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What's So Great About Charlie Baker?

The Bay State is poised to elect a Republican governor

By J. Gram Slattery

On Monday, the Boston Globe endorsed moderate Republican Charlie Baker for governor, and, like many Globe readers, my first thought was something along the lines of, “What the hell?”

The last time the Hub’s paper endorsed a Republican for governor I wasn’t old enough to talk. It was 1994, and Bill Weld, an old-line "New England Republican," got the nod against Democrat Mark Roosevelt. On close elections, the paper splits left, even to the left of the state’s liberal populace: the Globe endorsed firebrand Elizabeth Warren in 2012, Shannon O’Brien against Romney in 2002, and Deval Patrick against Baker in another close race eight years ago.

This is all to say that the paper’s endorsement Monday is a pretty big deal. And it certainly isn’t the norm.

How, I’m asking myself, did this happen? In June, Martha Coakley had a 16-point lead, in September the gap still wasn’t trivial, and the race seemed to be another ceremonial victory parade for the Democrat, as is custom in the Bay State. What makes Baker so special? And why is Coakley an unattractive option for so many liberals?

These questions are important because they have profound implications for the state’s governing establishment and for moderate Republicans, in New England and throughout the country.

To answer them, let’s first look at Baker, who’s come off, over the past few months, as profoundly reasonable.

Yes, he’s a Republican, but almost anywhere else, he’s a Democrat. He believes in anthropogenic climate change, plans to raise the state’s environmental budget, and at least kind of opposes new gas pipelines entering the state. He’s pro-choice, he supports gay marriage, he supports an assault weapons ban, and publicly, he’s a supporter of federal immigration reform. So his views, for many voters, aren’t all that off the mark, and politically, he might represent a lot of centrist Democrats better than his opponent.

But the race isn’t just a referendum on the candidates’ beliefs; it’s also a referendum on the governing culture of Beacon Hill.

It’d be a mistake to condemn the place as a festering pit of corruption and cronyism; it’s not Tallahassee or Albany, and it usually ranks toward the middle in terms of transparency. Yet like any one party state—(90 percent of the House and Senate is Democratic)—lethargy and a lack of competition can and has led to excess, no matter one’s political view.  In 2010, a report by the Globe cataloged a massive cronyism scheme in the parole department during which hundreds of unqualified employees were hired. That paper, despite its liberal leaning, has an entire online section dedicated to pension abuse.

Current governor Patrick himself has hired neighbors for lucrative, do-nothing jobs, and after a series of plush, seemingly frivolous improvements—such as the acquisition of a Cadillac via state funds in 2010—he came to be known as Gov. "Deville," rather than Deval for a short time. Just a few days ago, he quietly moved 500 state managers to a program in which none could be fired, and all would be guaranteed annual raises, presumably to protect them should Baker be elected.

This is all a terrible disappointment to many of us because a lot of Bay Staters have a social democratic vision for the state, and in most ways this vision succeeds. But it requires us to put a lot of trust in Beacon Hill and the Democratic Party, and sometimes that trust is betrayed.

As the attorney general who has found herself tangled up in scandals of her own—and as an establishmentarian who’s anything but a firebrand on the campaign trail—it’s hard not to associate Martha Coakley with the Beacon Hill clique. She’s decidedly not an Elizabeth Warren—the bold outsider with new ideas, a new populist rhetoric, and a small government agency already to her name—who managed to kick out a popular incumbent in the senate.

Where Baker is driving the wedge is not between conservatives and liberals in Massachusetts; he’d lose if he did that. Rather, he’s driving a wedge between liberals who want something bold, new and pure and don’t see it coming from Beacon Hill, and those that are merely annoyed, but not so much so as to break the party ranks.

Now, I’m personally not sold on Baker, mainly because his rhetoric often isn’t backed up by policy.

Whereas Coakley has put forth specific green benchmarks and initiatives, Baker’s environmental plans seem so far confined to “encouraging the private sector.”

And while Coakley has plans to accommodate undocumented immigrants in Massachusetts, through methods like opposing the Trust Act, Baker is quite regressive at the state level.

The list goes on.

But like many, I’m also not sold on Coakley, who comes of as an insider, a “forgone conclusion,” without a critical eye for the government she’ll be presiding over. I guess in the end the lesson for Democrats in the state is this: Give us an outsider, someone charismatic, with fresh initiatives, and who’s free of the baggage of Beacon Hill.

Either that, or give us fewer reasons to view the Hill with suspicion.

Gram Slattery ’15, a Crimson editorial writer, is a joint English and social studies concentrator in Kirkland House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays. Follow him on Twitter @G_Slattery. 

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