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Joan Vennochi

The challenges for challenger Charlie Baker

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By Joan Vennochi
July 9, 2009
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CHARLIE BAKER finally stopped thinking about running for governor. He will run, he announced yesterday.

Baker, the CEO of Harvard Pilgrim HealthCare, is a numbers guy. He doesn’t act on whims. If he’s in, he must think Governor Patrick, the incumbent Democrat, is truly vulnerable.

He must be looking at the 2010 race and thinking back to 1990. Massachusetts, universally disdained as “Taxachusetts,’’ was in deep fiscal trouble. Democratic governor Michael Dukakis, with support from the Democratic leadership of the House and Senate, made the tough call to raise more taxes. Voters decided they wanted the check of a Republican governor against the GOP-framed perception of Democrats gone wild.

But it wasn’t that simple then and it isn’t now.

Republican Bill Weld won an open seat against John Silber, a grouchy, unconventional Democrat who was still leading the race until he imploded during an infamous TV interview shortly before Election Day.

Baker will be challenging a first-term governor who has had a rocky tenure, but can still count on his liberal base. Unless Baker keeps fellow Republican Christy Mihos off the ballot, he must win a primary fight against the convenience chain owner, who already signed on Dick Morris, a nasty and nationally-known political consultant. The general election turns into a three-way race if state Treasurer Timothy Cahill runs, as threatened, as an independent.

A past Cabinet secretary for two Republican governors, Baker is smart and thoughtful. But he’s a virtual unknown to the general public and untested as a candidate for political office. Then again, that makes him a lot like Patrick, who beat an incumbent attorney general and millionaire businessman to become his party’s nominee, and then went on to become the first Democrat in 16 years to win the governor’s office.

Recent poll numbers show that Patrick faces a tough reelection fight. His job approval rating is low. But the election is more than a year away and a Democrat, especially in a three-way race, holds an important advantage in Massachusetts.

Baker’s tenure at Harvard Pilgrim will be scrutinized. He also should have to answer for decisions made during the Weld-Cellucci era. Weld, especially, promised leaner, more streamlined government. His pledge was mostly a euphemism for drastic cuts in social services.

Baker said he wants to be governor so he can tackle the state’s fiscal challenges “and bring ideas, energy, and leadership to the tasks that face state government in the years ahead.’’ Yet when Baker was secretary of administration and finance, the state borrowed billions against future federal highway aid to underwrite ever-ballooning Big Dig costs. Taxpayers are still paying that tab.

Baker was secretary of health and human services when the Weld administration moved to deregulate the healthcare industry in Massachusetts. Healthcare providers now compete with one another; the state no longer sets rates. Massachusetts residents are paying for that, too.

Voters may simply consider such decisions ancient history, or conclude a governor, not a Cabinet secretary, is accountable for them. Either way, Baker is an impressive opponent. He can run as an antidote to Patrick’s poetry and undelivered promise to lower property taxes. He can run as a cool-headed agent of post-partisan politics - Barack Obama without the rhetorical flourish and compelling personal story. If the economy is as bad as it is now, or worse, it will be even harder for Patrick to weave a narrative for reelection. In the meantime, Baker has a lot of credibility in the Massachusetts business community. That could help him with fund-raising, and undercut Patrick’s ability.

Yet winning election requires more than money, as any number of failed millionaires demonstrates. It’s about connecting with people in a personal way, convincing voters to trust you with important aspects of their lives and children’s future. It’s about selling a vision of government to a disparate population. Is that vision strictly business? Is there room for compassion, not to mention state-funded programs for the vulnerable?

With Baker in, this will be a fascinating election, with serious candidates debating substantive issues - or so we can all hope.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com.

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