stigma associated with addiction.
The result is that opioid prescriptions in Massachusetts have decreased by 25 percent since last year -- double the decline nationally. With addiction and overdoses a problem throughout the country, Baker’s approach has become a model for other states. He’s pushed his ideas to other governors, convincing all but four of them to sign on to a compact outlining steps states will take -- the first such agreement that’s moved through the National Governors Association in a decade.
Baker’s success on many fronts led The Boston Globe to run a column in September with the ultimate counterintuitive headline: “Charlie Baker may be too popular for his own good.” The newspaper’s idea was that the governor should leverage his popularity to spend the rest of his term doing even bolder things.
He’s not going to argue. “At this point, we have a lot of the right tools in the toolbox,” Baker says. “But we’ve got a long way to go.”
-- By Alan Greenblatt
See the rest of the 2016 Public Officials of the Year.