Recap and analysis of the week in state government
NOV. 18, 2022…..We now have a clearer sense of what will feature on the to-do list for Gov. Charlie Baker’s remaining seven weeks in office: a final flurry of judicial appointments and clemency recommendations, celebrating the long-delayed and often uncertain completion of the Green Line Extension, and, despite his claimed distaste for national politics, pontification about the Republican Party’s future.
Baker made big news Friday morning when he announced he would move to commute the sentence of Ramadan Shabazz from first-degree murder to second-degree murder and pardon six people, including two convicted in a high-profile 1980s abuse case whose validity has long been disputed.
Gerald “Tooky” Amirault and Cheryl Amirault LeFave were convicted of sexually abusing young children at the Fells Acres Day Care Center they ran, but Baker said he has “grave doubt regarding the evidentiary strength of these convictions,” pointing to other experts and judicial officials who have reached similar conclusions over the years.
Baker’s recommendations — particularly the commutation of Shabazz, which would make the 72-year-old eligible for parole after he was initially sentenced to death and has since spent five decades behind bars — tee up noteworthy business for the Governor’s Council to tackle in the ongoing lame-duck session. His latest announcements also came only a couple of days after Baker tapped Parole Board member Tina Hurley to chair that panel.
Baker, or at least his team, this week circled another date on the calendar with a major announcement: the second and final leg of the Green Line Extension will launch for riders on Dec. 12.
The opening of the first branch, which featured a rebuilt Lechmere Station and only one new stop at Union Square, drew a day of festivities and victory speeches from Baker, his top deputies and former officials who had a hand in the years-long project.
MBTA and Baker administration higher-ups have not yet indicated the level of fanfare over the start of service on the five-station Medford Branch, but they might see it as a way to draw focus back toward a landmark accomplishment after months of intense scrutiny on the T’s safety failures that spiraled out under their watch.
And as Baker’s eight years in the corner office draw to a close, the governor has started to turn his attention toward a type of political punditry he has often resisted.
During his two terms, he often found common ground with Democrats and sometimes voiced disagreement with or disapproval for former President Donald Trump, a position that both reflected and accelerated the growing divide between the popular governor and MassGOP Chair Jim Lyons.
But Baker also made a frequent point to stay uninvolved in many political fights. For months leading up to and then in the wake of the election to succeed him, Baker declined to endorse either Republican challenger Geoff Diehl or eventual winner Maura Healey, nor any statewide candidate besides Republican auditor hopeful Anthony Amore. When Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis flew dozens of migrants to Martha’s Vineyard — an action that prompted a class action lawsuit and an investigation by a Texas sheriff — Baker displayed little interest in publicly criticizing a fellow Republican governor.
Baker apparently decided he had a lot more to say after the dust settled on last week’s elections, when Republicans won back a narrow U.S. House majority but failed to flip the Senate or capitalize on a midterm position that historically favors whichever party does not hold the White House.
The governor sought out the spotlight by inviting CNN to his State House office for an election post-mortem, waxing about how he believes Trump’s influence “probably hurt the (Republican) party and hurt the party’s chances on Election Day.”
“One of the messages from the election is, for Republicans generally, is we need, we need as a party to move past President Trump and to move on to an agenda that represents the voices of all those in the party and the people of the country,” Baker told CNN’s Jake Tapper.
It’s worth noting that Baker chose to deliver his assessment nearly a year after the widely popular governor opted not to seek a third term, during which he might have used his platform to try and push the party in the direction he desired. In his own assessment, what’s next for Baker once he hands over the corner office will be a trip “some place far” and first-time grandparenting, but his comments suggest he’s got more in the tank.
Baker stopped short of ruling out a run for some kind of position down the line, but not in 2024, in an interview with WCVB’s “On The Record” set to air Sunday morning.
“If I was looking at this point in my career to continue to engage in public service, I think (my wife) Lauren and I and Karyn Polito, the lieutenant governor, and her husband, Steve, would have run for another term,” he said. “I certainly plan to be involved in 2024, but I think the likelihood I’d be on the ballot in 2024 is pretty small.”
“I think anybody in public life never slams anything completely (shut), but I’m not going to be a candidate in 2024, period,” Baker replied when hosts Ed Harding and Janet Wu observed that Baker’s name has been floated among some pundits on the national stage this week. After a beat, he added, “If I don’t say that, my wife will be very unhappy with me.”
Wu pressed the governor on whether he would ever be a candidate for public office again.
“I’m not going to rule out ever running for anything,” Baker said.
To which we have to add: “I am not, nor will I ever be — OK? My wife is standing right back there and she will be the first to vouch — a candidate for national office.” That’s a Baker quote from July 2015.
Baker was not the only Massachusetts politician to claim a place on the national stage this week. Congresswoman Katherine Clark, who has served as a top deputy to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, announced she would run for the number-two position in the chamber’s Democrat caucus with Pelosi preparing to step back from leadership.
While Clark seeks her own path in the next Congress, the state’s all-Democrat House delegation must prepare for a different dynamic starting in January when they become members of the minority party. That’ll be a shift from the current set-up, which features Congressman Richard Neal as chair of the House Ways and Means Committee and Congressman James McGovern as chair of the House Rules Committee.
There’s no guarantee that they reclaim those influential positions if Democrats win back a House majority in 2024 or beyond, especially with new leadership inbound, though a Clark elevation certainly could help the delegation’s chances of controlling some levers of power. If it appears that Republicans will hold on to the House in 2024, that could also factor into the reelection plans of senior Massachusetts U.S. House members.
GOP lawmakers, meanwhile, face leadership decisions of their own. House Republicans reportedly chose current Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy as their next top leader, but it’s unclear whether McCarthy has the votes lined up to become speaker. He would need an outright majority in the House, and the narrow majority Republicans are forecast to wield could make any intraparty dissent particularly impactful.
Some high-ranking Republicans signaled Thursday their priorities next term will be investigating President Joe Biden and his family, according to CNN. Meanwhile, Attorney General Merrick Garland — a Biden appointee — on Friday named former Justice Department official Jack Smith as special counsel to investigate Trump’s handling of government documents and his involvement in events leading up to the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
The balance of power in Massachusetts remains strongly weighted for Democrats, though party bosses are still waiting more than a week after the election to find out the final Democrat-Republican breakdown in the House and voters in two districts still do not know who their next representative will be.
The race between Republican Rep. Leonard Mirra and Democrat challenger Kristin Kassner to represent Georgetown, Hamilton, Ipswich, Newbury, Rowley and part of Topsfield remains undecided, as does the contest between Democrat Margaret Scarsdale and Republican Andrew Shepherd to represent Ashby, Dunstable, Pepperell, Townsend and parts of Groton and Lunenburg.
Both contests appear headed for recounts with only a handful of votes separating the candidates. How those play out will determine whether Democrats pick up three, four or five House seats over the margins they had to begin the 2021-2022 lawmaking session.
LOOSE ENDS: Gov.-elect Maura Healey and Lt. Gov.-elect Kim Driscoll named Danielle Cerny as their transition director and convened policy committees that will focus on housing, transportation, climate and energy, jobs and the economy, youth and young adults, and safe and healthy communities … A new report concluded that telehealth is “here to stay” but warned that its usage remained uneven across different demographic groups … Fare evasion fines are returning to the MBTA after more than a year without enforcement, though arrests and driver’s license impacts will no longer be deployed.