Scott MacKay Commentary: Of Mass and RI, Raimondo and Baker

Jul 28, 2017

Charlie Baker, a Republican in Democratic Massachusetts, is a popular governor.  Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo, a Democrat in a Democratic state, has just middling approval ratings.  RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay contrasts the political fortunes of these two New England governors. 


Watching Baker and Raimondo on stage at the recent National Governors Association confab in Rhode Island revealed more similarities than differences. At a panel on the opioid addiction issue, both governors proved to have a solid grasp of the topic. Both are polished Harvard graduates, well-spoken and thoughtful.

Yet Baker has much stronger job approval numbers in public opinion surveys, including some better than 70 percent. In Rhode Island, Raimondo is struggling to get to 50 percent; the latest Morning Consult poll rated her a lackluster 43 percent.

Raimondo often says she doesn’t worry about polls. But her allies believe the big gap between she and Baker can be best explained by the different economic fortunes of two states.

Boston is arguably experiencing the city’s biggest economic growth in a history that dates to 1620. Providence is showing signs of high-tech job creation, bug lags behind the venture-capital fueled Boston innovation economy.

Unemployment rates in both states are similar; about 4 percent. But Massachusetts is generating better-paying jobs, particularly in the Boston-Cambridge axis and inside the Route 128 belt. The personal per capita income in Rhode Island is about $51,000 annually, well below the $65,000 figure for Massachusetts.

Public schools in Massachusetts are regarded as some of the nation’s best, boasting high achievement test scores. Many Rhode Island schools face challenges in a state with higher poverty rates than its neighbor.

The Bay State has a better educated workforce than the Ocean State. Both states were once yoked to the low-skill manufacturing economy of textiles and electronics, but Massachusetts made stronger investments in education and has attracted more new industry.

“Massachusetts has a 20 year head start on  creating a 21st Century economy for its people,’’ says Raimondo spokesman David Ortiz. “We are making progress, but we started from behind.”

While Massachusetts captured the huge prize of attracting General Electric’s headquarters to Boston, Raimondo had to settle for a small satellite, GE Digital.

Raimondo and Baker are both seen as pragmatic centrists who are liberals on such social issues as gay marriage and abortion. One is a man, of course, the other a woman. That may be a reason Raimondo is not as highly rated as Baker, says Wendy Schiller, political science professor at Brown University.  Women politicians do better as legislators in being seen as effective by voters. Schiller thinks it is harder for women to be seen as men’s equals in executive posts, such as mayor and governor; voters don’t have a history of seeing women in those positions.

Baker won a solid majority victory over Democrat Martha Coakley in 2014, Raimondo emerged from a three-way contest with barely 40 percent. Schiller says Raimondo has had trouble expanding her appeal.

While Baker has focused on nuts and bolts government, Raimondo has had some rough patches with the state’s UHIP computer that deals with social welfare benefits, a botched roll-out of a tourism campaign and troubles in the state’s child welfare system. Baker has faced challenges with Boston’s ancient public transportation system. Raimondo also has had prickly dealings with public employee unions dating to her time as general treasurer, when she led a campaign to cut retiree benefits.

Both states are cobalt blue. A recent Gallup poll shows voters in both states sour on President Donald Trump; 29 percent of Massachusetts voters approved of his administration, while 37 percent in Rhode Island said he was doing a good job.

Like his mentor Bill Weld, Baker gets along with the Democrats who run the legislature, while Raimondo has had a more rocky relationship with legislative leaders of her own party, who haven’t been able to agree on a budget for the fiscal year than began almost a month ago.

While Baker remains a heavy favorite to win again next year, the test for Raimondo  comes in 2018, when she faces  the only poll politicians really care about, reelection.

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday at 6:45 and 8:45 on Morning Edition and 5:44 on All Things Considered. You can also follow his political reporting and analysis at our ”On Politics’ blog at RIPR.org