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When Republican Gov. Charlie Baker won reelection in Massachusetts by a landslide this week, two of the most prominent attendees at his victory party were non-Republican mayors – one a Democrat and the other an independent. “When we wake up in the morning, we’re not going to be Democrats and Republicans.... We’re HUUUMAAAAAN,” Mayor Sefatia Romeo Theken of Gloucester bellowed from the stage. “This winter, if we’re going to have a storm, we’re all going to get snowed on together.” It’s an apt metaphor. His fans say Mr. Baker has become the nation’s most popular governor through listening, focusing on 100 percent of his constituents, and taking a pragmatic approach to problems that have included epic blizzards. Baker is not alone in being a governor who’s both popular and moderate. At a time of rampant polarization, two of the other most well-liked governors in America are also Republicans in blue states, while Kansas voters just elected a Democrat over a conservative ideologue. What’s the secret sauce? “The biggest thing we’ve tried to do,” says Baker, “is to not take the bait.”
Republican Gov. Charlie Baker is so busy doing his job, he hardly has time to be political.
He doesn’t pick fights. His speeches are unremarkable. He’s not secretly running for president, at least as far as anyone can tell.
If he picked a team jersey, it would say “Massachusetts,” not “GOP.” Many Democrats can’t find it in themselves to revile him. In fact, some declare they like the guy. Even some who thought Hillary Clinton wasn’t liberal enough admit they have cast ballots for Governor Baker. Twice.
Sure, he’s a Republican, but not that kind of Republican.
“Trump comes out with these insane ideas and most Republicans are like oh, yeah. And [Baker] has the guts to say – we’re not going to do that here,” says Deb Hall, a liberal whose vote helped him win reelection by a landslide this week. “I credit him for that. I’m sure he gets flak for that.”
At a time when the cool kids in the Republican Party are calling their opponents liars and left-wing loonies, Baker is quietly charting another path – working with the other side to get things done. And he’s not alone. Three of the most popular governors in America are Republicans in blue states, and they are demonstrating a pragmatism that shows that it is indeed possible to be reasonable, civil, and productive in an era of extreme polarization.
“[Baker] presents a completely different brand,” says Peter Ubertaccio, a political science professor at Stonehill College outside Boston. “It is almost the opposite of what you see in Washington.”
So what’s his secret?
“I think the biggest thing we’ve tried to do is to not take the bait,” says Baker, standing with Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito outside the Owl Diner in Lowell, Mass., on the eve of Election Day. “I think the biggest challenge in public life these days is to focus on common ground and not on the stuff that divides us.”
Just then, someone drives by yelling, “Baaaaaaaaker!!” and he chuckles before finishing his thought:
“I think people miss their opportunities when they don’t think about it that way,” he says.
Working for 100 percent of citizens
Baker barely got elected in 2014. This week he won by two-thirds of the vote, and is ranked the No. 1 most popular governor in America with a 70 percent approval rating, according to a survey of registered voters by Morning Consult.
Gov. Larry Hogan (R) of Maryland, who ranks second most popular with 67 percent approval rating, also handily won reelection Tuesday in a state where Trump got walloped in 2016. Gov. Chris Sununu (R) of New Hampshire is fourth most popular two years into his term. And Gov. Phil Scott (R) of Vermont, a little farther down the list, secured a second term by a 15-point margin.
Meanwhile in Montana, Gov. Steve Bullock is almost their mirror image – a well-liked Democrat in a state where Trump won by 20 points in 2016. And Democrat Laura Kelly just won the gubernatorial race in Kansas, beating out conservative ideologue Kris Kobach.
“A lot of these folks are folks that get the fact that we are supposed to be working for 100 percent of the citizens that we represent,” says Baker in Lowell, a Democratic stronghold where he and Lieutenant Governor Polito have pushed forward a $225 million new courthouse project that had been tabled for a decade. Looking at her, he adds, “You and I have both had lots of people say to us at one time or another, ‘You know, I don’t agree with you all the time, but I feel like you listen.’ ”
Polito has made good on their 2014 campaign promise to visit all 351 cities and towns in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, listening to local officials and helping advance their priorities.
“You want to get something done, you gotta call Karyn,” said Mayor Dan Rivera (D) of the blue-collar city of Lawrence, which was hit hard by gas explosions this fall.
He was one of two mayors invited to speak at the campaign’s Election Night victory party, the other being Mayor Sefatia Romeo Theken, an independent in the heavily Democratic coastal town of Gloucester. They are among 22 mayors who endorsed Baker, 17 of whom were either Democratic or independent. On Tuesday night, Mayor Theken lauded Baker, echoing the theme of putting aside party loyalties to work for the people. [Editor's note: This paragraph has been updated to correct Mayor Theken's political affiliation.]
“When we wake up in the morning, we’re not going to be Democrats and Republicans … We’re HUUUMAAAAAN,” Mayor Theken bellowed from the stage. “This winter, if we’re going to have a storm, we’re all going to get snowed on together.”
And boy, has it snowed on Charlie Baker.
In 2015, just as he had taken office, Boston was hit by a historic series of blizzards that wreaked havoc on the MBTA transit system, leaving the city gridlocked for weeks and stranding commuters for hours.
So he spent more than $100 million winterizing the system and took steps to improve the MBTA’s accountability. He announced an $8 billion plan to upgrade the system, including gradually replacing the existing fleet of subway cars, which was more than 30 years old, and increasing capacity by 40 percent.
“He jumped right in and grabbed the bull by the horns,” says Mayor Thomas Koch of Quincy, Mass., who says the city is seeing major economic investment as a result of improvements to the Red Line connecting it to downtown Boston.
Mayor Koch, who was one of the few Democratic mayors to back Baker in 2014, also credits him with providing millions in funding for a new park in downtown Quincy honoring Founding Fathers John Adams and John Hancock – both of whom have ties to the area.
Many have compared Baker to Mitt Romney and William Weld, two GOP governors who also worked well with the Democratic legislature. That cooperation is to a certain extent a reflection of Massachusetts political culture.
“The Massachusetts brand of Republican is all about selling balance to folks … that Republicans and Democrats can work together, that they have to work together,” says GOP state chair Kirsten Hughes.
But state lawmakers today say there’s something special about Baker. He is at ease among Democrats in a way Romney wasn’t, and is remarkably accessible.
“He’s probably worked with the legislature better than any governor,” says Ronald Mariano, the majority leader in the House of Representatives who began as a lawmaker in 1991 – the same year that Governor Weld took office.
As an example, Representative Mariano mentions a compromise he reached with the governor on offshore wind power. Baker, he says, was concerned it would be too expensive but listened to Mariano and other proponents. “Probably one of the main reasons he’s successful is he’s a willing listener, he will seek input on the issues and respects the process. You don’t always see that in governors.”
For Professor Ubertaccio, what is most extraordinary about Baker is his ability to defy the centrifugal forces pulling politicians across America into warring camps.
“We live in such an era of extreme polarization that one would have expected that, at some point, that would have caught up with Baker … and it hasn’t,” says the professor. “There’s a degree to which people are just yearning for government to work, and Charlie Baker seems to be the kind of person they’re looking for.”