Bill Everhart: Baker Gives Democrats An Opening
Twice-elected Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker has consistently polled high enough to win the unofficial title of nation’s most popular governor. Controversy over his recent handling of the COVID-19 crisis has deflated those numbers, however, and raised questions about how the Republican will fare if he runs for a third term next year.
Baker’s approval rating of 78 % last August is consistent with where his rating has been for months. It plummeted to 52 % in March, which appeared to reflect his handling of the pandemic. As the governor’s popularity is founded on his calm demeanor, managerial skills and avoidance of far right rhetoric and ideology it could indicate trouble ahead should he bid for re-election.
Ironically, the governor’s problems arrived when good news emerged in the form of coronavirus vaccinations. Baker angered teachers and parents when he slid teachers down the priority list at the same time he was demanding that classrooms reopen. The state was slow to set up an online pre-registration system, frustrating residents trying to sign up for vaccinations.
The bottleneck worsened when a state vaccine-finder site crashed the day that legions of baby-boomers became eligible for the vaccine. Baker blithely advised frustrated residents to keep trying to enroll as if people with jobs and responsibilities have the time to regularly refresh the state website for days or weeks. He loosened restrictions on businesses at the same time vaccinations stalled and variants of the virus arrived in the state.
Berkshire County lawmakers complained that the governor shortchanged the Berkshires by focusing on setting up big vaccination clinics elsewhere in the state, specifically Worcester and points east. The absence of an efficient pre-registration system was also a source of unhappiness. Lawmakers and city and town officials claim that this follows a well-established pattern in which the rural Berkshires are overlooked by the governor until they squawked. Two terms of Democratic governor Deval Patrick, who has a home in the Berkshires, had gotten county residents and officials used to close attention from the state’s chief executive.
Two Democrats, Harvard professor Danielle Allen and former Pittsfield, Massachusetts-based state senator Ben Downing, have announced bids for governor. State Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz of Boston is also considering a run.
With the governor’s reputation for administrative efficiency tarnished by the vaccination rollout and failings by the Registry of Motor Vehicles and Department of Children and Families, they have possible openings to exploit that weren’t available to past Democratic candidates.
It is rare, however, for Massachusetts governors to run for a third term. Should Baker decide against it, his long-time sidekick Karyn Polito would be a formidable foe. She has been Baker’s emissary to town and city officials and has built a rapport with them by showing up to announce good news in the form of grants and state-funded projects. The Republican State Committee, filled with Trump dead-enders long angry at Baker for his criticism of Trump and moderate political stances, would surely field a candidate who would have no chance for election in a state where the former president is hugely unpopular.
Massachusetts is a deeply blue state. Voters, however, make an exception when it comes to electing governors. Charlie Baker has given Democrats some rare openings, but if he runs for a third term he’d likely be favored for re-election. Whatever problems Baker has, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo undoubtedly wishes that they were all he had to worry about.
Bill Everhart was the editorial page editor of the Berkshire Eagle for 25 years. He is an occasional contributor to the Eagle.
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