The Patrick administration is holding three days of hearings this week focused on controlling rising health care costs, a matter of vital state policy — and political importance to a governor seeking re-election.
Democrat Deval Patrick, facing a stiff challenge from Republican Charles Baker, is increasingly seeking opportunities to differentiate himself from the former Harvard Pilgrim Health Care president, and the national and local health insurance debate is providing fertile ground for him to define his opponent.
Last week, Patrick used the otherwise routine occasion of testifying before a legislative committee to pivot into an unbridled attack on Baker.
The governor accused his rival of being absent from the debate about cost controls, telling reporters, “Charlie Baker is one of those people who came up, and frankly, you know, I’d like to see him express himself and show some support here. I’d like to see the other candidates show up on this subject. There’s a lot of talk in this campaign, and in this town to tell you the truth. We need some action, and we need it now.”
On Friday, Patrick issued a statement, saying: “Charlie Baker spent nine years calling the shots as CEO of a health insurance company, and all we have seen are skyrocketing health care coverage costs during that time.”
This week’s hearings will provide another occasion for the governor to drive home the same point.
The Baker camp says the “calculated meltdown” reveals Patrick now considers it a two-person race, proof he can no longer rely on Treasurer Timothy Cahill — a former Democrat running for governor as an independent — to siphon off some of Baker’s vote this fall and indirectly help Patrick.
Community organizer Grace Ross is also seeking the Democratic nomination, while Jill Stein plans to run under the Green-Rainbow Party banner. Baker himself is facing a challenge from fellow Republican Christy Mihos.
“Whether the governor likes it or not, the election will be a referendum on his failed record on the economy,” said Baker campaign manager Lenny Alcivar.
He noted that Baker speaks frequently about the importance of controlling costs.
On the other hand, Alcivar said, “When given the chance to prioritize his actions toward reducing spending, rolling back taxes and putting people back to work, the governor chose election-year attacks he hopes will avoid the tough examination of his record.”
Veteran political observers say Patrick is taking a smart — if transparent — tack.
“The governorship has a bully pulpit, and it’s a mistake if he doesn’t use it to maximum advantage,” said Warren Tolman, a Boston attorney who was a 2002 Democratic candidate for governor.
“Every chance (his opponents) get to talk about big pensions and state employee abuses, they are going to hit him. And here you have a health care executive running amid a climate focused on health care costs. It would be indictable if he didn’t talk about it,” said Tolman.
Democratic political strategist Dan Payne said: “Deval needs to take the campaign to Baker. He can’t wait for Baker to become a substantial candidate in the race. He will get there, in terms of polling and fundraising and any other way you measure things, so you have to act before that happens.”
The criticism was the sharpest to date from the governor, who has largely been content to let his No. 2, Lt. Gov. Timothy Murray, play pit bull for the administration.
Murray himself sought out confrontation with Baker last week, telephoning reporters to call attention to comments the Republican recently made on talk radio. In an interview, Baker questioned whether the state work force had faced the same kind of cuts met by private-sector workers. Before working for Harvard Pilgrim, Baker was human services secretary and the chief financial officer in the Weld and Cellucci administrations.
In response, Murray said, “A health insurance executive is the last person who should be lecturing anybody about controlling costs.”
Patrick himself tried to keep up the negative branding last Wednesday, when he testified before the legislative committee.
His aides worked to ensure reporters knew the governor would be willing to take their questions afterward. And when it came time for the news conference, Patrick needed little prompting before zeroing in on Baker.
As he spoke, aides from both his Statehouse office and political committee headquarters in Charlestown looked on.
“While we’ve been dealing with this crisis, at least one of the candidates in this race has been in the middle of this industry and hasn’t offered any solutions yet,” Patrick said in a thinly veiled reference to Baker. “I’d be interested to hear what he has to say.”
The governor also strummed a populist chord for his Democratic base.
“My frustration has been, in the last three years, is that all of those players in the industry have come in and sat around my table, over and over again, ... and they talk about why it is they can’t help but charge double-digit increases every year to small businesses and families,” said Patrick. “Those small businesses and families don’t have a voice at that table; they have my voice at that table.”