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Candidate tempers achievements with down-to-earth style, goals

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By Eric Moskowitz
Globe Staff / July 9, 2009
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Not yet 50, Charles D. Baker Jr. had built a considerable resume when he first ran for public office in 2004. He was a Harvard basketball player who became a think tank dynamo, served as a trusted adviser to two Republican governors, and orchestrated the turnaround of a struggling health plan.

Although Republican operatives envisioned Baker on Beacon Hill, he set his sights closer to home: the Board of Selectmen in Swampscott, population 14,000.

Some colleagues from the Weld and Cellucci administrations tried to discourage him, worried that a loss would dash a future political career. “He took it all in and heard me out,’’ said Virginia B. Buckingham, a chief of staff to both governors who tried to dissuade Baker. “Then he said, ‘I’m doing it because I care about my town, and I think I can help my town.’ ’’

Baker won in a landslide and proceeded to dig into the budget in his North Shore suburb, where his three children were enrolled in the schools.

It was, friends say, classic Charlie Baker, at once high-achieving and grounded. They describe the newly announced Republican gubernatorial candidate as an exacting policy wonk with charisma; a towering, energized man who pauses to listen patiently; a high-powered executive who showed up for his first Memorial Day ceremony as selectman in T-shirt and shorts, then had to scurry home for a suit.

“Charlie is bigger than life, but exactly the opposite at the same time,’’ said Mindy d’Arbeloff, a Boston marketing executive who has been friends with Baker since childhood.

For as long as d’Arbeloff can remember, Baker is the guy who has explained complex matters to her with simple diagrams on scraps of paper. He is also the avid music fan who occasionally worked as a bouncer at rock shows in his youth and remains unabashed about taking his teenagers to see the Dropkick Murphys.

As a new candidate for governor, Baker, now 52, is unknown to many voters, and he is not without critics on policy. Some service providers used the term “slash and burn’’ to describe his 1990s efforts as undersecretary for health and human services to close state hospitals and rein in costs. But Baker has earned respect on Beacon Hill and in the business community as a smart, measured leader.

He is easygoing, but no one should forget that he also has “a steely determination to get the right result,’’ said Paul Cellucci, the former lieutenant governor and governor who worked with Baker for much of the 1990s.

Baker grew up in Needham, aside from a period in Washington, while his father served as a deputy undersecretary of transportation in the Nixon administration. He attended Needham High, where he was a multisport athlete.

The oldest of three boys born to a Republican father and a Democratic mother, Baker was a voracious childhood reader and early participant in kitchen-table debates that ran “hot, heavy, and all the time,’’ said his father, Charles Sr., who also served in the Reagan administration and is now retired from business, government, and education.

“He’s got a great degree of curiosity,’’ Baker’s father said. “He’s a quick study, but he’s a really serious thinker. A lot of quick studies, they stop right there.’’

At Harvard, Baker concentrated in English, lettered in basketball, and began a Big Brother relationship that he maintained for decades, eventually serving as best man at his Little Brother’s wedding. After earning an MBA at Northwestern’s Kellogg School, where he met his wife, Lauren, Baker worked as a consultant and helped build the Pioneer Institute, a Boston think tank with a libertarian bent.

Baker’s “best quality is probably his ability to get along with people,’’ said Lovett C. Peters, the retired oil man who founded Pioneer, made Baker his second hire, and remains an office regular at age 96. “And second, he has an excellent mind, and he knows how to channel energy.’’

Peters ultimately recommended Baker to William F. Weld, who consulted Baker broadly on policy issues and asked him to be undersecretary for the Health and Human Services Department after his 1990 election.

But first, Weld arranged for Baker to speak with David P. Forsberg, Weld’s choice for secretary of the agency, to ensure that they had chemistry. The resulting conversation was a dizzying call in which Baker peppered Forsberg with questions and wowed him with ideas that would help shape the administration’s plan to cut costs and reorganize public services.

Afterward, Forsberg told his wife, “I think I’ve just been interviewed to see if I can be somebody’s boss,’’ he recalled yesterday.

By the time Weld left office, Baker had joined his Cabinet, serving first as health and human services secretary and then as secretary for administration and finance, a position he continued under Cellucci. But Baker passed up the opportunity to run as Cellucci’s lieutenant governor, a spot subsequently offered to Jane Swift.

Baker instead left government to become chief executive of Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates, a nonprofit group practice with physicians across Eastern Massachusetts. A year later, in mid-1999, a struggling Harvard Pilgrim Health Care brought Baker in to right an organization that was hemorrhaging money.

After initial bumps, Baker oversaw a turnaround that included more than two dozen consecutive profitable quarters, at the same time the company finished atop the National Committee for Quality Assurance’s ranking of health plans five years in a row.

“There are still idealistic people in this business who care and think they can help, and that’s why they get in,’’ said Buckingham, now director of public affairs for Pfizer Inc. “He’s one of them.’’

Steven Rosenberg of the Globe staff contributed to this report.