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Charlie Baker's Fish Tale

In this screen grab, Republican Charlie Baker speaks during a gubernatorial debate with Democrat Martha Coakley, Tuesday, October 28, 2014. (WCVB/youtube)closemore
In this screen grab, Republican Charlie Baker speaks during a gubernatorial debate with Democrat Martha Coakley, Tuesday, October 28, 2014. (WCVB/youtube)

Maybe O.J. Simpson could help Charlie Baker find his fisherman.

It won’t be easy, what with fishermen and high school football fans in New Bedford unable to identify anyone remotely resembling the “big huge man” who was the subject of Baker’s tearful anecdote during his final televised debate with Martha Coakley, his Democratic opponent in the campaign for governor of Massachusetts.

A fisherman “soaked in sweat and salt water,” who forced not one but two sons to turn down football scholarships to college to keep them at his side plying the waters off the South Coast would be hard to forget. “I ruined their lives,” Baker remembered the “mountain” of a man telling him. No wonder the Republican candidate is still talking about him four — or is it five? — years after what Baker described as a chance encounter during his first run for governor in 2009 — or was it 2010? No wonder the fisherman’s regret at lashing his boys to a struggling industry still brings Baker to tears. That fisherman is just the sort of working stiff Baker got into public service to help. No welfare leech, he. Not part of the 47 percent of Americans who “believe the government has a responsibility to care for them,” in the words of Baker’s role model, Mitt Romney.

“The urgency in my voice comes from those conversations,” Baker said in 2010, when he first recounted his fisherman’s tale to Brian McGrory, then a Globe columnist and now the newspaper’s editor. Alas, Baker lost that campaign and, with it apparently, his sense of urgency about helping the “sweaty” fisherman and the “burly” underemployed and nameless tradesmen he also described to McGrory that day.

The besieged workingmen Baker longed to champion as governor would have to make do with Deval Patrick, the Democrat who dashed Baker’s dream of defending the rights of the working poor against the intrusions of the federal government and the avarice of the financial sector, whose manipulations had tanked the economy. For his part, Baker was off to General Catalyst Partners, a venture capital firm whose multimillion-dollar investments run more to high tech startups than fishing boats. If he couldn’t help the sweaty and the burly, he could at least lift up the nerdy and the techies.

As it happens, the fishermen found energetic advocates in Patrick and Coakley, the state’s attorney general who is the Democratic nominee for governor. Last spring, Patrick won more than $14.5 million in federal disaster funds to counter the near collapse of the state’s fishing industry. A year earlier, Coakley sued the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), challenging federal regulations that cut by 78 percent the fishing quotas for cod and other ground fish.

Maybe he heard the fisherman’s story five years ago, and maybe he doesn’t remember his name, but 'every time I tell it, it’s like it happened five minutes ago, as far as I’m concerned,' Baker told reporters.

Baker was on the public sector sidelines, earning he-won’t-say-how-much from investments with General Catalyst Partners and from serving on the boards of several companies. It was more than enough, though, to donate $10,000 to a fundraiser held by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie that has triggered an investigation of whether Baker violated that state’s pay-to-play laws prohibiting political contributions from executives who might benefit from state business. After Baker’s donation, New Jersey invested $15 million with General Catalyst. Baker has denied wrongdoing, and the New Jersey state treasurer’s report on the matter is due next week — after the election.

Baker’s mind was on telegenic empathy, not corporate ethics, when the debate moderator asked him the last time he cried. It was about that unforgettable fisherman and his sons, emblems of the struggling workingmen who once again are Charlie Baker’s top priority. Maybe he heard the fisherman’s story five years ago, and maybe he doesn’t remember his name, but “every time I tell it, it’s like it happened five minutes ago, as far as I’m concerned,” Baker told reporters.

And what of the clear-eyed Martha Coakley? She wept that very morning at the memorial service for a union organizer who fought for decent wages and benefits for the workingmen and women of Massachusetts for more than 30 years. Coakley even remembered his name. For the record, it was John Laughlin.


Related:

Eileen McNamara Cognoscenti contributor
Eileen McNamara teaches journalism at Brandeis University. A Pulitzer Prize-winning former columnist for The Boston Globe, she is working on a biography of Eunice Kennedy Shriver.

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