Charlie Baker out on the campaign trail in 2010. Baker is running for governor in Massachusetts, and joined Jim and Margery to talk about his candidacy.

Credit: Mark Nassal / Flickr

Charlie Baker: 'The Only Poll That Really Matters Is Election Day'

February 5, 2014

Massachusetts gubernatorial hopeful Charlie Baker stopped by Studio Three for Boston Public Radio's second round of interviews with the candidates. Baker talked to Jim Braude and Margery Eagan about a new Suffolk University and Boston Herald poll showing him trailing Democratic candidate Martha Coakley; problems at the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families; gun control; and the appropriate use of the federal death penalty in cases like the trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

A new poll has you down by 13 points to Mass. Attorney General Martha Coakley. What do you make of that?

As I've said many times and will continue to say, the only poll that really matters is Election Day. And I learned that the hard way in 2010.

I'm really happy with the response we're getting from voters out there, doesn't matter what their stripe is. People are really interested in having somebody with real-world private sector as well as public-sector experience on Beacon Hill. People want somebody who knows something about healthcare and can deal with the mess that's been created by the Health Connector and federal healthcare reform here in Massachusetts. People want somebody who can be a check on the legislature, and I think I check all those boxes.

Do you know independent candidate Jeff McCormick? Do his deep pockets make you nervous?

I'm running for governor. I plan to continue to run for governor, and I'm going to make my case to the voters on what I believe we can do to increase jobs and improve our economy, and as I've talked to you before, close the achievement gap in schools, make higher ed less expensive, and create great communities. My view on this is very simple. I'm going to communicate and talk to people about my message, collect data and information from them as I wander around the state, and have a chance to engage with voters. I think, come election day, we'll do just fine.

Seventy percent of Massachusetts voters thinks there's a system-wide failure at the Department of Children and Families. You had a lot of experience in Gov. Bill Weld's administration supervising the Department of Social Services. How would you fix DCF?

There are six key elements to measuring how the department is doing in taking care of kids, by region. (...) Everybody thinks about this agency as sort of a big blob. The way to really go at this is to say, What's going on in region one, What's going on in region two, and then finding the places where you have problems, which would come up if you actually did some of this work and made some of this information available, and then go after it. Because, I do believe that we do have a systemic problem here.

The second thing I'd say — and we issued a statement on this this morning — the state, the Governor, the Attorney General should stop fighting the suit which clearly raised a whole series of significant problems, systemic, at the department last year, and start engaging in settlement discussions.

It's a federal lawsuit brought by a children's rights group.

They basically laid out a case and used a whole bunch of sad and troubling and disturbing cases to make the point that Massachusetts was failing kids, and Massachusetts chose to fight them. [They] moved the case from one court to another, went shopping for a judge, did all this stuff, and ended up getting a dismissal of the case. Although, if you read the opinion, basically what the judge says is, these cases are horrible, they just don't rise to some sort of judicially outrageous level. (...)

My view on this is really simple. When it comes to dealing with kids under the state's care and custody, the goal here should be to stop fighting this stuff and start fixing this. I think we're heading in the wrong direction on this.

One of the things the judge said was that DCF has been chronically underfunded for decades. What do you think about that?

My central argument on this is, maybe some of it's about money, but some of it's also about management and structure and focus and discipline, and all those other good things that generate really great casework. I go back to my original point here, which is, the way to go at this is region by region. This notion that the performance and operation in every region in every agency in state government is the same? Basically that's impossible, first of all, and secondly, that's not the way you should manage this. (...)

Use some of the standard measures for figuring this stuff out that people already know about. Like, when was the last time a kid was seen, in every single region? What is the relationship between the police departments and the school departments in each region? Because, the schools and the cops as we know, are often the eyes and the ears of the departments. I mean, this is basic, 101 casework stuff, and it hasn't been part of the conversation at all.

When DCF Commissioner Olga Roche testified on Beacon Hill, Rep. Linsky asked Roche if there were more cases like Jeremiah Oliver's out there. She said, absolutely not. Do you buy it?

I think that's setting the bar unbelievably low. (...) We should do better than that. My view on this is, until the department comes out with something that specifically lays out where we are, region by region by region, I don't think anybody knows the answer to this question. And that's what's so terrifying and frustrating and worrisome to me.

That Fitchburg story? People have talked about the fact that the Fitchburg office had issues for a while. Tons of grievances, all kinds of issues, it was an alarm bell going on there in that region for a while, and yet it took a horrible tragedy to actually raise this to the level where people actually did something about it.

Social workers aren't making a ton of money right now, many in mid-$30,000s for salary. Would they make more money under a Baker administration?

I would certainly take that into consideration. I think it's important. I also think another thing we should be doing is creating master classes among social workers within state government. Some of these people are superstars, and we should be figuring out ways to leverage all they know and what they bring to the table, and making them a bigger part of how we think about managing the department.

There certainly issues in the way the department is funded. The thing I would hate to jump on right now is [that] that is the only issue they face. One of the things I learned when I worked at Health and Human Services — admittedly, a very long time ago — was that one of the biggest problems they had was getting support from lawyers for a lot of the work they needed to do to simply process cases in court. (...) You just have to be strategic about where you make investments.

The Herald ran a story Tuesday about foster parents. Apparently, if you've previously committed certain crimes, you're still eligible to be a foster parent. Should this be changed?

I was [stunned], and I say that as somebody who knows a lot of people who are foster parents, who are wonderful, wonderful people. I always worry in these conversations that we're going to overplay what's going on here.

I'm speechless by what showed up in that [Boston Herald] story today. Obviously, I'd hope that today that policy would change, because that's ridiculous on every level.

What will you do as governor to make college more affordable in Massachusetts?

One of the things we need to do is figure out how to create a three-year type degree program. (...) I think we need to leverage the online stuff, and make it possible for kids to engage in an online and classroom-based experience as they work their way through. And I think the state should lead the charge on that.

We should figure out a way to leverage the work that Northeastern has done over the years with that co-op program. Kids get jobs, they get paid while they're going to school, and by the way, they are the standalone player in that space in Massachusetts. How can it be that we haven't figured out how to make that kind of a model something that we bake into what we do in the state system as well?

I've now been to a bunch of vocational-technical schools. Today's voc-tech school is nothing like the (...) system I knew as a kid. These places have really moved big-time into the 21st Century, and provide a very effective education that is built and based around some opportunity associated with work. (...) We should be figuring out ways to connect those kinds of schools more closely to both community college, associate degree programs, and public as well as private higher-ed. (...)

I've talked to a bunch of manufacturers who've said to me they have literally thousands of jobs open right now in Massachusetts. (...) The big missing link in this is something that gets a voc-tech kid a two-year, one-year associates degree so they can get the training they need to get those jobs.

Gov. Patrick proposed free community college early in his first term. Would you do that?

This is less an issue about free community college, and more about whether the college or the program is actually preparing the kid for the jobs that are available. (...) How many years have we been talking about this, and these jobs are still sitting out there, open and available!

If we can connect the job piece and education piece together, either by getting a kid from a voc-tech program into a junior college or a community college that makes this work, I'm all for figuring out how to help the kid pay for it. But we've got to fix the curriculum piece first, and make it relate more to what the employer community is looking for.

You were a Big Brother when you were in college. How did you get involved with that organization?

I heard an ad on the radio, and I wrote the phone number down on my desk calendar at school, back when we all had desk calendars, when I was a freshman. I stared at it for a while. (...) I finally got around to calling it, and I interviewed and went through the process, and they matched me with an 11-year-old kid who had a lot of issues and a lot of problems. (...)

They matter. They move kids. The biggest thing they do is they give kids (...) a "fan" — somebody who will applaud and stand on the sidelines, help that kid, hell or high water, whatever it is, and help them through their problems and their issues. Many of these kids just don't have that. (...) A lot of those kids really need someone to sort of be there for them.

What did your Little Brother write to you?

When he graduated from high school — and his trip through high school was really something, it was like an Indiana Jones movie — he wrote, "Thanks Chaz, couldn't have done it without you."

After we'd been hanging out for a few years, he said to me one time that I was the only person who spent time with him that didn't get paid to spend time with him.

Are you conscious this time around about couching your criticism about the Patrick administration, or whoever the Democratic nominee is?

I grew up listening to my Mom, who was a Democrat, and my Dad who was a Republican, debate politics across the kitchen table all the time. It was a very civil, informative, respectful dialogue. As a guy who spent his whole career in healthcare and government as a Republican in Massachusetts, I always managed to get stuff done and get along with people. And I think, part of getting along with people is acknowledging that most of the time we're all trying to achieve the same ends. What we're really going to end up arguing about is means.

US Attorney General Holder announced he'd seek the death penalty against Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Why isn't a life sentence a harsher punishment, and how would you craft a death penalty law here in the Bay State?

I think we're talking here about an act of terrorism, a heinous, horrible, cowardly act that not only maimed scores of people, but also killed many people, including children. It was planned and perpetrated, and there's no doubt about who did it, or why he did it. It's got all the elements of something that deserves the ultimate punishment.

My big concern about life without parole is (...), maybe it is or maybe it isn't. That's always a question and an issue in the back of people's minds. Let's put it this way, I didn't have any trouble when they put [convicted bomber] Timothy McVeigh to death. That didn't bother me at all.

But if you believed that life without parole really meant a life sentence without parole, would you still support that, instead of the death penalty?

I have no problem with having a system in which the prosecution can seek it if it believes that is the appropriate punishment for the crime.

Should Massachusetts have a death penalty?

I support it. (...) If you were to say to me, what are the five things I want to do to create safer communities, maybe even the ten things, this isn't one of them.

Would one of those things be tougher gun laws, which looks to be something Speaker DeLeo is proposing immediately?

I give the Speaker enormous credit for not knee-jerking this issue and actually putting together a group to take a good, hard look at this, and coming up with a pretty comprehensive set of recommendations. Having looked through it, there's a bunch of things in it I can support. (...) We already have pretty significant laws on the books, and I'd like to look at what we already in the context of what's being proposed.

I tell you one thing that would make a big difference in a lot of these places, we should stop cutting local aid. (...) You go to Brockton or Fall River or a lot of these mid-size cities in Massachusetts that have big-time issues in a bunch of their neighborhoods? One of their biggest problems is their police forces are down significantly from where they were in 2007.

Did you see the Mitt Romney documentary, "Mitt," on Netflix?

I have not.

If there was a movie called "Charlie," what would we learn about you that people don't know?

If I don't have to put on real clothes, I don't. I'm perfectly capable of wandering around all day long in pajamas and a sweatshirt, or a sweatshirt and sweatpants. I'm not one of those people who thinks I have to get dressed when I get up.

You said if the SJC says the repeal of the casino law can go to the ballot, I believe you said you'd support it. Is that still the case?

I see no reason why it shouldn't be on the ballot. I think the arguments that are being made about why it's not ballot-worthy don't make sense to me.

Do you support marijuana legalization being on the ballot, and would you vote for it?

I always support putting stuff on the ballot. I'm a big direct-democracy guy. I will probably vote against it.

>> Listen to the entire interview with Charlie Baker.

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