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Yvonne Abraham

Stumped on the stump

By Yvonne Abraham
Globe Columnist / June 24, 2010

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Charlie Baker puts down his burger and smacks the table.

“If we don’t find a way out of this spiral, this is not going to be the Massachusetts I grew up in,’’ he says, his voice rising in a nearly empty pub. “Let me have your notepad.’’

I hand it over. He draws a graph showing how dismal state finances will look in a couple of years if we don’t cut spending now. His pen puts a hole in the page.

“I feel like we’re just kicking the can,’’ he says. “And eventually, it’s going to blow up.’’

I’m surprised and pleased by Baker’s passion for issues. He’s stricken over the sorry state of education in some of our cities, angry about funding cuts for the developmentally disabled, incredulous that some state departments are so badly organized.

This is the man I expected would be a fixture in this gubernatorial race, somebody with clear ideas of what’s wrong with this state and how he’d fix it. And I do think Baker is right about some things, including reforms that might save hundreds of millions if he can pull them off.

He describes himself as “to the left of Barack Obama’’ on social issues and is frustrated that more folks don’t appreciate that.

Charlie, I appreciate that.

But I believe he’s wrong about other things: It worries me that he calls US Senator Scott Brown “absolutely right’’ to oppose hundreds of millions in extra federal funding for state unemployment benefits and disability services, a position that could hurt tens of thousands of people in the state.

It also troubles me to hear fiscal analysts say there’s no way in the world Baker can raise enough money from streamlining state government to restore vital services and pay for the tax cuts he’s promised.

Still, I was looking forward to watching a guy as sharp as Baker help drive the debate over these and other issues this year.

Which is why Baker the candidate has been such a letdown. As sincere as he is in person, he has seemed downright fake on the stump.

Time and again we’ve seen him executing some rather uncomfortable-looking contortions to protect his right side from say-anything-to-win Tim Cahill, the independent candidate from whom Baker is now pulling away.

Baker has voiced support for state troopers arresting illegal immigrants, come out against his own running-mate’s bill to prevent discrimination against transgender people, played dumb on global warming, and tried to convince us he’s a Beacon Hill outsider, which is a hoot.

He continues to distance himself from the decision to fund the Big Dig with loans. “I was a staffer, OK?’’ the man who authored that financing plan told me. He has said things that are at odds with the facts in two areas on which he is an expert: state finances and his own record.

At our lunch earlier this week, Baker stood by all of the positions he has taken. But he acknowledged he sometimes has trouble with the precision that campaigning demands.

“Some things have simple answers, and some things have more complicated ones,’’ he said. “But candidates have to be scripted or precise. I’m running against two guys who are better campaigners than I am, but I’m a better manager.’’

But as Patrick and Obama have both learned the hard way, governing is as much about persuading the public as it is about managing the process, about convincing people you’re authentic and serious. And there’s no way Baker will get to practice either skill in office unless he conveys more consistency and sincerity on the campaign trail.

Still, it’s early. Baker has a few months to put the smart, table-smacking guy on the stump and keep him there until voters start paying close attention.

They deserve the kind of candidate he can and ought to be.

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at Abraham@globe.com.

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