DEVENS -- Touting bipartisanship and experience in health care, Republican gubernatorial candidate Charlie Baker addressed a small group on Friday morning, stopping at the former army post for a public-policy forum.
Hosted by the Nashoba Valley Chamber of Commerce, the forum allowed Baker to explain his view for the state's future.
Baker cited his childhood with a Democratic mother and Republican father.
"I grew up believing, believe it or not, that both teams on the field, two points of view, was a good thing," he said. "And you watch the dialogue that goes on in Washington these days where nobody seems to want to go anywhere."
Such bipartisanship, Baker said, was apparent in the Weld-Celucci administration in which he worked, which featured a Republican governor and Democratic Legislature.
This, he said, was a good thing for Massachusetts.
"We actually managed to get done what I don't believe one party on its own could've ever gotten there on," he said.
Health care also dominated the conversation, with Baker repeating his consistent argument that Massachusetts should get a waiver for the the Affordable Care Act.
Baker stressed that the successful Massachusetts health-care system and the new federal system are different. Under the Massachusetts reform, he said, the state made the rules and the federal government helped pay for it.
"Under federal reform, the feds make the rules and everybody else helps pay for it," he said. "Think about that -- control at the state level, which is closest to the people and to what's actually going on on the ground, versus having all these decisions made in Washington."
Baker cited his own premium increase in his family's insurance -- through Harvard Pilgrim, of which he was CEO -- after his coverage was canceled. Many people across Massachusetts are seeing these premium increases, he said, but the only difference is that their current coverage is being driven by federal policy-making.
"I'm telling you, that one we should have never gave up to the federal government," he said.
The state actually had a website that worked, he argued, and now thousands of people "who did nothing wrong" are under "so-called transitional coverage."
"We need to be far more aggressive about standing up for this state and for the people in Massachusetts on an issue like that than we have been," he said. "And I will be if I get elected governor in November."
Before a crowd of many local business owners, Baker also stressed the idea of creating a "competitive business climate."
He said that since 2000, the state has not added any net new jobs, arguing that the knowledge economy inside the Route 128 area is growing while everything beyond it is not.
"We will never be the kind of great state we should be until we figure out how to make ourselves more competitive and more economically desirable so that everybody can participate in the economy in Massachusetts and not just those who are part of that knowledge economy," he said.
Baker, a former member of the state's Board of Education, highlighted what he called a big achievement gap that still persists in the state.
In every city, there are Level 1 schools -- schools that perform at the state's highest classified level -- next to Level 4 and 5 schools, he said. The problem is that the state is not taking the knowledge of these higher performing schools and applying it statewide.
"We have not done the work of leveraging what those people know and applying it even within their own communities," he said.
Asked what he thought of proposals to increase the minimum wage, Baker said he would like to see it packaged with a few other criteria, one of them being a tax credit for small businesses.
"I do believe for many small businesses it's a legitimate concern financially," he said. "And the big issue I worry about there is people losing hours and maybe even jobs as a result of that."
The other, he said, is an expansion of the earned income tax credit, which benefits those with low to moderate income.
Baker seemed to show support for work on the Fitchburg commuter rail line after Peter Lowitt, a member of the working group that focuses on improvements to the line, asked if his administration would support a viable reverse commute.
"Not knowing exactly what you want with regards to the operational changes, the answer is yes," Baker said.
"What I can tell you is one of my major objectives as governor is going to be to figure out a way to create more economic opportunity outside of 128," he said.
Some of Baker's ideas seemed to resonate with the crowd of small business owners.
John Gervais, of Gervais Ford in Ayer, said he was pleased to hear that the burdens of small businesses were on Baker's mind.
"I thought he hit on a lot of good points today and stuff that was really relevant to this area and to all the people that were in the room," Gervais said.
John Mandeville, of Mandeville Consulting in Westford, said he sees first-hand the issue of job growth outside of 128 that Baker brought up.
"I work within 128 and out in this area, and I see people actually moving into the city -- versus it used to be the other way around -- for jobs," Mandeville said.
George Ramirez, executive vice president for Devens Operations at MassDevelopment, said the biggest issue facing Devens is transportation. He said a commuter rail service would be helpful.
"We have a number of companies that are moving into Devens in the next year or two that are going to be creating a fair amount of jobs," he said. "And so recruiting talent and getting them here, whether it's from Boston or other parts of the state, is going to be key."
After the forum, Baker toured Image Software Services at the Phoenix Park business complex in Shirley.
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