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Brian McGrory

Not sold on Charlie Baker

(John Tlumacki/Globe Staff)
By Brian McGrory
Globe Columnist / March 3, 2010

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Every once in a while, just for kicks, I dial around to some reasonably prominent Bostonians and innocently ask, “What do you think of Charlie Baker?’’

Usually, they quiver uncontrollably and breathlessly use words like “brilliant.’’ The less subtle simply exclaim, “If there’s a God in heaven, please make Charlie the governor.’’ And those are the Democrats.

You see, the 2,000 or so people who fancy themselves as critical to the civic and commercial life of Massachusetts swoon over Baker’s every word - Democrats and Republicans, men and women, corporate titans and government cronies. They get wobbly-kneed at the mere mention of his name.

Forgive me for reserving judgment, but when I see Baker, I see a candidate who doesn’t quite have the ring of authenticity to him, at least not yet.

Look no further than Baker strategist Rob Gray, who, while contrasting Baker and Scott Brown recently, said to the Globe, “They have one very large common denominator, which is that voters are angry and are predisposed to vote for the outsider over the insider.’’

Charlie Baker, the outsider? The Charlie Baker who worked in senior positions for Republican governors for much of the 90s? The Charlie Baker who relied on a state receivership to rescue Harvard Pilgrim, the insurance plan that he ran?

On Friday, I went over to Baker’s campaign office to ask him about his role in the Big Dig. He was the state’s chief budget writer in the 1990s when the massive project was put under the control of the Turnpike Authority and the decision was made to borrow $1.5 billion against future federal highway funds. These days, the financially crippled authority has been eliminated, and we’re still paying off that debt.

When I asked Baker about his influence in either decision, he said, “I was one of about 50 people.’’ That would make for an interesting campaign slogan.

But he was the state secretary of Administration and Finance, the most prominent fiscal adviser to the governor. “So what,’’ he replied. “My approval meant nothing.’’

A moment later, Baker tossed up his hands in exasperation and asked, “When do we get to talk about the future?’’

Beacon Hill legend has it that Baker, relentlessly charming on his terms, is prone to petulance when things go a little astray. Legend was becoming reality in his conference room. His sentences became clipped, his tone guarded, his demeanor sulky. I asked if he agreed with his running mate, state Senator Richard Tisei, when he recently called the Kennedys “has-beens.’’

“No.’’ Then silence.

Did he talk about it with Tisei?

“We talk about stuff every day.’’

Baker eventually regrouped, waxing poetic about the gritty neighborhoods and the main streets he has visited across the state. “You get to meet people you wouldn’t otherwise meet,’’ he said. “You get to go places you wouldn’t otherwise go.’’ He paused and added, “I can’t believe how many different ways there are to make a living.’’

Martha Coakley would be apartment hunting in D.C. if she had said anything so thoughtful.

Of the state budget crisis, Baker said he wants to begin by shrinking and consolidating the vast bureaucracies within Health and Human Services on his way to eliminating 5,000 state jobs. He knows the terrain well, but he also knows that it’s easier to cut in the abstract.

Baker reluctantly lauded the consolidation of transportation agencies this year, but notably credited only the Legislature, not the governor, which is actually a little odd, but part of my point.

Baker, a smart guy with vast experience, will undoubtedly grow into the role of the candidate. He may end up being governor. But he needs to understand that one way to gauge how someone will handle the future is to look at what that person has done in the past. It’s why we have campaigns, not coronations - even if they affect his mood.

McGrory is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at mcgrory@globe.com.