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Baker's Approval Wanes, But He Remains The Man To Beat04:57
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Gov. Charlie Baker talks with reporters at a press conference in the State House in March 2020. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Gov. Charlie Baker talks with reporters at a press conference in the State House in March 2020. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Charlie Baker, long one of the nation’s most popular governors, has faced sharp criticism recently over the way his administration has handled the pandemic, raising questions about his political future.

There was the initial slow roll out of vaccines. A glitchy website. Complaints from teachers. And lawmakers have increasingly gone on the attack.

"Let me be very clear," Longmeadow state Sen. Eric Lesser admonished the governor at a Feb. 25 hearing, "you described in your intro comments the vaccine rollout as, quote, lumpy and bumpy. It has not been lumpy and bumpy. It has been a failure."

Last month's hearing came on the same morning the state's website bogged down, as a crush of people logged on to compete for a limited number of vaccine appointments. On Tuesday, lawmakers grilled the governor yet again at a second hearing about the pandemic.

"If the governor is thinking about running for a third term, any demonstration of weakness is an entry point for a competitive race."

Tatishe Nteta, UMass-Amherst professor

All that criticism may be taking a toll. A WCVB/UMass Poll found 52% of Massachusetts voters approved of his job performance in March, down from 78% last August.

"If the governor is thinking about running for a third term, any demonstration of weakness is an entry point for a competitive race," said Tatishe Nteta, an associate professor of political science at UMass-Amherst.

Speculation is already growing that Attorney General Maura Healey, who also enjoys strong approval ratings, may be considering running for governor.

A day after Baker was in Brockton to announce when everyone could get vaccinated, Healey was also in the "City of Champions" to visit various businesses and human services agencies.

Healey meets with volunteers from a food pantry. (Steve Brown/WBUR)
Healey meets with volunteers from a food pantry. (Steve Brown/WBUR)

Her visit to Brockton looked a bit like a campaign swing, minus the political signs. But Healey insists it was nothing out of the ordinary.

"If you looked at my schedule, pre-COVID and what normal days out of the office looked like, that's how we do it," said Healey after meeting with volunteers at a local food pantry. "You know, you try to get out, you try to see a number of different sites and places. You know, today it was great to visit a couple of places that we're supporting as an office. So you just try to make the most of those experiences."

Baker has sidestepped questions about whether he will run again. His top campaign aide Jim Conroy claims Baker’s just not focused on politics right now.

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"He's been focused on sort of managing the Commonwealth through the pandemic in its various stages," Conroy said. "Now he is laser-focused on the vaccination. At this point, you know, the governor's just not really paying attention to public polls or politics in general."

But Baker didn’t sound like he was tired of the job in an interview with WBUR's Morning Edition last week.

"Both the lieutenant governor and I have been incredibly blessed to have the opportunity to do these jobs on behalf of the people of Massachusetts," the governor told WBUR's Bob Oakes. "I lived here most of my life. I spent a big part of my career in state and local government. I really believe in the power and the importance of state and local government. And we have a ton of work to do even once we get past this pandemic to try to help people find a way back. There's plenty to do here."

And Baker still remains popular in Massachusetts.

"At this point, you know, the governor's just not really paying attention to public polls or politics in general."

Jim Conroy, Baker campaign aide

While the election is still 20 months away, the UMass survey shows Baker has early leads over both Democrat Ben Downing, who has announced he is running, and several potential rivals. That includes Healey, the attorney general, and former Congressman Joe Kennedy.

Baker has also frequently found a way to move past bad news — changing the subject. The day Baker was grilled by the lawmakers and the website crashed, there was already a new lead story by the time the evening local news aired.

Just an hour after getting an earful from legislators, the governor was in a restaurant in Salem to announce new details of the state's reopening plan. Fewer limits on restaurants, sports and entertainment venues.

The administration insists such announcements are driven by coronavirus data such as infection rates and hospitalizations — not politics.

And after a slow start, the Baker administration points out it has now vaccinated a bigger share of residents than other large states, while the launch of a new pre-registration website went relatively smoothly.

Still, if Baker decides he wants voters to give him a third term, some analysts say, he may have to continue burnishing his image.

This segment aired on March 25, 2021.

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Steve Brown Twitter Senior Reporter/Anchor
Steve Brown is a veteran broadcast journalist who serves as WBUR's senior State House reporter.

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