Most voters don't know much about Charlie Baker article page player in wide format.
By Nandini Jayakrishna and Jazmine Ulloa
Globe Correspondents / July 11, 2009
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Some stared blankly. Others looked puzzled.

Charlie, who?

Was he a cook? An architect? Or a painter, perhaps?

While the newest gubernatorial candidate may be well known on Beacon Hill and in corporate circles, the name of Republican Charles D. Baker Jr. was not ringing many bells among rank-and-file citizens on street corners and outside shopping centers in the greater Boston region this week.

One man said he had heard Baker’s name on the radio, but could not remember much about his background. Another said he thought Baker was chief executive of a hospital but could not recall which. (In fact, it is a health insurance company.)

But most, even those who voted for Democratic Governor Deval Patrick the first time around, seemed willing to give the Republican newcomer a chance after a spring of spiraling budget cuts and tax increases.

Patrick is “taxing us to death,’’ said Priscilla McDonough, 62, who works at Quincy College. “I’d be interested to hear what this Charlie Baker has to offer.’’

Baker shook up the political establishment this week when he announced that he would be ending his 10-year tenure as chief executive of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care to seek the Republican nomination for governor in 2010. Convenience store magnate Christy Mihos is also running for the Republican nomination, while Treasurer Timothy Cahill, who this week left the Democratic Party to become an independent, has hinted he will also make a run for the office.

While Baker was a key operative on Beacon Hill during the 1990s, serving in prominent positions in two Republican administrations, his limited experience in elected office, a single term as a Swampscott selectman, has kept him in relative obscurity.

“He needs to get his message out strong,’’ said Anthony Defelice, 64, an independent from Quincy.

Kathleen C. Kondylas of Newburyport, who has mostly voted for Democrats, said she would be willing to consider Baker if he articulates his positions clearly and offers concrete solutions to the state’s financial woes.

“I’d like him to lay out his plan in detail on a website, really show what his vision for this state is,’’ she said. “By vision, I don’t mean clean beaches.’’

Baker served as state secretary of administration and finance under two Republican governors, Paul Cellucci and William F. Weld, and as secretary of health and human services under Weld. He helped save Harvard Pilgrim from insolvency earlier this decade and put it on a more secure financial footing.

Those who are familiar with his record in the health insurance industry said he might bring expertise and new solutions to the problem of expensive and inadequate health care.

Margot S. Salisbury, who lives in Cambridge, said Baker would be able to educate voters about inefficiencies plaguing the current healthcare system.

“He has some really good ideas on making people realize how much healthcare is costing them,’’ said Salisbury, who had read about him in the newspaper.

A few likened Baker to President Obama, pointing out that a relatively unknown candidate might easily emerge victorious.

“New blood is good,’’ said Michael Kelly, 30, an independent voter from Braintree. “Inexperience doesn’t bother me.’’

Though most residents could not offer specifics about what could draw them to Baker, many were quick to articulate their frustrations with Patrick.

John H. Lowery of Dorchester, who supported Patrick two years ago and had heard of Baker’s work at Harvard Pilgrim, said Baker seemed more in touch with every day reality.

“It’s good to have someone who has been in the community and knows what’s going on,’’ said Lowery, who works at Children’s Hospital in Boston.

Still, Lisa Rivera, 40, of Somerville said many underestimate Patrick’s ability for executive management, especially when the economy is working against him.

“It takes effort to keep the wheels of government going,’’ said Rivera, a professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts at Boston who was walking along Broadway Avenue in Teele Square. “He learned how to govern so quickly. He is managing the fiscal crisis the best he can.’’

While Patrick may have Baker beat at the moment on name recognition, that didn’t matter to at least one Braintree Republican who had never heard of Baker before. Herbert E. Pope, 87, seemed impressed by Baker’s recent decision to step down from a lucrative private-sector position to run for public office.

“I figure that if he has given that up, a great job and the security, he feels strongly about the policy of conservatism and the state,’’ he said. “I don’t need to know anything more about him. That’s my man.’’