LGBT leaders view Baker as an ally, but a quiet one

Charlie Baker in 2010 tapped an openly gay state senator from Wakefield as his running mate, and though they lost, Baker now says that it makes him "so happy" to know that it was his fault, and not prejudice against Richard Tisei.

Four years later and running again, Baker spoke publicly about his brother Alex coming out to him in the 1980s at the bar One Potato, Two Potato in Harvard Square, and how he told him, "That's okay." His campaign even featured the story prominently in a video as evidence of the Republican's inclusiveness.

But as the popular incumbent runs a third time seeking a second four-year term as governor, Baker's relationship with the LGBT community in Massachusetts is not unlike a lot of partnerships: It's complicated.

"I think there are people in the LGBT community who are absolutely supporters of his and there are many of us who want clear leadership, not reactive quiet support. It's hard to criticize him in this environment because national Republicans are far more hostile and he is not that, but it's hard to be grateful for just not being hostile," said Carl Sciortino, a former state lawmaker who works in government affairs for Fenway Health.

Baker traveled to Washington, D.C. this week where he gave the keynote address at the annual dinner of the Log Cabin Republicans, a pro-LGBT group that ate up the governor's personal stories about his brother, his first running-mate and the debates at the dinner table growing up between his Republican father and Democratic mother.

But back at home, where a ballot campaign is ongoing over whether to repeal a transgender protection law that he signed, Baker's standing in the LGBT community is on softer ground.

On the one hand, community leaders note that he has supported their major legislative initiatives, signing the transgender public accommodations law and putting his name on another law guaranteeing health coverage for lipodystrophy caused by some of the cocktails of medication given to early HIV patients.

The flip side of that is that Baker has often been slow to come around to those positions.

"Thankful and Grateful"

Members of the community don't readily forget that he was among the last to get on board with the transgender bill only six years after vowing to veto it, and potentially made it more difficult to pass as Democratic leaders wondered whether they would need a veto-proof majority.

His fence sitting got him booed off-stage at a Boston Spirit Magazine networking event in the spring of 2016, where he had been invited to speak.

"There are people in the LGBTQ community who criticize him for not being assertive enough or taking a leadership role on our issues. Personally, I am thankful and grateful for the support he's provided on the LGBT bills that have reached his desk because he has signed into law some very important measures," said Arline Isaacson, a Beacon Hill lobbyist and co-chair of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus.

Baker, in his speech to the Log Cabin Republicans at the swank Mayflower Hotel, did not mention Question 3, or his signing of the transgender bill, but it was mentioned during the governor's introduction, spokesman Billy Pitman said.

Instead, Baker focused on personal stories from his own life, including running in 2010 with Tisei, who sits on the board of the Log Cabin Republicans and was in the audience.

"To this day, I feel guilty about the fact this guy won 13 elections in a row until he ran with me," Baker joked. "But for the vast majority of the electorate, the fact that he was gay didn't matter. The reason we didn't win was because I wasn't a very good candidate."

Tisei told the News Service this week that Baker's speech on Tuesday night was one of the best he's ever seen the governor give, both heartfelt and moving.

"I don't think you could find a better advocate, among Democrat or Republican governors around the country. He's been very supportive," Tisei said.

The former Senate minority leader said that in some ways he thinks Baker's message is more powerful because it comes from a Republican. "Nationally, a lot of people are very interested in him. He's obviously doing very well in Massachusetts, but national people look to him as an important voice for equality."

Baker wasn't always the champion for LGBT rights that he is seen as today. In his 2010 race for governor against Deval Patrick, Baker said he would veto what opponents had dubbed the "bathroom bill," even though his running-mate Tisei was one of the sponsors of the bill in the Legislature.

Four years later, his decision to tap Karyn Polito as his running mate raised eyebrows in the LGBT community because of her record in the Legislature voting against issues of importance to them.

Tisei, however, said Baker has proven himself to be a friend.

"I would give him an A, and I think most people who don't have a political motive would give him very high marks," Tisei said. "I think it means more to have a Charlie Baker out there as a Republican because those who are fighting for equality need to recognize you'll never have true equality unless you have people on both sides of the aisle advocating for treating people equally under the law. He's not only great for Massachusetts, but he's a national treasure."

Baker was the only governor in the country in 2015 to lend his name to an amicus brief to the Supreme Court arguing in favor of gay marriage across the country. And in his speech to the Log Cabin GOP he mentioned his expansion of a diversity supplier program in state government to include LGBT-owned businesses.

"It's great, because it's part of putting every player on the field," Baker said.

But for all the progress and progressive policies in Massachusetts, the governor acknowledged that there's more to do.

"You get the fact that that arc of justice moves slowly, but it does bend," Baker told the D.C. gathering. "And the longer I live the more opportunities I have to personally see that play out. One instance after another. Are we perfect? Far from it. Do we have miles to go? You bet."

Sciortino said there are still mixed feeling about the governor in the LGBT community.

He noted that Baker has on multiple occasions tried to cut funding for HIV prevention, and only this year did he not veto that funding when the Legislature put it back into the budget. But he said Baker has also filled his administration with people that advocates like him feel comfortable approaching, such as Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders.

"We know we have allies and access points to talk to and engage with the administration," he said.

"Nowhere to be Seen"

Baker's lack of outspokeness over Question 3, however, continues to divide opinions about him.

At a rally on City Hall plaza this week in protest of Brett Kavanaugh's nomination to the Supreme Court, Chastity Bowick, who describes herself as a "black, trans woman," joined a roster of speakers opposed to Kavanaugh's confirmation.

A day later, she wrote a letter distributed by Democrat Jay Gonzalez's campaign to supporters of his campaign for governor against Baker.

"I know firsthand how important it is to have a partner in government who's eager to work with you, and how damaging it is when the governor doesn't care. Charlie Baker had to be forced to sign our state's transgender protection legislation. He's been silent on the Yes on 3 campaign. And on Monday, he was nowhere to be seen from where I stood on the City Hall steps," Bowick wrote.

Baker has frequently faced criticism from the left for not attending large demonstrations in protest of President Trump or in support of policies that he favors, but the governor's campaign said that should not take away from where the governor stands on the issues.

"Governor Baker believes no one should be discriminated against based on their gender identification, was proud to sign legislation extending additional protections to the Commonwealth's transgender community and will vote 'Yes on 3' to join those fighting against the law's repeal," campaign spokesman Terry MacCormack said.

Kasey Suffredini, the co-chair of Freedom Massachusetts, said supporters of the transgender law know they have a supporter in the corner office, though they wouldn't object if he wanted to be more vocal.

"He went on a journey on that issue that is not unlike what a lot of people go through on that issue and he's been clear that he is going to be Yes on 3, even though he hasn't necessarily made it a big thing," Suffredini said. "Lord knows, this isn't an easy time for a Republican to be where he is on issues like this. There a lot of pressure on him from his party."

Tisei agreed.

"He has his own race and he has spoken out," Tisei told the News Service. "He signed the law and everyone knows where he stands on it. I don't know what else he's supposed to do."