Baker reflects on challenges, progress

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Jan. 26—BOSTON — Gov. Charlie Baker reflected on his tenure as chief executive in his annual speech on Tuesday, and vowed to work with the Legislature to help the state recover from the pandemic as he approaches his final months in office.

The second-term Republican, who isn't seeking reelection in November, devoted much the hour-long speech to reflecting on the crises his administration — and the state — have faced in the past seven years, from the Merrimack Valley gas fires to a global pandemic that has left more than 20,000 Bay Staters dead.

"If we've tried to do anything over the past seven years, we've tried to build trust," Baker said during the livestreamed speech. "Others can debate whether we've succeeded or not. I believe we have. And I believe it shows in the work we've done during good times and difficult ones over the past seven years."

Baker's annual State of the Commonwealth address — which is normally delivered in the ornate House chambers before lawmakers, Supreme Judicial Court justices and other elected officials — was delivered at the Hynes Convention Center auditorium. Masks were required for those who attended and chairs were spaced for social distancing.

Baker reflected on the toll of the pandemic, the tens of thousands of lives lost, and the economic upheaval the virus has left in its wake. But he also talked about the resilience of citizens who've endured lockdowns, school and business closures and other disruptions over the past two years.

"We all know the past 22 months have been tough. We've all suffered some degree of loss, disruption, confusion, anger and isolation," he said. "But the people of Massachusetts did what they always do. They collaborated, created, reimagined, and made the unbearable bearable."

He spoke about other challenges his administration has faced during his two terms, from battling epic snowstorms that crippled the state's public transit system to dealing with a deadly surge of opioid addiction.

Baker recalled the chaos of the Merrimack Valley gas fires and explosions in September 2018 that killed a teenager, injured dozens and destroyed hundreds of homes in North Andover, Andover and Lawrence. He cited that was an example of where are the state, local governments and others worked together.

"Many members of our team practically lived in makeshift command centers alongside hundreds of emergency response and construction personnel for several months as we worked feverishly to repair the damage," he said. "It was an avalanche of issues, problems and decisions that didn't stop for weeks, but we worked through it."

Baker took time from his speech to call for a moment of silence to honor Gold Star families whose loved ones have died in military service. He mentioned Marine Sgt. Johanny Rosario Pichardo, of Lawrence, who was killed last year in a suicide bombing in Afghanistan.

"She volunteered for that mission. She was there because she wanted to be there to evacuate women and children from the increasingly dangerous streets of Kabul," Baker said. "And she paid for it with her life."

Baker highlighted issues he plans to focus on during his final months in office, including passage of legislation to close loopholes in domestic violence laws, expanding mental health services and providing tax relief for low-income workers.

"We've asked the people of Massachusetts to do a lot these past few years," he said. "It's time for us to invest in Massachusetts families. To give them back some of the tax revenue they created through their hard work."

Baker also vowed to continue working collaboratively with the Democratic-controlled Legislature to spend billions of dollars in federal pandemic relief and help put the state on a path towards recovery.

"We should continue to focus on building and maintaining positive, collaborative relationships," he said. "Because they work for the people we serve and it's what most voters expect from us."

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group's newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@northofboston.com.

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