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Joan Vennochi

Baker’s ‘woman’ problem

By Joan Vennochi
Globe Columnist / October 10, 2010

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CHARLIE BAKER gets misty-eyed at his daughter’s recitals. That’s sweet.

Of course, he cares about his own children. The issue for voters: How much does he care about other people’s children?

The Republican gubernatorial candidate has an empathy problem, and that could explain why he also has a “woman’’ problem.

The contest between Baker and Governor Deval Patrick is nearly a dead heat among men. But women prefer Patrick, the Democrat, to Baker, the Republican, by double digits, according to a recent Suffolk University/7News poll. A Globe poll shows a narrower margin.

In an effort to win over the chicks, Baker held a recent event featuring testimonials about his softer side.

News flash: Baker loves his wife and children. As a boy, he built a basketball court with neighborhood friends. He has also let it be known that he sweats at “Dropkick Murphys’’ concerts.

Anecdotes like that miss the point. Women aren’t seeking a weepy governor. They don’t need to elect someone who could play alongside Julia Roberts in “Eat, Pray, Love.’’ By the way, some women are also unimpressed by Baker’s recent lost-in-time fundraiser, headlined “Wine, Women and Jewels.’’

What’s important is electing a governor who makes sure the numbers add up for the things that matter to families, like education and health care.

Baker is passionate and knowledgeable about every facet of government. He speaks with real zeal about the need to improve urban schools. But his zeal often comes with an angry edge. When his voice starts to crack, his hands start thumping the table and his eyes get that Jonathan Papelbon glare, frankly, it’s a little unsettling.

Maybe it’s the real Charlie Baker, or maybe it’s a campaign gimmick. If it represents his management style, it’s hard to see how it works on Beacon Hill. Politics is the art of the possible. It requires cooperation and compromise. The smartest human being can’t bully that out of people.

Baker promises lower taxes and leaner government, a mission he often describes in terms of what he did as CEO of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care.

What he did was run a non-profit health insurance company the private sector way. Lower-paid employees were cut, the Rhode Island operation was shut down, and management was rewarded for the turn-around. Baker now pledges to impose bottom-line thinking on state government. That’s fine, as long as he’s honest about the consequences. Cutting public sector employees means cutting government programs and services.

Baker’s math is sketchy. The next governor faces at least a $2 billion gap between expenses and revenue. Baker also promises to roll back the sales, income, and corporate taxes to 5 percent, creating another $2.5 billion drop in state revenue — with no cuts to local aid.

How does it add up? It doesn’t, according to Michael Widmer of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation. Baker’s package of proposed reforms tallys only about $500 million, not enough to offset projected revenue drops.

Baker attacks the Patrick administration’s switch to national testing standards as a potential threat to quality education. But isn’t his commitment to tax cuts a bigger threat?

At a recent gubernatorial forum focusing on human-service needs, Baker repeatedly stressed the need to simplify and consolidate. Up to a point, he could be right. As a former secretary of human services under Republican Governor Bill Weld, he knows the bureaucracy intimately. But when do simplification and consolidation become euphemisms for elimination of services? Weld, who famously described Baker as “the soul’’ of his administration, cut public assistance to poor women and children.

At the human-service forum, Patrick spoke about the faces behind the budget line items. Referring to advocates who staged protests outside his office, he reminded the audience, “I have not brushed past you once . . . I have fought for the funding to support what you do because I respect what you do.’’

That is Baker’s biggest problem. While he fumes, his rival oozes compassion for a family circle that is wider than his own.

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

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