Without A Strong Partner In Washington, Charlie Baker And His Fellow Governors Are On Their Own

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With an absence of consistent cooperation and clear messaging from the Trump Administration about the pandemic, the nation's governors are having to manage the unprecedented crisis on their own. That includes Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, who is leading a fight not only against a deadly virus, but against time.

It's a race to prepare a medical system before it is overwhelmed by the epidemic. A big part has been Baker's effort to secure equipment for doctors, nurses and other medical workers.

The federal government hasn't made it easy. At one point, the state had ordered 3 million N-95 masks — but the feds stepped in and impounded the shipment in New York.

"We have been chasing personal protective equipment, especially N-95 masks, basically as much as we've been awake for the past few weeks since we lost that shipment that we lost at the Port of New York," Baker said last week.

Frustrated, the Baker administration pursued another avenue. It worked with Chinese diplomats and private connections, including the Kraft family, owners of the Patriots, to secure a new shipment of more than 1 million masks, which were picked up and delivered back to Boston on the Patriots team jet. After the shipment landed, Baker talked emotionally about wanting to help front-line medical workers — many of whom had told him about their fears of getting sick with COVID-19.

"They don't talk about getting [sick] themselves because they're worried about what it might mean to them," Baker said. "Their greatest fear is about infecting a family member — a grandmother, a father, a neighbor, a child. You hear enough of those stories and you get pretty bent about your inability to help."

The moment speaks to a challenge faced by many governors struggling to lead their states through the coronavirus crisis without close support from the federal government.

Deval Patrick, the former Massachusetts governor, called Washington's response "insufficient," and said it's creating big challenges for states.

"Hearing governors competing with each other for critical equipment and supplies for health care workers who are facing catastrophe — it's not what I'd want," Patrick said. "And it's not enough for the president to be a bystander."

Patrick led the state through a different catastrophe — the Boston Marathon bombing. Patrick said that back then, by contrast, when the city of Boston and the state were in need, the federal government, led by President Obama, stepped up in a big way.

"Because that's what we knew it was going to take to get to the bottom of the crime — but also to help us recover, to deal with the longterm emotional wound," Patrick said. "And I think the president showing up at our inter-faith service was an indication that he understood that."

By contrast, President Trump appears to be odds with some of the country's governors.

"We have a federal stockpile, and they have state stockpiles," Trump said at a recent White House briefing. "And frankly, many of the states were totally unprepared for this, and we had to go into the federal stockpile. But we're not an ordering clerk."

Though Baker, a Republican, has expressed frustration about competing with the feds — he hasn't lashed out at the Trump administration as other governors have.

Jennifer Nassour, the former chair the state Republican Party, said that as a former CEO of a health care company, Baker is uniquely prepared for this moment. She gives Baker high marks for navigating the crisis  — including getting the mask shipment from China.

"I think that is one of those examples of 'You know what? I'm not going to wait for anyone to do this for me. I'm going to figure out a way to get this done,'" Nassour said.

"Many other states could not have done that," said Jim Stergios, executive director of the Pioneer Institute. "He is someone who knows how to work with businesses."

Stergios also commended Baker for the public-private collaboration with Partners In Health on contact tracing — an ambitious effort to track the spread of the virus and isolate it. Some say the initiative comes too late, but Stergios said he admires the effort and the way Baker has put it together.

"This is the first governor [I know of to do this] — and to do it through a partnership where he's not trying to say the government has to do it all," he said.

But Stergios doesn't feel the same way about all of Baker's efforts. He said the governor has given short shrift to the fate of public school students across the state who might well be out of school until next September.

"There's already a loss of learning over the summer," he said. "Now, we're gonna double that."

In the same way Baker focused on delivering the face masks, Stergios said he wants Baker to make investments and forge partnerships to ensure that high quality curricula, internet access and smart technology are delivered to all students, especially those from low-income families.

And Baker has other critics, including state Rep. Mike Connolly of Somerville, who was among dozens of elected officials who wanted Baker to declare a stay-at-home order earlier than he did — and would now like to see him go further.

"Certainly the stay-at-home advisory was a great first step, but unfortunately the reports we're getting right now is that the beaches and the state parks are more crowded than they've ever been," he said.

Baker has now limited access to beaches. But Connolly said Baker needs to use his authority more forcefully to compel people to stay home — and to shut down more construction projects in the state.

But even Connolly gives Baker credit for the work he's done to protect medical workers. And he says that without a strong partner in Washington, Baker — and the other governors — are essentially on their own.

This segment aired on April 8, 2020.


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Anthony Brooks Senior Political Reporter
Anthony Brooks is WBUR's senior political reporter.



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