TIME Election 2014

Meet the Republican Who Might Run Massachusetts

Charlie Baker
Charlie Baker after a debate with Democratic candidate Martha Coakley in Boston on Oct. 21, 2014. Steven Senne—AP

Charlie Baker has made it a tight race by courting Democrats

Politicians abhor dead silence. But for 31 seconds, Charlie Baker sat on a debate stage, staring at the ceiling, and wracking his brain for the answer to the thorniest question he’s fielded since he jumped into the race for Massachusetts governor last year. The question: Name a current politician who’s a role model for you. “Um… um…. You know, you’re kind of stumping me here,” Baker said. After 31 seconds of stammering and silence, he finally ventured, “Um, how about Jeb Bush?”

Baker has been locked in a tight race for governor of Massachusetts for months. Recent polls have shown him leading his Democratic opponent, state Attorney General Martha Coakley, by as little as a single point. Still, the most uncomfortable Baker has been all campaign hasn’t been in the final, frenetic dash toward Election Day, but in that primary campaign debate in late August, when he was forced to identify himself with another Republican.

That’s because Baker is a throwback to a kind of Republican politics that no longer exists at any meaningful scale. It’s what has the former health insurance company CEO within reach of the State House in Boston. But it’s also what makes the final step so difficult to pull off.

Baker is running without much company. The only other Republican in Massachusetts with a shot at major office is Richard Tisei, a former state legislator, and Baker’s 2010 running mate, who’s in a tight race for Congress in the suburbs north of Boston. “I think running as a moderate anything is more complicated than it used to be. That’s the nature of our politics these days,” Baker says. “I think having a different set of viewpoints within the Republican party in New England, and nationally, is a good thing, not a bad thing.”

Democrats dominate Massachusetts politics. The state Republican Party claims less than 11% of all registered voters. Massachusetts hasn’t sent a Republican to the U.S. House of Representatives since 1994. The outgoing governor, Deval Patrick, stormed into office on a campaign that political strategist David Axelrod used to test-drive the themes that took Barack Obama to the White House in 2008. The state flirted briefly with Scott Brown, then turned on him so violently that he fled across the border, to New Hampshire. In Brown’s place, Massachusetts voters installed Senator Elizabeth Warren, a populist who’s pulling the entire Democratic party leftward.

Yet Massachusetts voters have a history of electing a certain kind of Republican to lead the state. The last two Democratic governors are Patrick and Michael Dukakis; between the two of them lies a 16-year stretch of Republican rule. The problem for Baker is that moderate New England Republicans have almost vanished as a political force.

Baker, 57, has long been the state GOP’s brightest star. He rose to political prominence two decades ago in the cabinet of then-Governor Bill Weld. Weld was a Republican who rode a tax revolt into office, but he was so far to the left on social issues that he won in liberal enclaves like Cambridge and Amherst. Baker’s politics echo Weld’s. As health secretary and then budget chief for Weld and his successor, Paul Cellucci, Baker earned a reputation as a sharp policy mind and number cruncher, but was not known as an ideologue.

“He’s the smartest guy in the room, but he doesn’t act like it,” says Jay Ash, the city manager of Chelsea, a small, heavily Central American community just north of Boston. “He’s inquisitive, and he doesn’t dismiss people’s views. He’s open and engaging on the issues.”

“I worked in an administration that was pretty successful in working across the aisle to get stuff done with Democrats,” Baker says. “A lot of our successes were because we had two teams on the field, competition and political engagement. Whether voters decide that’s what they want or not is going to be up to them. I certainly wanted to run a race built on that kind of message and approach.”

Ash and Baker met in the early 1990’s, when Chelsea was operating in state fiscal receivership. They’ve been friends since, yet Baker didn’t get Ash’s vote four years ago, when Baker made his first run for governor. Baker’s 2010 campaign was filled with stunts meant to generate voter outrage, like displaying a prop welfare card that said it could be swiped for booze and lottery tickets at taxpayer expense. The disgruntled turnout wasn’t enough and Baker lost to Patrick with 42% of the vote.

The Massachusetts governor’s race is a redemption run for both Baker and Coakley. Coakley lost the 2010 contest for Ted Kennedy’s former Senate seat to Brown in spectacular fashion, and reporters are salivating over storylines about Coakley blowing another high-profile race against another Massachusetts Republican. Coakley has been a popular attorney general, though, and she’s run hard for governor. Their race is neck-and-neck less because Coakley has done something wrong, than because Baker has done a whole lot right.

Baker has managed to run for political office while mostly taking divisive politics off the table. He has beaten the drum on a few red meat Republican issues, like lowering taxes and hardening work rules for welfare. But the bulk of his campaign has been focused on education and economic opportunity, and in these areas, he’s driving a debate that’s less about political vision than it is about competence in managing government. He’s bent the race to his strengths, and made the contest a referendum on putting a policy wonk in the governor’s office.

Baker has also gone to lengths to play up his social liberalism, releasing campaign videos with his brother, who’s gay and married, and with his teenage daughter, who assures him on-camera, “You’re totally pro-choice and bipartisan.”

“Ideologically, he’s where the majority of people in Massachusetts are,” says Larry DiCara, a prominent Democratic attorney in Boston.

“In some states, he’d be a Democrat,” says Ash, who praises his friend’s current run. “He’s with Democrats and independents on social issues.”

Baker is also with Democrats in a more literal sense. On the trail, he has taken the fight to Coakley in the urban centers that normally hand Democrats lopsided vote margins. Baker is trying to raid the Democratic base, aggressively courting votes in Irish pubs and mill towns. He’s held over 150 campaign events in Boston — an unheard-of presence in a city where voters normally hang 40-plus-point losses on Republicans. Baker lost the city by 47 points in 2010; a recent WBUR poll had him cutting that deficit in half.

“You have to make the sale, but you can’t make the sale if you don’t show up,” Baker reasons.

And as he tries to close the deal, he’s doing it without much support from state Republicans. Massachusetts Democrats enjoy an enormous campaign volunteer base, the machinery of organized labor, and star power in Washington, DC. As the campaign entered the home stretch, Michelle Obama, Bill and Hillary Clinton, and Vice President Joe Biden all swung through to rally the party faithful for Coakley. Weld, who’s now working as a rainmaker at a Boston law firm, is the closest thing Baker has had to a star campaign surrogate.

Baker’s party doesn’t have the bodies to compete with Democrats on the grassroots level. (His campaign has knocked on 270,000 doors this election cycle, a huge number for a Massachusetts Republican; Elizabeth Warren’s campaign hit 240,000 doors in a single weekend two years ago.) But he has received one major outside boost: the Republican Governors Association PAC has spent more than $12 million on the race, over two-and-half times what they spent on the 2010 campaign and more than the combined spending of Baker and Coakley’s own campaigns.

But national Republicans will be hard-pressed to find broader lessons. If Baker wins, it will be because he won over Democratic voters and narrowed the daylight between his partisans, and Coakley’s. That isn’t a formula that has legs far outside Boston.

TIME elections

Kidney Stone Could Help Candidate’s Campaign

Annual St. Patrick's Day Breakfast In South Boston
State Treasurer Steve Grossman speaks at the Annual South Boston St. Patrick's Day Breakfast on Sunday, March 16, 2014 in South Boston, Mass. Dina Rudick—Boston Globe/Getty Images

Nothing like 90 minutes of pain to get your name out

Steve Grossman walked into the Boston Public Library on Tuesday night expecting a debate about sex education, transgender rights, and issues facing gay and lesbian senior citizens. He walked out, 90 minutes and one kidney stone later, as an internet sensation.

Grossman, the Massachusetts state treasurer and one of five Democrats running to replace departing Governor Deval Patrick, has suffered occasional kidney stone attacks for 30 years. He felt his latest stone coming on the night before the debate. His wife suggested he clear his schedule and wait the stone out. Instead, Grossman says he popped some Advil, chaired a meeting of the state Lottery commission, and then took part in the gubernatorial debate while in visibly excruciating pain.

“I decided I’ll just, you know, gut it out,” Grossman says. “It’s what I’ve done for years. I’m focused on running for governor, and people expect to hear from you. They expect you to give your best every day. It was an important debate, and I wanted my voice to be heard.”

Grossman didn’t mention his kidney stone during the debate and it may have gone unnoticed had David Bernstein, a political reporter for Boston magazine, not asked the candidate why he was wincing and grabbing at his back during the event. After Grossman told him the reason, Bernstein tweeted it out — and rocketed the state treasurer to brief viral stardom. On a parody Twitter account, Grossman’s kidney stone is reveling in its newfound freedom and contemplating running for lieutenant governor.

“In this world of social media, things that are not necessarily of major consequence become well known very quickly,” Grossman says. “I am a little surprised it’s taken on a life of its own.”

Grossman’s campaign could use the assist. A former chair of the state Democratic Party and Democratic National Committee leader during the Clinton years, Grossman is a prolific fundraiser with strong support from his party’s power structure. But recent polls have shown him trailing frontrunner Martha Coakley, the state attorney general who lost a high-profile Senate race against Scott Brown in 2010. Grossman’s main problem has been name recognition: A recent WBUR/MassINC poll found that 39 percent of likely voters had never heard of the treasurer. If it takes a kidney stone to improve those numbers, Grossman has no complaint.

“My bottom line, I’m running for governor, and if people invite me to do things, I’m going,” he says. “I’m glad I went.”

TIME

Gays Unlikely to March in St. Patrick’s Day Parades Despite Push From Mayors

A marching band casts shadows on the road during the 251st annual St. Patrick's Day Parade in New York
A marching band casts shadows on the road during the 251st annual St. Patrick's Day Parade in New York, March 17, 2012. Carlo Allegri—Reuters

Despite the intervention of mayors, LGBT groups still can't participate in the New York City and Boston St. Patrick's Day parades since they are operated by private organizations—even as other parades open up to gay groups

The joke, Brendan Fay recalls, was that peace would come to Northern Ireland before gay people like him would be allowed to take part in New York City’s St. Patrick’s Day parade. Peace came on Good Friday 1998, but Fay is still trying to march down Fifth Avenue.

It’s been a long fight. But he now has some powerful allies. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, both newly elected, ambitious, self-styled progressives, have said they will boycott their respective city’s St. Patrick’s Day parades if LGBT groups continue to be excluded.

Walsh has tried to broker a deal between gay-rights advocates and parade organizers, so far without success. De Blasio marched instead in St. Pat’s for All, a counter-parade organized by Fay that welcomes gay groups.

Their efforts have largely been symbolic, though on Friday, Boston Beer Co., the maker of Sam Adams, withdrew as a sponsor of Boston’s parade because of the exclusion. But the cities have two of the largest and most influential Irish Catholic populations in the nation, and the firm stances of their new mayors could finally bring long-simmering tensions to a head.

“I’m as Irish as anybody,” Walsh says. “There’s no reason for this, most certainly in 2014. We’re way beyond this as a country, and I wish we could get way beyond it as a parade. Boston and New York, come on!”

Getting beyond it has not been easy. The St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in New York and Boston are permitted by each city but run by private organizations, a distinction that allows parade organizers to bar gay groups from marching. A 1993 federal-court decision upheld the right of New York’s parade organizers to exclude groups marching under gay-rights banners. Two years later, a 9-0 Supreme Court decision held that gay groups couldn’t force their way into the Boston parade.

The two parades have clung to those decisions ever since, even as other parades opened their doors to gay groups. In Dublin, Galway, Cork and other Irish cities, gay and lesbian groups march in St. Patrick’s Day events without incident. Chicago, which has a large Irish Catholic population, has allowed gay groups since the mid-1990s. “Our city realized a long time ago that we have so much more in common than apart,” says Tom Tunney, Chicago’s first openly gay alderman. “We’re a city of cultures, and the LGBT community is a part of it.”

The resistance to inclusion is a stark contrast to the nation’s growing acceptance of gay rights. In recent months, federal judges have struck down state bans on same-sex marriage in Utah, Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma and Texas, and challenges are pending in many others.

“Our lives are being discussed and dissected in courts around the country,” Fay says. “Whether you’re a firefighter or a bagpiper or a same-sex family with children, Irish heritage and culture belongs to all of us.”

The marriage-equality movement began in Massachusetts, when the state’s high court ruled in 2003 that bans on same-sex marriage were unconstitutional. But the St. Patrick’s Day parade in its capital city has been far less welcoming. Every year, gay groups would apply to march through South Boston on St. Patrick’s Day, and every year, with little fanfare, they received denials. The city’s former mayor, Thomas Menino, refused to march in the parade as long as gay groups were excluded — but that didn’t keep him from politicking on the sidelines of the route.

Walsh is a union-backed former state legislator who hails from a working-class neighborhood very much like South Boston, which hosts the city’s parade. He has been an unlikely hero to the city’s gay community since he defied the Catholic Church and voted down a constitutional amendment that would have overturned the court ruling legalizing gay marriage in the state. His efforts to open up the city’s parade — which have been aided by Stephen Lynch, the conservative Democrat who represents South Boston in Congress — have put him at odds with two natural constituencies.

South Boston was at the center of Boston’s 1970s’ busing crisis. Two decades of rampant gentrification have remade much of the neighborhood, but many of the holdouts retain a frayed relationship with the outside world.

“There are some dissidents and it happens that a few of them run the parade,” says Susan Ulrich, a South Boston native who is active in the city’s LGBT community. “The people who run the parade are fighters, for better or worse. I grew up in a kind and gracious place. But if you back them into a corner, they will fight. If you look at the way the Irish were treated in this country, and the way the LGBT community treated, they’re remarkably similar. Both communities had to fight very hard. But communities that have to fight for every single thing they have, it dies hard.”

Your browser, Internet Explorer 8 or below, is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites.

Learn how to update your browser