Democrat Jay Gonzalez is facing a steep uphill climb in his bid to unseat Republican Charlie Baker, who’s become known as one of the most popular governors in America.
Gonzalez, who lives in Needham with his wife and two daughters, served as an official in the Patrick administration, but he is struggling with name recognition. A recent WBUR poll found 45 percent of those surveyed had never heard of Gonzalez; 37 percent of Democrats hadn't heard of him, either.
Despite being a Republican in a heavily-Democratic state, Baker polled much higher than Gonzalez — 68 to 24 percent. Baker would even get 55 percent of the Democratic vote.
So it’s no surprise that Gonzalez has been campaigning with a sense of urgency.
“When you go out and knock on some doors today, there are going to be a few people who say ‘I’m fine with Charlie Baker. I think he’s doing a good job.’ And I want you to ask them why. The answer usually will be something like: ‘He seems nice! I’m really glad he isn’t one of those crazy right-wing extremists. Aren’t we
so lucky!’ That’s your opening,” Gonzalez told a crowd of Democratic volunteers on a recent Saturday in Lynn.
“That’s when you tell them that the measure of whether our governor is doing a good job shouldn’t be that he’s nice and isn’t crazy. Just because Donald Trump has set the bar so low doesn’t mean ‘nice and not crazy’ is good enough!”
Longtime Lynn resident Barbara Barrington was in the crowd. Barrington, who says she has voted Democratic in the past, had come out to canvass for candidates like Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey. She also wanted to hear what Gonzalez had to say.
“I am very impressed, really,” Barrington said. “Jay has a very positive agenda, and plans and goals. Our transit system is in need of overhauling, and our public education system. So I’m switching over to Jay.”
But elsewhere, Gonzalez continues to struggle with visibility.
“Is he going to be running for governor?” asked Mike Garber at the Bedford Day fair, where Gonzalez was also campaigning.
Garber, who owns Bedford Dental Associates, says he voted for Baker four years ago — and he doesn’t regret it.
“I think he’s done a really good job,” Garber said. “You know he’s really a bureaucrat, that’s really his strong point. He’s also a guy who is absolutely neutral. So as a Republican in Massachusetts he is able to bring people together who are Democrats and sit at the table and talk about ways of fixing things.”
When asked if he’d consider voting for Gonzalez, Garber was blunt.
“I don’t really know enough about him.”
In trying to peel independents and Democrats away from Baker, Gonzalez is counting on Massachusetts’ widespread revulsion at Trump.
“There are areas where Charlie Baker is complicit — like immigration issues — with what Donald Trump is trying to do,” Gonzalez told WBUR at his campaign headquarters in Cambridge. “Or he’s not forceful enough in pushing back on some of the policies and rhetoric of Donald Trump. He endorsed Geoff Diehl to replace Elizabeth Warren as our United States senator. Geoff Diehl was the co-chair of Donald Trump's campaign in Massachusetts.”
On paper, Gonzalez and Baker have similar backgrounds: They’ve both been insurance company executives and they’ve both served as budget chiefs for different governors.
But Gonzalez is now trying to dent Baker’s reputation as a solid manager. Just this week he called for the governor to fire a laundry list of administration officials --including the head of the state police, the state public safety secretary and the head of the MBTA — for various controversies.
In the wake of the recent natural gas disaster in the Merrimack Valley, Gonzalez has also knocked Baker for allowing the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities to remain understaffed.
“If you put a gas pipeline in your house, it needs to be inspected and permitted. But we don’t take that proactive approach when the gas companies are working on the main transmission lines,” Gonzalez said. “And I think we should hire multiple times the numbers of inspectors we have.”
Gonzalez also tries to characterize Baker as someone who lacks vision and only reluctantly wades into controversy.
“He basically accepts the world the way it exists. His number one operating principle is ‘no more money’ — ‘Where are we, what do we have, what’s the best we can do?’ ” Gonzalez said. “Whereas I’m not satisfied with the status quo. The status quo is not working for most working families in this state.”
Gonzalez has proposed to fund sweeping transportation and education plans by taxing the endowments of the state’s richest private universities to the collective tune of $1 billion per year. Under this plan, Harvard alone would foot over half a billion dollars annually and MIT over $200 million.
He also supports universal health care in Massachusetts.
“Massachusetts is a national leader in being one of the most expensive places in the world for health care. While everybody has coverage, the coverage doesn’t feel like coverage for many people — it’s too expensive, and we can and need to improve the system,” he said. “So, I’m a former health insurance executive who thinks we need to get rid of insurance companies. We will save money.”
Back at the canvassing event in Lynn, Democrat France Martins of Peabody said she’s seen the challenge Gonzalez is facing firsthand.
“When I’ve been doing the canvassing, I almost feel like people are willing to split the ballot — Charlie Baker at the top and then Democrats down the line.”
Yet Gonzalez remains the optimistic.
“If there’s anything we’ve learned from races across the country and from the primary here in Massachusetts a few weeks ago, incumbency and money and special interests and pundits and polls don’t decide elections — people do.”
This segment aired on September 28, 2018.