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GOP’s Baker leaps into race against Patrick

Healthcare executive’s entry alters 2010 dynamic

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By Andrea Estes and Matt Viser
Globe Staff / July 9, 2009
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Charles D. Baker Jr. announced yesterday that he will resign as chief executive of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care to seek the Republican nomination for governor, a move that infused more drama into an already chaotic political week and paved the way for a potentially momentous 2010 campaign.

Baker, who has been seen by many of the party faithful as the leading Republican challenger, is planning to run a campaign that leverages his strong background in state government and his firsthand knowledge of the state’s healthcare system. He intends to challenge Governor Deval Patrick’s approach to the fiscal crisis and his collaboration with the Legislature to raise the sales tax.

“I’m in,’’ Baker, 52, said during a press conference yesterday at Babson College in Wellesley, several hours after informing the staff at Harvard Pilgrim of his plans. “I’m very well suited for this task. And I would regret it, for quite a while, if under such difficult circumstances I chose to sit id ly by and not participate.’’

Baker drew on the image of former governor William F. Weld, a socially liberal and fiscally conservative Republican, in describing his own candidacy. He deflected any questions about Patrick’s performance, though he did describe the state as being in “deep, deep serious, long-term trouble.’’

“My crystal ball isn’t telling me what the election in 2010 is fundamentally and ultimately going to be about,’’ Baker said. “But I can tell you right now, it ought to be about jobs and the economy and the business climate.’’

Though largely unknown to the general public, and without a compelling story like Mitt Romney’s performance running the Salt Lake City Olympics, Baker has an almost cultlike following among Massachusetts political insiders and the business elite. He is often cited for his low-key but firm approach to problems and a legendary grasp of complicated issues. Baker served as a senior aide to two Republican governors, Weld and Paul Cellucci, before taking the helm of Harvard Pilgrim, which he helped navigate from the brink of insolvency earlier this decade and put on solid financial footing.

“I consider myself a Baker Republican,’’ Weld said yesterday from New York, where he is in a private law practice. “When I was in office, I would turn to him in private after virtually every meeting and say, ‘What do you think we should do?’ I don’t recall he and I ever disagreeing. He knows more about government than I do or ever did.’’

Weld added: “I think I’m not taking anything away from any other candidate . . . but I think Charlie Baker is different. People with that much ability and that much devotion and that much sand and gravel don’t come along all that often.’’

Whether admiration among the powerful elite is enough to propel Baker into office is not clear. While his announcement injected new life into the dwindling ranks of a state GOP hoping to recapture the governor’s office, Baker faces significant hurdles. Among them: building a campaign fund large enough to overcome his low name recognition and persuading voters to elect someone to the highest office in Massachusetts whose sole electoral experience is as a one-term Swampscott selectman. In that last regard, there is precedent: Patrick had never held elective office, and neither had Weld.

Baker is far more likely to run on his experience with healthcare and his ability to run a major organization than anything else. He will also point to his time as state secretary of administration and finance under Cellucci and Weld, and as state secretary of health and human services under Weld, to highlight his ability to understand the workings of state government and the budgets that fund them.

Baker’s announcement was but one major event in another frantic day in Massachusetts politics. Earlier, state Treasurer Timothy Cahill stopped by Quincy City Hall to change his party affiliation from Democrat to unenrolled, a first step toward his own gubernatorial campaign.

Patrick, arriving at Logan after a brief visit to Washington, said of Baker, “I welcome him as I would Tim Cahill and any other candidate to the race - and warmly.’’

Christy Mihos, who has already declared his intention to seek the Republican nomination, was scheduled last night to speak to Republicans in Baker’s hometown of Swampscott.

“I’m sure it’s not a coincidence,’’ Cahill said of Baker’s announcement yesterday. “The fact that he announced today, the day after I made my announcement. . . . He may have said ‘Cahill’s in there; I might as well get in there, too.’’’

Baker, who said Cahill’s decision had nothing to do with his own, called supporters yesterday morning. He plans to leave the company July 17 and, after a weeklong family vacation, will launch a campaign committee.

Some Republicans were downright giddy about Baker’s decision to get in the race, and they, too, likened his campaign to that of Weld, whose victory in 1990 ended 16 years of Democrats in the corner office.

“I think a lot of people just breathed a big sigh of relief,’’ said Senate minority leader Richard R. Tisei, a Republican from Wakefield.

Baker spent eight years in state government in the Cabinets of Weld and Cellucci.

“We had tax cuts and fiscal discipline,’’ Cellucci said yesterday. “Now we’re back to a Democratic governor, and already we’ve had significant tax increases.’’

Baker flirted with a run for governor four years ago, almost mounting a challenge to Kerry Healey, then lieutenant governor, for the GOP nomination. Baker announced in August 2005 that he would not run because he and his wife, Lauren, decided that a campaign would put an “unfair burden’’ on their family. They have two teenage sons and a younger daughter.

By yesterday, Democrats were already seizing on Baker’s low name recognition as a key vulnerability.

“He exists in the political universe, but is a complete nonentity to real people,’’ said Michael Goldman, a Patrick supporter and Democratic political consultant at Government Insight Group. “We’re not talking about someone like Mitt Romney, who had run for Senate before and run the Olympics. People were begging him to come.’’

Even Jane Swift, the former GOP governor, said, “A lot of people don’t know him.’’

Baker has little experience in politics, with only his three-year term as selectman in Swampscott. He received a bachelor’s degree in English from Harvard College and a master’s degree in management, concentrating in public administration and finance, from Northwestern’s Kellogg School.

In the fight for the GOP nomination, Baker joins Mihos, a convenience store magnate from West Yarmouth who garnered 7 percent of the vote when he ran for governor as an independent in 2006. Mihos, who announced in April that he would run again in 2010 as a Republican, has hired Dick Morris, a well-known conservative political consultant and commentator.

Mihos characterized Baker yesterday as the pick of the party faithful and someone who is “big business and big government.’’

“I am not an institutional or an insider Republican,’’ Mihos said. “If that’s what they want, they have Charlie. I’m an outsider, a populist Republican. We’ll let the people see what they want.’’

Democrats and Patrick aides projected confidence, not only in their incumbent, but in the unfolding dynamics of the campaign. They suggested that Baker and Cahill would split the opposition vote and provide a clearer path for Patrick to reelection.

“It’s been a good week for Deval Patrick,’’ said Phil Johnston, former chairman of the state Democratic Party. “The right-wing base is effectively split, at least in two, maybe more.’’

Andrew Ryan of the Globe staff and Globe correspondent Vivian Nereim contributed to this report. Matt Viser can be reached at maviser@globe.com. Andrea Estes can be reached at estes@globe.com.