Gov. Charlie Baker, Democratic leaders look back at year of collaboration
BOSTON — In the throes of a gubernatorial election over a year ago now, House Speaker Robert DeLeo didn't know what to think of the man who would become the next governor.
DeLeo, a Democrat, was backing his party's nominee to succeed outgoing Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick and the reviews of Charlie Baker, a Republican who was in some respects already a known commodity on Beacon Hill, were mixed.
"Some of the things I heard about the governor was everything from you're going to hate dealing with him to you're going to love dealing with him, and it was fascinating to hear," DeLeo told the News Service, the governor seated directly to his left.
Fast-forward 12 months, and one of the enduring storylines of Gov. Baker's first year in office has been his ability to work collaboratively and effectively with the Democratic leaders of the Legislature, forging what appears from the outside to be more than just a forced working relationship, but a genuine partnership.
"I happen to think every major issue we face, we face together," DeLeo said.
Baker, DeLeo and Senate President Stanley Rosenberg recently sat down together with the News Service for a wide-ranging interview about their first year as Beacon Hill's "Big Three," what to expect in the future and some of the issues that could drive a wedge between their young, burgeoning political friendships.
Baker, who last week invited dozens of lawmakers to a screening of a new HBO documentary about drug addiction on Cape Cod, said his approach to working with the Democratic leadership of the House and Senate is to be upfront. While some of his political mentors like the late Gov. Paul Cellucci favored using the bully pulpit to exert pressure as a Republican governor on the overwhelmingly Democrat-controlled Legislature, Baker has largely been deferential to the legislative leadership's process within their own bodies, even if it has meant top priorities taking longer to see the light of day.
Baker said the key to maintaining his relationship with DeLeo and Rosenberg is to be consistent in his public and private messaging to the leaders, and to never raise a concern publicly that hasn't been conveyed privately.
"I hope that doesn't ever happen," Baker said. "I've said this before too. I don't think I ran to be emperor. I ran to be governor... I get the fact that it's a democracy."
While Baker has signaled that 2016 could see him being more "proactive" with his agenda, including the filing of new jobs legislation after the New Year, Baker said lawmakers and the public can expect to hear him talking about familiar themes — the need to pass opioid addiction, energy and charter school legislation.
"I would like to see it happen sooner rather than later. I would like to see it happen earlier rather than later," Baker said to the two men flanking him on the left and the right.
"So I will say yes on one and two," Rosenberg said, jumping in after the governor, but he cautioned that after the Senate voted down an expansion of charter schools last year there remains a "very big gap to fill" to get that chamber to "yes" on an important issue to Baker that could be headed to the ballot if the Legislature doesn't act.
Given the same opportunity to list one issue that each would like to see the others come around to their way of thinking, Rosenberg said he'd like to see the three of them come to an agreement on a funding source to pay for a further expansion of the earned income tax credit.
And DeLeo said generally there would be yet-unknown priorities included in next year's House budget that he will have to lobby the Senate and governor over. "Every year, I'd like to think when the House does the budget we've got it right, and I have no idea why he makes changes to it," DeLeo said, needling Baker.
After Rosenberg traveled to Israel this month, Baker said that country would be his first international destination as governor. "I am going to go to Israel at some point," Baker said, extolling the "very deep and broad" economic and cultural connections between Israel and Massachusetts.
"Why don't you try when the House is doing its budget, if you don't mind," DeLeo suggested, prompting the governor to say his first trade mission wouldn't happen until at least after the end of the legislative session and "whenever it works on the calendar."
For all the amity between the Legislature and governor, observers over the past year have sensed a growing disconnect between the House and Senate.
In Rosenberg's first year as president with a new Senate leadership team, the Amherst Democrat has tried to decentralize the decision-making process in favor of empowering committee chairmen and building broad consensus among his own members.
"We have a different style and approach at this point," Rosenberg said about the Senate's relationship with the House.
As Rosenberg defended the past year as "extremely productive," DeLeo also downplayed the idea that the branches were struggling to work productively together. "I really don't feel any tension, at least with the president. Do we sometimes disagree? Yes," DeLeo said, suggesting judgement on the Legislature's accomplishments should be withheld until the end of formal business in the two-year session next July.
"You also lost the month of February," Baker chimed in, coming to the lawmakers' defense as he brought up the painful memories of a snow-bound start to the two-year session.
One issue that could put the three leaders at odds would be transgender public accommodations protections. Baker said the three have talked privately about "procedural issues and process," but it remains uncertain whether the legislation that extend anti-discrimination protections to transgendered individuals in public places like restaurants and bathrooms will ever surface for a vote.
Both Rosenberg and DeLeo support the bill, but while Rosenberg is ready to bring it forward for a vote in the Senate, the speaker says some of his members remain uncomfortable with the idea.
"I, quite frankly think that I and some of the other members are going to have to do a little bit better job or work harder, shall I say, to educate and take some of those concerns that have been expressed to the members by their constituents," DeLeo said.
The pride taken by Baker in throwing himself into less glamorous tasks, for instance, of improving MBTA operations or reducing wait-times at Registry of Motor Vehicles branches has earned him sky-high popularity among voters and the respect of many lawmakers.
But as Baker, DeLeo and Rosenberg prepare to start their second year working together, neither DeLeo nor Rosenberg were quite ready to look beyond one-term with Baker.
"We wish him great success in the coming three years," Rosenberg said.
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