James P. Freeman: Baker, Beacon Hill and Banacek

During the introductory credits of “The Three Million Dollar Piracy,” from a 1973 episode of television’s Boston-based series Banacek, there is a forgotten moment of morbid foreshadowing: Under a blue sky, as the camera pans across the golden dome of the Federalist-style statehouse, at 24 Beacon St., there looms a dark, steel skeletal structure, One Ashburton Place. More than metaphorically, it marked the time when state government as a bastion of ideas would start to be overshadowed by a bureaucracy of idols.

The 2014 Massachusetts gubernatorial election is about the very role of Beacon Hill.

Sitting down with Charlie Baker, the Republican gubernatorial candidate, at the Pilot House, after remarks he gave to the Sandwich Chamber of Commerce recently, you suddenly realize his candidacy is about balancing and restoring the role of limited government from today’s oppressive one. It is a change of approach, rethinking what government does and how it does it. Or, as one political scientist describes it, “affirming certain values and discouraging certain vices.”

One is struck with what Baker is not: a purveyor of identity politics--so carefully crafted by Democrats — where feeling is substituted for function. Instead, Baker is properly defined by action: “This is what I will do” as opposed to “This is who I am.” It is a marked contrast after eight years of Deval Patrick’s form of leadership; governor as emoticon not manager.

A theme of restoration and repair seems to be supported by residents. In polling results released earlier this month by wbur.org, primary voters overwhelmingly (89 percent of Republicans and 81 percent Democrats) indicated that managing state government effectively is a top priority. Perhaps tellingly, this “ranked higher than likability or progressive/conservative attitudes.”

Democrats display unintentional humor, therefore, when speaking of “change.” Surely, upon hearing this, sensible residents echo the sentiments of Guildenstern: “I have lost all capacity for disbelief.” Beyond, as he said, a “gentle scepticism.”

Martha Coakley, Baker’s principal challenger, has been state attorney general for nearly eight years and running for the fourth time for state-wide office. She would spend $500 million for economic recovery -- a plan modeled after Patrick’s 10-year, $1 billion life-sciences initiative, reports the AP. That's ironic, if anything, as she and fellow party members have run on a platform of change from eight years of Patrick’s grisly governance. Baker is relying upon public skepticism about Coakley’s ability to inspire and effect change.

He rightly believes his election would create a “constructive friction” between him and a de facto Democrat legislature (82 percent in the House and 90 percent in Senate) that would revive public accountability. He says that the one-party government is “more pronounced” now and hears even dissatisfied Democrats whispering about the definitive lack of leadership. Is that when the ghost of John Adams would reappear to haunt the hallowed ground on The Hill with “checks and balances” and instill discipline?

For most voters, such issues as runaway taxes, uncontrolled spending, unfunded pension obligations, massive debt burdens and assorted scandals — exacerbated by single-party politics--are accumulated barnacles below the surface of the ship of state; a seaworthy vessel, nevertheless, but slowly submerging. Baker would bring an immediacy to those issues.

Some will immediately greet the new governor.

Just 11 days after the election, on Nov. 4, 400,000 residents will begin —a gain!--enrolling for healthcare on the new Connector Web site. Its predecessor, unable to conform to myriad rules and regulations of Obamacare, was, Baker says, “an astonishing breakdown.” When, and if, fully implemented, costs may exceed $500 million. A Pioneer Institute healthcare expert called it “irresponsible to taxpayers” and described it a “‘Big Dig’ IT project.” Like its national step-cousin, it will likely not be free from trouble and require comprehensive executive engagement of the next governor.

Is this Patrick’s idea of “innovation” and “infrastructure?” It is a supreme example, certainly one of many, of the legacy migraines left over from his administration.

A considerable amount of Baker’s time was spent on the economy. Because of the saturation of codes, rules and regulations, “this is a complicated place to do business,” he asserts. Adding, the state “needs to think differently about economic development.”

Baker may be a beneficiary of a development not yet largely discernible. With Patrick and his party so aggressively progressive, the Democratic base may actually be more moderate, as evident from a Boston Globe poll conducted last July on immigration. Only 36 percent of respondents supported state spending on unaccompanied immigrant children compared to 57 percent who opposed it. The poll’s numbers overall were consistent with national poll results.

Conceivably, then, those children are not on commonwealth soil because residents questioned the veracity and competency of government supervision, not its compassion. If voters look at such factors surrounding other issues — immediate and intermediate -- it would further affirm the results of the wbur.org poll and would ensure a Baker victory.

Forty one years after George Peppard’s leisurely Beacon Hill drive inBanacek, Charlie Baker would reimagine the scenery.

James P. Freeman is a former Cape Cod Times columnist.