Right around the time Governor Charlie Baker got his start in Beacon Hill politics, the Needham native made his first visit to the place on the North Shore he’s called home ever since—Swampscott.
Baker and his wife, Lauren, trekked up from Boston to visit friends renting a house in Swampscott, and before heading back to the city, they took a detour to Hadley Elementary School. The Bakers’ then-two-year-old son dangled on a swing set, and as the sun went down on a scorching August day, the breeze rolled in off the ocean. The scene impressed them enough to call a Realtor, and soon after, they found a home on Banks Road with the small-town charm they were seeking. “At the first house we lived in, we could literally stand on our front porch and have a conversation with our neighbors, who are still our best friends, without even really raising our voices,” Baker says.
In the 23 years since then, much has changed for Baker beyond moving into his current home on Monument Avenue. He’s risen from state cabinet official to high-powered healthcare CEO, from Republican contender who stumbled the first time around to 72nd governor of the Commonwealth, enjoying bipartisan approval. And as his public profile has grown, the virtues of life in Swampscott have kept Baker happily anchored to the North Shore.
The year that Baker and his family moved to Swampscott also marked the start of his time serving under governors William Weld and the late Paul Cellucci, first as Secretary of Health and Human Services and later as Secretary of Administration and Finance. Working under a pair of Republican governors overseeing a blue state shaped Baker’s lasting attitudes toward the sort of bipartisanship that spurred him to fill his cabinet with folks representing a mix of political dispositions. “One of the things that [Weld and Cellucci] did was not worry very much about was what letter people had after their names,” he says. “Instead, they just focused on finding common ground where they could and recognizing that this is a democracy. You don’t always get your own way, and you seek compromise when it makes sense to do so.”
After stepping into the private sector and taking the mantle as CEO of Harvard Pilgrim Healthcare, Baker waded into local politics, serving Swampscott as a selectman beginning in 2004. It was a lesson in accountability, he says: When your constituents know your home phone number and where you get your coffee, there’s no place to hide. “That’s actually a really good thing,” he says. “It’s not like there’s a phalanx of paid lobbyists between you and the people who put you there, and I liked that.”
At the same time, he says he’s a husband and father above all else, and he’s grateful that his fellow Swampscott residents left his wife and three children alone while he embarked on two hotly contested campaigns for governor. “One of the things you worry about when you run statewide is that somehow it will splash back on your family, especially on your kids,” he says. “The folks in Swampscott, to my everlasting gratitude, could not have been better about taking them off the table.”
Licking his wounds after losing in 2010 was a learning experience,
one that resulted in a new approach to campaigning four years later, Baker says: Relax, be yourself, and wear jeans if you want to. After winning the election in 2014, those first weeks occupying the highest office in the state offered their own lessons. “One of the things about this job is you don’t always know what you’re going to be talking about,” Baker says. Within weeks of his inauguration speech, vicious winter storms exposed the frailties of the MBTA, prompting a major overhaul of its management and finances. (“Sometimes Mother Nature throws you a curveball,” he admits.) But Baker says he’s still committed to the issues he outlined at the State House last January: addressing the Commonwealth’s opioid crisis, fixing the Registry of Motor Vehicles, closing the achievement gap in the education system, and strengthening the state’s economy. “That doesn’t solve all of our problems, but I think it takes care of the ones that people care about the most.”
It’s been nearly a year since Baker’s election, and while his job requires dividing time and attention across the Commonwealth, he still has a soft spot for the North Shore. There’s the familiarity of his home in Swampscott and the taken-for-granted conveniences that surround it, like its sidewalks. (“That may sound kind of silly, but you don’t have to get in the car to go anywhere in Swampscott,” Baker says.) There are the restaurants in Salem and Newburyport. There’s Lynch Park in Beverly, and the comeback-in-progress along the Gloucester waterfront. “There aren’t a lot of places on the North Shore that I haven’t been, and I like all of ’em,” he says. “That sounds a little political, but it’s true.”