LOWELL, Mass.—At 6-feet, 6-inches tall, Charles Baker towered over the martial arts boxers who clambered into the Kun Khmer Federation gym on a side street of this former mill town during a recent campaign stop.
Baker was there to hear how the gym has become a focal point for the city's Cambodian residents and to meet with owner Vannak Kann, who said that while he likes Democratic incumbent Gov. Deval Patrick, he's voting for Baker, a Republican, on Nov. 2.
"He can represent us well," said Kann, 37. "He has a great agenda."
Growing up with a Democratic mom and a Republican dad who once served under former U.S. Transportation Secretary John Volpe, Baker learned early about Massachusetts' rambunctious politics, and about listening to those across the ideological spectrum.
As he heads into the final weeks of the crowded campaign for governor against Patrick, independent Tim Cahill and Green-Rainbow candidate Jill Stein, Baker is relying on those dinner table discussions as he reaches out to GOP, independent and Democratic voters.
"I grew up around a couple of people, who were my parents, who believed in public service and believed in its importance," he said.
One of Baker's first forays into politics came when he helped create the Pioneer Institute, a conservative leaning think tank. He soon came to the attention of Republican William Weld, who asked Baker to contribute position papers to Weld's campaign for governor.
When Weld won the 1990 election, he asked Baker to be his undersecretary for Health and Human Services.
"He said I'd really like you to be part of the team," Baker said. "I said OK."
First as undersecretary and then as HHS chief, Baker tackled a series of thorny subjects, the thorniest being Weld's plan to overhaul the state welfare system by requiring those receiving aid to get a job.
There was fierce opposition, but Weld prevailed. Baker said they have since been proved right by helping get people off the public rolls and into the workforce.
Baker quickly gained a "boy wonder" reputation. In 1994 Weld named him to one of the most powerful positions in the administration: secretary of Administration and Finance.
In that role, Baker was not only responsible for drafting Weld's annual state budget proposal, but he also pushed key administrations goals, from cutting back county government to overhauling the state purchasing system.
Then there was the little matter of figuring out how to pay for the Central Artery/Third Harbor Tunnel Project, better known as the Big Dig.
Paul Cellucci, who served as lieutenant governor under Weld, kept Baker on when he stepped into the governor's chair.
Cellucci said it's easy to second guess those Big Dig decisions now, but at the time, the idea of covering some of those cost by hiking Massachusetts Turnpike tolls had the support of the Democrat-controlled Legislature and the congressional delegation.
"That was a consensus decision," he said.
Patrick has said Baker was central to developing a "Big Dig financing scheme" that starved other transportation projects of needed financing.
Baker also described the financing plan as a consensus proposal and said there was little choice but to move forward.
"At that point we had a hole in the ground in the city of Boston and we were 12 years into the project," he said.
Cellucci said that while Baker had to make tough decisions as budget chief for the administration, he also showed a more compassionate side as HHS secretary, including his work to help streamline the state's adoption process.
"Bill used to call him the heart and soul of the Weld/Cellucci administration and to an extent that was true," Cellucci said.
After leaving government, Baker became head of Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates and in 1999 accepted the top post of CEO of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care.
The insurer was struggling and in January 2000 reported mounting financial losses, prompting then Attorney General Tom Reilly and state insurance officials to obtain an order from the Supreme Judicial Court placing the company into temporary state receivership.
The state then allowed the company to issue tax-exempt bonds from private stakeholders. There was no direct cash assistance from the state. Reilly said that instead of money, Baker "asked for time and he asked for the opportunity to implement a plan, and we gave it to him."
Six months later, the insurer emerged from receivership.
Baker's critics, including Patrick, have faulted him for downplaying the assistance the state extended to help salvage the company's fortunes.
Baker says he never took a dime from the state, but agreed that oversight of the state during the period of receivership helped calm the nerves of subscribers and the provider community. Under his leadership, he said Harvard Pilgrim went on to become the highest ranked health plan in the country for member satisfaction.
Baker, who lives in Swampscott with his wife and three children, said he would have been perfectly happy staying on at Harvard Pilgrim, but decided to jump into the race for governor after becoming alarmed at what he said was the Patrick administration's mishandling of state during the recession.
"Just watching the state and the governor flail through the current fiscal crisis that the state faces I concluded the state needed stronger leadership," Baker said. "As someone who had been through two turnarounds, one in the public sector and one in the private sector, I thought I'd had a lot to offer."
Baker campaign website: http://www.charliebaker2010.com