By Michael Norton
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
BOSTON — Buttering up his “terrific” partners in the Democrat-controlled Legislature, Republican Gov. Charlie Baker shed light Wednesday on a critical but sometimes overlooked aspect of governing – communications.
The 58-year-old governor is not a newbie in this area. He held two Cabinet posts in state government during the 1990s, was president of a major health insurance company, has two campaigns for governor under his belt, and started his tenure with a battery of snow emergency press conferences. So he has a lot of experience both dealing with reporters, communications aides and overseeing large organizations.
Still, he’s only been governor for two-plus months and is now both the figurehead and mouthpiece of the largest organization in Massachusetts – state government. As such, he is often the target for both credit and blame in the daily drama of government affairs.
Baker has delegated the work of probing the MBTA to figure out what’s wrong with that agency and how to fix it to a task force of handpicked individuals who are due to report findings soon. So when Baker appeared for his “Ask the Governor” segment on WGBH Wednesday, co-host Margery Eagan logically asked for a hint or tidbit from the work.
“You’re asking me to step on my own story?” Baker replied, lightheartedly. “You know I’ve been at this for a little while, a couple of months now. So I’ve kind of figured this part out. I’m supposed to wait until we actually release it.”
Aside from deliberate news drops in the days leading up to the release of his full $38.1 billion budget this month, Baker’s communications team has largely been straightforward with its delivery of news.
Baker also revealed Wednesday how in tune he is with another old adage of political communications. As much as political operations try to stay “on message,” it doesn’t always work. Reporters love to break news and elected officials hate getting blindsided.
Baker appeared to speak to that dynamic. “I’ll tell you what upsets me and this is a message for everyone in my administration – don’t surprise me!” Baker said. “Okay, don’t go out and do something with the media, don’t go out and do something blah blah blah blah blah that you haven’t talked to anybody in the administration about.”
WGBH co-hosts Eagan and Jim Braude got Baker talking about media interactions by asking him about a recent Boston Globe story in which Department of Children and Families (DCF) Commissioner Linda Spears said she couldn’t put into place some reform recommendations she made last year as an outside consultant due to a lack of funds.
While Baker didn’t say whether his office would contact an administration official who raised concerns about a lack of funding, Baker said “most of the time” his office is aware of what’s coming in the news if it’s related to the administration, and said he knew about that story before it was published and wasn’t upset about it.
“We do a lot of debriefing on media interviews and conversations with the press and sort of public events and that type of thing and generally speaking try to get better at it as we go,” he said.
As for DCF, which came under fire last year in connection with tragic failures of oversight, Baker said the agency received a “significant” budget increase despite state fiscal problems, hired hundreds of social workers in 2014 and was implementing “a ton of new technology.”
Baker called Spears, who joined his administration after studying DCF while at the Child Welfare League of America, “the right person for the job,” adding, “You’ve got to give us a little time to get our own people in there and pursue our own plans.”
Like his predecessors, Baker has continued a tradition of holding private weekly meetings with legislative leaders to keep the lines of communication open on public policy matters.
Faced with a Legislature overwhelmingly controlled by Democrats, Baker has made bipartisanship a theme of his tenure and frequently talks up his positive relations with House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Stanley Rosenberg. So far, the Legislature has largely complied with Baker’s wishes, advancing largely as he proposed his plans to balance the state budget, invest in local road repairs, and pare the state payroll by extending early retirement incentives.
Baker has also proposed an expansion of the earned income tax credit and was asked how he’d present that. He said during meetings with legislative leaders he would likely explain his proposal and make clear that he and his staff are available to answer questions.
The governor downplayed the likelihood that lawmakers would commit to his ideas during those meetings, citing the “fair number of people in the room for a big part of that meeting.”
“It’s certainly an opportunity to speak frankly about something that you’re really interested in,” he said. “And since we’re not really supposed to talk about what we do talk about in those meetings, which I think is appropriate, the one thing I will say is they’ve been terrific.”
Baker said the media “does spend a fair amount of time hunting for conflict.” The meetings, he said, are helpful because they give the governor and top lawmakers a chance to talk “offline” about potential conflicts and conflicts that have already surfaced in public debate.
For the record, Baker said he was hearing a “positive vibe” from the Legislature about his earned income tax credit expansion proposal. Baker’s plan would deliver up to $1,874 in annual tax relief to low-income working families, up from $937 per year currently.
“I have no inside information with respect to whether it’s going to be dealt with positively or negatively,” the governor said. “We filed it as a separate bill. It probably won’t travel with the budget. It will probably travel separately through the Legislature.”