Election 2014: Got Compassion Deficit Fatigue?

Joan Venocchi asks in today’s Globe whether Charlie Baker has a compassion deficit.

Charlie himself thinks the answer is no (as an aside, who among us would admit to a compassion deficit?), and his campaign is eager to recount vignettes of the candidate’s personal generosity. But, as Venocchi says, the appropriate question for voters is Baker’s view of the proper role of government in helping the needy.

Baker flunked a compassion pop quiz of sorts in his campaign four years ago when he said that anyone seeking help from a homeless shelter in the state should first have to prove residency. His opponent pounced quickly; Governor Patrick issued a statement deploring his opponent’s heartlessness: “Baker’s proposal to require homeless shelters to turn away people, including veterans and even families with children, if they can’t produce proof of residency is inhumane and wrong….[A] government that would turn a homeless child out into a cold night or deny a poor person a meal because they could not find a utility bill is not the kind of government that reflects the values of Massachusetts.” Baker quickly retreated, saying that his views had been misrepresented and that in emergency situations, no one would ever be turned away.

Stung by that misstep, Baker was careful not to make it again. His campaign platform this year does not call for proof of residency for shelter services. But the Democrats do not intend to let him forget and they regularly seek to remind voters of his “infamous” statement of 2010 (along with a surcharge for the transgression of flip-flopping on an issue).

With that history in mind, what to make of this? The year after he defeated Baker to win re-election, Governor Patrick proposed that families with children seeking emergency shelter first prove that they are residents of the state. His budget plan advertised that because of this and other “housing reforms,” less money would be needed for shelter programs. The Legislature, eager to rein in the sharp climb in shelter costs that our homelessness crisis is causing, quickly approved this new restriction, which has now been in place for the past two years. Families seeking shelter are now informed that they need to present some form of Massachusetts ID before their applications are even considered.

So the 2014 campaign for governor features a candidate extremely wary (on this one score at least) of being charged with a compassion deficit, and an opposing party delighted to accuse him of once advocating the very policy that their incumbent governor put in place. It all suggests that neither party puts a premium on knowing about the lives of those toward whom they are very keen on showcasing compassion. Voters, very understandably, could get very tired.

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