Charlie Baker is a very smart fellow who picks his words with care. So why is it that time and again he’s made what his aides call a mistake and scared the daylights out of the 300,000 people who are legal Massachusetts residents — but not citizens?
Like a lot of conservatives, the GOP gubernatorial candidate has been striking a tough-guy stance on illegal immigrants.
And boy is it a winner of an issue — witness the spectacular success of Jeffrey Perry in Tuesday night’s Republican congressional primary. Earlier this year, Perry sponsored an amendment to further restrict state benefits to immigrants who are here legally. And the next thing you know, the former police officer is at a victory rally at Plimoth Plantation, vowing to be a “hard-liner on immigration’’ and take “our’’ country back.
Baker hitched himself to the Sandwich legislator’s star in the first televised debate last week: “I support the Perry amendment, which would prohibit people who were not citizens from accessing state funds and services.’’
In subsequent appearances, Baker trucked out a giant poster trumpeting five executive orders he would issue on his first day in office. Number three: an order ensuring that benefits go only to “legal Massachusetts citizens.’’
Baker’s rhetoric has immigrant groups in an uproar, and not just because he’s using illegal immigrants to engage in dog-whistle politics.
They’re upset, too, because he keeps neglecting to mention legal residents when he talks about who is eligible for state help. Those immigrants pay taxes, but haven’t yet qualified for citizenship.
“This is very disturbing to us,’’ says Eva Millona, executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition. “It’s shocking to me that [he] . . . seems unable to tell the difference between undocumented and lawfully residing immigrants.’’
I’ve been where those legal residents are, and it’s easy to understand their sensitivity. You need a minor miracle to get into this country legally. And it’s incredibly stressful negotiating the morass that is the nation’s immigration bureaucracy on your years-long road to citizenship.
But over the past couple of years, tens of thousands of them have been thrown under the bus by the Legislature, which tried to nix their health care benefits to close a yawning budget gap.
With that precedent in mind, advocates and reporters have called the Baker campaign to ask him to explain his repeated omissions. They got assurances that Baker had merely been imprecise — spokesman Rick Gorka told the Worcester Telegram & Gazette Baker didn’t literally mean what he said (yikes!) — and the candidate meant to include legal residents among those entitled to services.
And yet in Tuesday night’s debate, Baker did it again, saying that anybody who wanted a public defender should have to prove they are “in fact a resident and legal citizen of Massachusetts.’’
So did he mean what he clearly said? Not exactly. Gorka assured me yesterday — repeatedly — that “Charlie’s position has always been that services should be reserved for legal residents and legal citizens.’’
I’d like to believe him on this issue, but there’s a pattern here. The candidate keeps saying or doing things that appeal to conservatives, which are later explained away either by Baker or his people: his playing dumb on global warming, for example, or his appearance at a rally for the kooky recovering “birther’’ Bill Hudak.
If you want a governor who says what he means and means what he says, that’s worrisome.
And even if you give Baker the benefit of the doubt on this particular issue, there is still something distressing in his apparent inability, when playing to the nativists, to keep those 300,000 people in his head.
Who or what else is he forgetting?
Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at Abraham@globe.com.