Governor Baker Not Giving Up On Electing Massachusetts Republicans

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By Michael P. Norton

BOSTON — Governor Charlie Baker has distanced himself from national politics, but put a good deal of energy during his nearly three years in office, without much success, into the work of getting Republicans elected to the Massachusetts Legislature.

On Wednesday, Baker will travel northwest to The Fay Club in Fitchburg, which touts its “timely luxury and historic elegance,” where at 5 p.m. he plans to campaign for Dean Tran, a city councilor who hopes next week to seize the Senate seat held until recently by Democrat Jennifer Flanagan.

The seat opened up when Flanagan accepted an offer from Baker to leave the Senate and join the Cannabis Control Commission.

Tran is running up against a tide of recent endorsements swinging in the favor of his opponent, Leominster City Councilor Sue Chalifoux Zephir, executive director of the nonprofit food pantry Ginny’s Helping Hand. The Environmental League of Massachusetts Action Fund, the MassEquality PAC, and the state’s largest health care union all endorsed her this week, the last full week before the special election set for Tuesday, December 5.

“Sue’s long history of advocacy for the homeless, the hungry, for education, and for children speaks loudly and really resonates with our members,” Tyrék Lee, Sr., executive vice president of 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, said in the union’s endorsement this week. “But her strong advocacy on behalf of quality healthcare for all Massachusetts residents made this a very easy and very enthusiastic choice for our members.”

On Tuesday, EMILY’s List, which touts more than 5 million members and helps elect pro-choice Democratic women to office, featured Chalifoux Zephir in one of its fund-raising appeals.

After bashing Baker-backed Senate candidate Jacob Ventura of Attleboro during his recent special election, Democrats have ripped Tran for being critical of the state’s new transgender accommodations law, which Baker signed.

“Generally speaking, I don’t expect to agree with everybody on everything all the time. But I do believe that’s it’s O.K. to disagree, and with respect to Dean, I think his work as a local official makes him the right guy for that job even though we don’t agree on this issue and, frankly, on several others,” Baker said in defending Tran recently.

The Facebook post for Tran’s event lists many notable Republican as attending, including Senator Ryan Fattman, Worcester County Sheriff Lew Evangelidis, and U.S. Senate candidate Beth Lindstrom.

Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito plans on Friday to join Tran and Gardner Mayor Mark Hawke for a visit to New England Wooden Ware in Gardner, according to Tran’s campaign, which envisions the event as a way to spotlight the district’s economic development successes and needs.

MassGOP chair Kirsten Hughes targeted Chalifoux Zephir on Wednesday by circulating a 2016 Fitchburg Sentinel and Enterprise article about 550 employees of plastics manufacturer United Plastics receiving $1.4 million in back wages and liquidated damages after a federal court determined the company and a staffing agency failed to pay workers overtime. Hughes accused Chalifoux Zephir of hypocrisy, citing her husband Edward’s senior role at United Plastics.

“She claims she wants to help workers, but the company owned by her husband and campaign chairman was forced by a federal court to pay millions in back wages and liquidated damages to employees denied the overtime pay they deserved. Zephir cannot be trusted to support the rights of workers on Beacon Hill,” Hughes said in a statement.

Chalifoux Zephir reponded to the GOP’s criticism by saying that “even in today’s toxic political environment” the attack on her husband’s business was “sad.”

“Rather than running a campaign based on issues that you care about, my opponent’s conservative backers keep making up ways to attack me,” Chalifoux Zephir said. “This time it’s an old story about a vendor at my husband Ed’s Leominster plastic factory. The contractor wasn’t paying his workers overtime for jobs at Ed’s place. As soon as Ed found out, he made sure that every worker received their back pay.”

Chalifoux Zephir said that unlike Tran, she supports raising the minimum wage, imposing a new surtax on households with annual income over $1 million, and passing paid family and medical leave insurance legislation. “I’ve always fought for working people and their families, I’m proud of my pro-worker agenda, and I’ll defend my record anytime, anywhere,” she said.

Democrats hold 125 of the 160 seats in the Massachusetts House, the same number they held when Baker took office in 2015. Republicans held 35 on opening day of the 2017-2018 session, but are down to 34 because state Representative Susannah Whipps of Athol is now an independent, having dropped out of the Republican Party.

In the Senate, Democrats represent 33 of the 40 districts, and are angling to push that number back to 34 if Cahlifoux Zephir can win, which would also be the same split as when the governor moved into the State House.

Unenrolled candidate Claire Freda, a Leominster city councilor, and Green Rainbow candidate Charlene DiCalogero of Berlin are also on the ballot Tuesday.

The district includes Fitchburg, Gardner, and Leominster and the towns of Berlin, Bolton, Lancaster, Lunenburg, Sterling, Townsend, and Westminster, as well as two precincts in Clinton.