BOSTON Plenty of politicians campaign on promises of bipartisanship, but once they’re elected, many fall short of making good.
For Republican Charlie Baker, who’ll be sworn in as governor at noon on Thursday, his first test is the formation of his cabinet.
He still has a few picks left to make, but his early moves have so far shown an emphasis on hiring with experience and bipartisanship in mind.
If you paid any attention to Baker’s campaign for governor, you’ve likely heard him say this: “My mom’s a Democrat; my Dad’s a Republican. I grew up listening to them argue politics the whole time I was a kid. And I learned a couple of valuable lessons from that. One of them was: It’s OK to disagree without being disagreeable.”
Now, Baker’s task is to turn rhetoric into reality. And as he chooses his top staff, Baker says he’s paying no attention to party. He believes success requires managerial competence, subject-matter expertise and, as he puts it, “public and private sector chops.”
So far he’s picked three Republicans, one independent and four Democrats — some say, reflecting their general prevalence in the state’s talent pool.
They come from widely different backgrounds. But it seems any in the fledgling cabinet could have sat down to dinner with Baker’s parents without causing a ruckus.
“I think party politics is going to be set aside for all of us,” said Matthew Beaton, a Republican who was tapped by Baker to serve as secretary of energy and environmental affairs. He was sitting in Baker’s decidedly well-used campaign headquarters in Brighton, as he waited for a meeting off the still-incomplete cabinet to begin.
Beaton owns a small business, giving him those “private sector chops.” He also just finished his second term in the House, providing Baker a vital link to the state Legislature.
For that public sector experience Baker wants, there’s Democrat Jay Ash, a longtime manager of urban Chelsea, who will be secretary of housing and economic development. He’s relishing the chance to mix it up a bit with his new colleagues.
“I hope the ideology actually does lead to disagreement behind closed doors and will cause us all to look differently at the issues that are before us,” Ash said.
And for another perspective? The incoming chief of the $19 billion Department of Health and Human Services is Marylou Sudders, an independent with a lengthy resume in social service.
With a big budget deficit looming and Baker opposed to new taxes, Sudders says internal debate over whether and where to make cuts will be lively.
“I’m expecting some pretty energetic and energized conversations. But we’re new, coming together, so I don’t see this as pointed elbows at all,” Sudders said.
Baker honed his collaborative skills when he held powerful cabinet positions with Republican Govs. Bill Weld and Paul Cellucci. That under-the-dome experience should help make him a smooth consensus-builder with staff and the Democratic Legislature — and better at it than relative outsiders Mitt Romney and Deval Patrick.
“I hope the ideology actually does lead to disagreement behind closed doors and will cause us all to look differently at the issues that are before us.”
So says Marty Linsky, who was Weld’s general counsel. Linsky says back then there were some hot disputes behind the scenes.
“And the deal is as long as you are willing to carry out the decisions, even those that you don’t agree with, then you get to stay at the table,” he said. “Actually, literally in Weld’s case, because there was a table.”
Linsky, a Harvard Kennedy School of Government professor who is also a leadership consultant, says Weld’s daily, morning cabinet meetings encouraged smart group decision-making. He’s urging Baker to follow suit.
“What I would say in response to Marty [Linsky] is a lot has happened in the last 20 years, the most significant of which is the development of WiFi and the Internet, and you can have lots and lots of communications with people in this day and age without being face-to-face,” Baker said, chuckling.
Baker added, though, that he does plan to have a weekly sitdown.
For now, it seems Baker is definitely enjoying a honeymoon. His cabinet picks are getting high marks for their depth and breadth. And Baker critics are scarce. There’s some grumbling in western Massachusetts that none in the cabinet hail from their side of the state.
But there’s been little public reaction to a Boston Globe story this week that brought to light an apparent, but years-old conflict of interest involving Baker’s designee for labor secretary. Even Steven Tolman, president of the state AFL-CIO — the state’s largest union organization, which endorsed Democrat Martha Coakley for governor — seems bullish on Baker.
“The margin was very close, and Charlie knows he needs to work with people if he wants to be successful. And I think he’s very competent, and I think he’s very committed,” Tolman said. “So I’m looking forward to seeing some real progress for the middle class, who’ve for the last 30 years been taking it on the chin and every other place.”
Baker says he will stay committed, and collaborative, even though he knows the name-calling could start at any moment.
“I also know for a fact any time you get into a tough budget situation and you have to make decisions about what program to cut or what program to reform you always end up with a back and forth with the Legislature about your decisions versus theirs,” Baker said. “But, you know, it’s a democracy. I expect that’s just part of the the process.”
That process starts in earnest Thursday afternoon when Baker will be sworn in as the commonwealth’s 72nd governor.