Metro

Adrian Walker

Is a governor’s race finally about to break out? Time is running short

Governor Charlie Baker (right) shook hands with challenger Jay Gonzalez (left), as debate moderator Jon Keller looked on.
Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff
Governor Charlie Baker (right) shook hands with challenger Jay Gonzalez (left), as debate moderator Jon Keller looked on.

Is a governor’s race finally about to break out?

After months of relative torpor, the race between Governor Charlie Baker and his Democratic challenger Jay Gonzalez may finally start to take shape.

The two met in a debate Tuesday night, with two more clashes scheduled between now and Election Day.

Advertisement

The quiet — well, deadly — campaign feels so odd for a deeply political state like ours, one with hardly any recent precedent. There have been close races and the occasional not-so-close race, but rarely has there been a governor’s race that barely seems to be happening at all.

Get Metro Headlines in your inbox:
The 10 top local news stories from metro Boston and around New England delivered daily.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

Baker partisans would attribute it to the governor’s stellar approval rating, which is the envy of his peers. Still, we’re talking about a governor who won by only 40,000 votes in 2014, the narrowest margin in decades.

Gonzalez has certainly made a game effort to turn this into a real campaign. He has relentlessly challenged the notion that Baker has been a great manager of state government. He has tried to tie Baker to President Trump. He has appealed to party loyalty, referring to himself as a Democrat so often it seems like his new first name.

Most importantly, Gonzalez has offered big ideas about improving Massachusetts. A former health care executive, he is a supporter of a move to single-payer health care. The splashiest of his ideas was his proposal to tax the endowments of the state’s richest colleges and universities to finance his proposals on transportation and early childhood education.

But none of it seems to be sticking to popular Charlie.

Advertisement

If Gonzalez touts his Democratic pedigree, Baker has countered effectively by selling himself as a bipartisan politician in a partisan age. In the debates, he’ll certainly take plenty of credit for working to get the opioid crisis under control, and for reeling in the state’s finances. This might be the first governor’s race ever contested by two former state budget chiefs; expect to hear about reserves and the sufficiency, or lack thereof, of the state’s rainy day fund.

But in the short time remaining, I hope these two candidates will have a robust debate about how government should handle this critical moment in the state’s history. Massachusetts is booming, which means this should be a good time to think big. I hope these two candidates — so deeply steeped in the minutiae of state government — can rise above that, to begin to discuss how we can make progress that doesn’t feel so incremental, so small.

In his quest for a second term, I hope Baker can talk about how his administration is going to deal with serious quality-of-life issues, like the traffic woes that are strangling us. A generation ago, this state made a serious effort to fund schools in a way that addressed longstanding inequity. Why have we given up on that?

Obviously, Gonzalez has a far steeper hill to climb in the next few weeks. Aside from the challenge of making a deeper impression on voters, I hope he can explain how he’s going to pay for his proposals. (Since the endowment tax isn’t likely to happen.) I’m eager to hear why he considers single-payer a burning issue in a state where the percentage of people with health insurance is already higher than most. I‘m eager to hear what his vision of a better-managed state government really looks like, and why I should get excited about it.

There’s not much doubt that this election will bring out more voters than four years ago. People are fired up. They want to be heard.

Advertisement

But this governor’s race hasn’t given the passionate much to work with. Will a few debates change that?

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at adrian.walker@globe.com.