Gov. Charlie Baker is facing the sternest test of his leadership yet — one likely to help define his governorship — as he grapples with the aftermath of the deadly gas explosions and fires that rocked the Merrimack Valley.
It’s crises like this that can make or break the state’s chief executive — just as the 1978 blizzard made a mark on Gov. Michael Dukakis and the deadly collapse of the Big Dig tunnel helped define Gov. Mitt Romney.
And there’s an added twist to this one — the devastating explosions and fires that ripped into dozens of homes in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover come just weeks before voters go to the polls to decide whether to hand Baker another term.
Baker initially reacted with caution hours after the explosions and fires hit, calling the response of Columbia Gas “adequate.” That led Baker’s Democratic opponent, Jay Gonzalez, to take a shot at the governor, saying the gas company “needs to be held accountable.”
But yesterday, the Republican governor — angry at the slow response of Columbia — announced he was declaring a state of emergency and shifting control of the response to Eversource.
This action came as Lawrence’s mayor and Andover’s town manager were openly critical of Columbia’s response.
“I’ll be damned if we are going to wait another six hours for them to get off their ass,” Lawrence Mayor Daniel Rivera told the Herald.
Baker himself used less colorful language but made it clear he was not happy with how Columbia was handling the crisis.
“On a number of very significant issues, we heard one thing and something else happened,” Baker said.
Baker himself has been a fixture in Lawrence and other affected areas since the explosions first hit. He was at the state police mobile command center until 2:30 a.m. on Friday, then back up in the area at 6 a.m., getting little or no sleep. The governor held no less than three separate press briefings yesterday, in the morning, afternoon and evening.
Aides said Baker spent much of his time on the phone or talking personally with the Red Cross, state police, emergency crews, MEMA, officials at public safety and members of the state’s congressional delegation. He also met with some residents who were uprooted from their homes and spent time touring some of the destroyed homes.
Baker’s style differs markedly from some of his predecessors during other emergencies. Declining to wear the traditional MEMA vest, Baker instead worked in a suit and tie. And while other politicians were expressing outrage at Columbia, Baker gave a typically understated response, though it was clear he was exasperated.
Baker declined to respond to Gonzalez or get involved in politics, focusing instead on organizing the response and making sure residents and victims were given up-to-date information on the progress of the response.
That’s probably wise. The tragedy in the Merrimack Valley has all but put the governor’s race to a temporary halt, and it’s unlikely Baker will return to the campaign trail anytime soon.