ON PAPER, JAY GONZALEZ and Charlie Baker look remarkably alike. Both are policy-minded managers who ran the state budget as secretary of administration and finance. Both went on to serve as CEOs of health insurance firms, where each led turnarounds of companies facing tough financial straits.
But that’s where the similarities end, says Gonzalez, who officially threw his hat in the ring today as a Democratic candidate for governor in 2018, when Baker, the state’s Republican governor, is expected to seek a second term.
“We may look very similar on paper, but I think I would approach the role of governor very differently,” Gonzalez said Monday in an interview at a Boston law office. “He seems content with the status quo, he seems focused on kind of accepting the world the way it exists and just trying to manage it better. I think managing government is important, but it’s not enough. I think we need a governor who’s going to see the way the world should be and lead us there.”
With that echo of a famous Robert Kennedy quote, Gonzalez launched a campaign that will promote the kind of activist state government his former boss, Deval Patrick, laid out in his first run for governor in 2006. Gonzalez also made clear that he would speak out often and loudly against President Trump’s policies, and that he will take Baker to task for not denouncing Trump forcefully enough.
Gonzalez faulted Baker for saying “something to the effect of, ‘we should wait and see what Donald Trump does.’ We’ve seen enough from Donald Trump,” said Gonzalez.
“We haven’t gotten clear leadership from him on this,” Gonzalez said of Baker’s stand on the new president. “And in some ways he’s been very much like Donald Trump.”
Though Baker said he did not vote for Trump, declaring that he did not have the temperament to be president, Gonzalez pointed to Baker’s comments in November 2015 that he opposed allowing more Syrian refugees to settle in Massachusetts until there was more clarity on the process for vetting them. He also faulted a Baker directive last June to the State Police to detain illegal immigrants who are believed to pose a security threat or who have accused of serious crimes.
Touting the need for more spending on everything from early education to the MBTA, Gonzalez sounded traditional Democratic themes and said Baker, a Republican who won a narrow victory in 2014 in an overwhelmingly Democratic state, is falling short when it comes to upholding the state’s tradition of bold leadership and high aspirations for state government.
He said he supports the constitutional amendment expected to appear on the 2018 ballot that would apply a tax surcharge on incomes greater than $1 million. “I think we need to be honest with people about what it takes to invest in the bold solutions we need to help people get ahead,” said Gonzalez.
Gonzalez, who served as chairman of the board of the state’s Department Early Education and Care, said he would use the proceeds from a surcharge to ensure universal access to pre-kindergarten. “If I’m governor, we will have a system where every single child in the state gets the solid start my kids got,” said Gonzalez, the father of two daughters. “Wait lists will end, and we will have the best quality system in the country.”
He said he opposed the ballot question last November that would have expanded charter schools in the state, arguing that it would only “have been a solution for a few kids in urban centers.” Gonzalez said he wants to see education reforms that will benefit all students.
Legislation filed by House education chairwoman Alice Peisch would allow districts to form “empowerment zones” of struggling schools that would be given some of the autonomy enjoyed by charter schools. Asked if that is the sort of broader-based reform he has in mind, Gonzalez said, “it might be a piece of a solution.”
He faulted Baker’s oversight of the MBTA – an area where the administration says it is making long overdue reforms – criticizing the administration for fare increases and spotty commuter rail service to predominantly minority neighborhoods along the Fairmount commuter rail line.
Gonzalez said he would have vetoed the recent legislative pay raise bill. “My biggest problem with this legislation is the lack of debate and the process,” he said. Baker vetoed the measure on Friday, but it appears that House and Senate Democrats have enough votes to override his action.
In his monthly appearance today on WGBH’s “Boston Public Radio,” Baker called Gonzalez “a good guy,” but said, “I don’t think he’d be better than me.”
Baker then ticked off a list of problems he said he inherited from Gonzalez’s former boss, Deval Patrick, that he said his administration has fixed, including problems at the Department of Children and Families, the crisis at the Health Connector, closing a $1 billion budget gap, and bringing new accountability to the MBTA. “I’ll put our record up against anyone,” said Baker.
In a statement, Baker political adviser Jim Conroy, echoed those claims. “Gov. Baker remains focused on leading a results-oriented statement government that has lead to significant bipartisan accomplishments, including closing deficits without raising taxes, reforming the broken MBTA, historic levels of employment, and making Massachusetts a national leader in tackling the opioid epidemic,” he said. As for Gonzalez’s charge that Baker has been a “wait and see” governor too often watching from the sidelines, Conroy said, “These hyper-partisan and dishonest accusations are so lacking in credibility, one should question whether Mr. Gonzalez has the judgment required to lead.”
Gonzalez, who said he attended yesterday’s protest in Copley Square against Trump’s executive order on immigration, is the son of a Spanish immigrant father and Cleveland-born mother. “It’s personal to me,” he said of his strong opposition to the order limiting immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries and halting admission of Syrian refugees.
The 46-year-old Gonzalez said his parents met when his mother went to Spain on a foreign exchange program while in college. She came back “married to a 19-year-old Spaniard and pregnant with me,” he said. Gonzalez said his father started out as a bricklayer for the city sewer system in Cleveland and eventually built a successful small business that imported sporting goods. “They lived the American dream,” he said.
Gonzalez, who served as Patrick’s administration and finance secretary from 2009 to 2013, said he has spoken with the former governor about mounting a run of his own for the office, but he declined to say what advice Patrick offered.
After leaving state government, Gonzalez was CEO of CeltiCare Health, an insurer focused on low-income subscribers. He said the plan was losing money when he took over and had just 15,000 subscribers in Massachusetts, but is now in the black and has seen large growth in its membership.
Gonzalez is the first Democrat to official declare his candidacy for governor. Newton Mayor Setti Warren is also exploring a bid and is expected to join the Democratic race.
Peter Ubertaccio, a political science professor at Stonehill College, said it’s inevitable that Democrats will try to inject Trump into the 2018 governor’s race. “I think it makes a lot of political sense to continue to raise him whenever you can,” he said. He said how it will play out, however, is unclear.
“I don’t know if Donald Trump is an irritant to Charlie Baker or if he presents an impediment to his reelection,” said Ubertaccio.
In the less than two weeks that Trump has been in office, Baker has spoken out against several initiatives of the new administration, including the proposed repeal of the Affordable Care Act and the executive order on immigration.
As for the parallels between Baker and Gonzalez, Ubertaccio said, “I think people like the managerial aspects of Charlie Baker, so if Gonzalez can present them with all the things they like about Charlie Baker plus strike at the heartstrings of people who are longing for more vision, he could give Democrats a chance to meet Baker where he’s strongest.”
Of the parallels between his background and that of the 6’6” governor, Gonzalez showed he is a policy and budget guy with a sense of humor. “You know I’m a lot taller than Charlie Baker,” deadpanned the 5’4” Gonzalez. “The similarities end right there.”