Charlie Baker sipped a hot cup of coffee in his kitchen in Swampscott, went over his schedule for the day with an aide and hopped in a black SUV, where a state trooper drove him to his first appointment.
It’s a routine Baker has kept for the past eight years as Massachusetts governor. But that daily ritual is about to come to an end. Baker is slated to leave the State House for the final time on Wednesday, in what is known as the “lone walk” ceremony. Maura Healey officially takes the reins on Thursday at noon.
Now, advocates and analysts are beginning to weigh Baker’s legacy.
Over the past eight years in office, Baker has become one of the most popular governors in the country, despite confronting major challenges like the MBTA’s perpetual woes, disagreements over how to deal with climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic.
The moderate Republican has been lauded for working across the aisle with Democrats, who control the state Legislature, in an increasingly polarized era. His administration has avoided the kind of political scandals that have tarnished many other prominent politicians. And analysts say the state remains in sound shape with a budget surplus, relatively low crime and a strong economy.
Still, there are lingering questions about Baker’s lasting impact and how he’ll be remembered.
It’s a topic Baker has mixed emotions about discussing. Baker seemed surprised one morning when a WBUR reporter explained he planned to shadow the governor for the day for a piece on his legacy.
“Legacy piece?” Baker questioned, while standing in his kitchen. “Not dead yet.”
After considering the question for another moment, however, Baker noted that he’s appointed more than 200 judges, a majority of whom are now on the bench. He recently posed for a photo with many of them at the State House’s grand staircase.
“It’ll be a legacy that will last for years to come,” said Martin Healy of the Massachusetts Bar Association.
Healy said Baker never had an ideological litmus test for judges and didn’t try to shift the court to the political left or right. “What he wanted was hard-working, ethical people with great reputations throughout the legal community,” he said. “And that’s what he did.”
Baker’s office provided a 10-page list of additional accomplishments — like cutting taxes and turning a budget deficit into a surplus.
“The state is in a very good position,” said Evan Horowitz, executive director of the Center for State Policy Analysis at Tufts University.
But Horowitz said Baker probably won’t be remembered for any signature accomplishments, like former Gov. Deval Patrick’s $1 billion life sciences initiative and former Gov. Mitt Romney’s landmark health care law.
“There aren’t great big initiatives that he drove,” Horowitz said. “And the ones where he really seemed to try to stamp with his imprimatur didn’t thrive.”
Horowitz pointed to the Transportation Climate Initiative, for example. That was an effort Baker championed to create an alliance with other East Coast states to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But other states either refused to join or quickly dropped out.
Overall, environmentalists give him mixed grades.
“He hired some great people,” said Caitlin Peale Sloan of the Conservation Law Foundation. “But the agencies are still incredibly understaffed and underfunded for what they need to do. And there was not leadership from the top that really had an urgency of meeting the moment of the climate crisis.”
Still, Baker’s office took credit for a long list of environmental initiatives, including planting over 35,000 trees in 18 communities, investing more than $1 billion to deal with climate change and signing legislation requiring utilities to use more offshore wind and other sources of clean energy.
And Baker has kept working in his final days, including making judicial appointments and working with people throughout the state.
He is often on the phone while riding to and from events in his government vehicle. But at 8 a.m., Baker told a reporter it was too early to reach anyone, so they listened to the radio instead.
“Nobody’s awake yet,” he said. “Or they all think I’m dead, and they’re just ignoring me.”
For the last eight years, Baker has gone to work in the state-owned SUV. But in the past, he says, he often used public transit. And one of his biggest challenges has been trying to repair Greater Boston’s aging transit system.
Shortly after Baker’s inauguration in 2015, the MBTA largely shutdown after a major snowstorm following his inauguration, in what seemed like the first of many problems for the T.
In the past year alone, the MBTA has been dogged by breakdowns, derailments, delays and crashes. Some people have even died, including one Red Line passenger who was dragged to his death after his arm got caught in the door of a train and a Boston University professor who plunged to his death after climbing a broken staircase near JFK station. The Federal Transit Administration issued a damning report on safety problems in September and ordered the T to address them.
That’s despite all of Baker’s efforts to overhaul the system, including reorganizing the T’s management structure, pouring billions of dollars into upgrades and expanding the network. He has worked to expand the reach of Boston’s commuter rail system to the South Coast. And over the past year, the MBTA extended the Green Line into Somerville and Medford with six new stations.
Jarred Johnson, who leads the watchdog group TransitMatters, praised the investments. But he said Baker’s efforts fell short in the end.
“Gov. Baker, I think, fundamentally just doesn’t have a vision when it comes to public transportation,” Johnson said. “I think it was something that was foisted upon him by the 2015 snowstorm. And I just don’t think that he sees transportation as a means to solve so many of the pressing issues around this region. And so that has been a huge disappointment.”
Still, despite all the T’s problems, Baker has remained enormously popular. A recent UMass Amherst/WCVB poll found Baker’s approval rating at 68%, higher than many other prominent politicians in the state, like Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey.
And he seems to have an ease talking to voters that is regularly on display. The day WBUR shadowed him, he chatted up patrons and staff at an Andover breakfast spot, Perry’s Plate.
“So these guys, they’re telling me over here that the bacon, egg and cheese sandwich is really good,” Baker told the owner. “Can I get four of those to go?”
“Thank you, governor,” said Matthew Perry, the diner’s owner. “I really appreciate your hard work the last eight years.”
In Morning Consult polls, Baker has regularly ranked as one of the nation’s most popular governors. And he has remained there, despite some difficult days during the pandemic.
Massachusetts was one of the states hit hardest early on, including a biotech event in Boston that became a super spreader event and waves of deaths in nursing homes; the state said 76 veterans died in the state-run Holyoke Soldiers’ Home alone in 2020 (and attorneys for families estimated the death total ultimately reached 84). Some lawmakers criticized Baker for not doing more to protect residents.
But Baker also won praise for consulting with experts, holding daily news briefings for the public and trying to find ways to slow the spread of the virus.
“The response was professional and comprehensive and as good as we could have hoped for,” said John McDonough, of the Harvard Chan School of Public Health. “I think, in the face of all of the uncertainty.”
In the end, Massachusetts wound up with a lower death rate than most other states.
Baker concluded his day with an address at Harvard, then headed back home to Swampscott in his state-owned vehicle.
But after he ends his term as governor on Thursday, Baker says he looks forward to getting back behind the wheel of his own car: a 1966 Ford Mustang he bought for $300 in 1980 and retooled with friends.
“It’s hopefully the vehicle that I will take when I leave the State House,” he said.
In March, Baker will start a new routine, when he becomes president of the NCAA — and takes on a new set of challenges.