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Joan Vennochi

Could Charlie Baker rescue the state's GOP?

By Joan Vennochi
Globe Columnist / March 5, 2009
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CHARLIE BAKER is thinking about running for governor.

Baker thinks about that almost as often as Julia Roberts thinks about getting married in "Runaway Bride."

But the slightest confirmation of mulling causes fluttering in the hearts of that endangered species known as Massachusetts Republicans.

Baker, who heads Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, held top administration positions for Governors Bill Weld and Paul Cellucci. From time to time, he makes it clear he would like to be governor. But, when it comes to actually running for the job, he has a commitment problem.

Like a bride-to-be poised to hit the Filene's Basement wedding gown sale, Baker looked almost ready to suit up in 2006. But, due to family obligations, not to mention a primary opponent with a family fortune, he opted out. That left the Republican gubernatorial slot to Kerry Healey, the lieutenant governor, who lost to Democrat Deval Patrick.

With some help from Baker, a Baker run is being talked up once again.

"Have not decided. Will not decide today, tomorrow, or the next day. Not the day after that either. The choice is somewhere between ridiculous and preposterous," he said, via e-mail.

Baker then went on to detail the challenges of running against an incumbent Democrat who could count on millions in political contributions, along with campaign help from his good friend, the president of the United States.

"So, yeah - I'm thinking about it - but I'm a pretty pragmatic guy," he concluded, in classic, inconclusive Baker style.

Baker also ducked when asked where he stands on the burning fiscal issue of the day - Patrick's proposal to hike the gas tax by 19 cents: "Unless I decide to run, who cares what I think?" he replied.

People should care, especially if he runs.

Baker served eight years in state government, first as secretary of human services and then as secretary of administration and finance. During the Weld/Cellucci years, Big Dig costs rose and the state borrowed money to cover them.

"When Charlie was head of A&F, the state borrowed against future federal highway aid. We're paying for that now," said Michael Widmer, who heads the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation and supports a 25-cents-per-gallon gas tax hike.

If Baker runs for governor, Widmer said, it is fair to ask, "How much of what happened on his watch is what we're having to pay for now?"

When it comes to taxes, Baker and any Republican gubernatorial candidate would like to have it both ways, just as Weld did in 1990.

Faced with a huge budget deficit, outgoing Governor Michael Dukakis, a Democrat, raised taxes with support from the Democratic leadership of the House and Senate. An angry public rebelled by voting Republican. Weld and a team that included Baker then benefitted from the new revenue.

"The tax increases saved what would have been massive budget cuts on his watch," said Widmer.

Baker was a key part of other important policy decisions that are also open to debate. For example, Baker was secretary of health and human services when the Weld administration moved to deregulate the healthcare industry in Massachusetts. As a result, healthcare providers now compete with each other; the state no longer sets rates. Baker also signed off on the merger of the state's two biggest hospitals, which occurred without a public hearing. As CEO of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, he has been critical of the fallout, especially as it relates to cost. He recently compared it to "having the grenade that you throw on one end of the boat roll back down and blow up on you when the boat shifts."

But in a party starved for credibility and gravitas, Baker is a star. He's a Harvard graduate, a former state Cabinet officer, and widely viewed as Harvard Pilgrim's savior.

It will be much harder to save the Massachusetts GOP, which explains why Baker is still only thinking about running for governor.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com.

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