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Governor turns up the heat on Baker

Patrick jabs rival over rising health care costs

Governor Deval Patrick seized on the chance yesterday to criticize Charles Baker. Governor Deval Patrick seized on the chance yesterday to criticize Charles Baker.
By Michael Levenson
Globe Staff / March 11, 2010

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Governor Deval Patrick yesterday took some of his most pointed shots yet at Republican gubernatorial rival Charles D. Baker Jr., accusing the former chief executive of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care of doing nothing to stop dramatic increases in health care costs that he said are crushing small businesses and families.

“Every time there is a hard decision, every time something has to be done with some urgency, putting something on the line for regular people, the challengers — and he’s one of them — are missing in action,’’ the governor told reporters after testifying in support of a bill he filed to cap increases in health care premiums. “And he’s missing in action today.’’

Moments later, Patrick’s campaign, in a fund-raising pitch to supporters, relayed the governor’s jab at Baker, a move that suggested the attack was premeditated by his political team.

“Today’s events represent a clear example of the choices Massachusetts voters have before them in this election,’’ said the appeal from Patrick’s campaign manager, Sydney Asbury. “Governor Patrick and Lieutenant Governor Murray care about working people and take on entrenched and powerful interests on their behalf, while other candidates are either beholden to those interests or too timid to do anything about the problems facing our Commonwealth.’’

Patrick’s aggressive tack seemed to mark a new, more heated phase of the campaign, on the same day a new poll showed Baker gaining ground on Patrick. Baker’s campaign manager, Lenny Alcivar, said on Twitter that Patrick’s comments were sad and that the governor had been “reduced from testimony to meltdown, to empty campaign fund-raising ploy in minutes.’’

His campaign said that Baker was not available to comment. Alcivar, in an e-mail, characterized the governor’s comments as a “temper tantrum.’’

“The governor had 3 1/2 years to take action on health care costs, but he didn’t,’’ Alcivar said. “For 3 1/2 years, Deval Patrick had the existing authority to do something, anything to address this problem, and he wouldn’t. Today, hours after waking up to polling results that show his reelection prospects dwindling by the minute, Governor Patrick was forced to testify on a proposal aimed more toward salvaging his political career than helping small businesses.’’

Patrick’s comments were notable, because he often passes up opportunities to directly engage his challengers, particularly when at the State House.

But he seized the chance yesterday, after speaking in support of a bill he filed that would allow state regulators to reject “unreasonable or excessive’’ cost increases from hospitals and other health care providers.

“While we’ve been dealing with this crisis, at least one of the candidates in this race has been in the middle of this industry and hasn’t offered any solutions yet,’’ the governor said, taking aim at Baker.

The Rasmussen Reports automated telephone survey of likely voters showed Patrick earning 35 percent of the vote, compared with 32 percent for Baker and 19 percent for state Treasurer Timothy P. Cahill, who is running as an independent. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 1/2 percentage points. A Rasmussen survey in November showed Patrick at 33 percent, Baker at 28 percent, and Cahill at 25 percent.

Political analysts said Patrick is trying to more actively define Baker in the minds of voters before Baker can introduce himself on his own terms.

“Given the Rasmussen poll today essentially showing a dead heat, it’s clear that Governor Patrick really has to step up and go on offense more, not only touting what he’s done, but go on offense against his real challenger in this race, and that’s Charlie Baker,’’ said Mary Anne Marsh, a Democratic political strategist. “It signals a stage in this race, and it shows you we’ll see an even more aggressive Deval Patrick going into the spring and the summer.’’

The Patrick campaign has been honing two main lines of attack against Baker as it looks toward the November election. One is to tie Baker to the exorbitant cost increases of the Big Dig, whose finances Baker helped oversee as the top budget aide to governors William F. Weld and Paul Cellucci in the 1990s.

The other is to portray Baker as a health care executive who bears some responsibility for rising costs for families.

“They talk about why it is they can’t help but charge double-digit increases every year to small businesses and families,’’ Patrick said. “Those small business and families don’t have a voice at the table. They have my voice at that table.’’

Baker’s running mate, Senate minority leader Richard R. Tisei, Republican of Wakefield, joined Alcivar in dismissing Patrick’s comments as a political ploy. “The governor is really electioneering, instead of taking a more thoughtful approach,’’ he said.

Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com.