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Jim Baker's Penchant For Tough Jobs: 'This Is The Way I Roll'

A man in glasses sitting in front of a police plaque in an office.
Nina Keck
Vermont Department of Corrections Commissioner Jim Baker has a history of taking tough jobs, including overseeing the state's prison system through the COVID-19 era. At the same time, he's undergoing treatment for cancer.

When Jim Baker stepped down after 30 years with the Vermont State Police in 2009, he became the guy state and local officials call when they’ve got a high-profile problem.

Like in 2010, when the Vermont Police Academy was in turmoil, or 2012 when Rutland’s police department was in crisis.

Now Baker is heading up the vermont Department of Corrections, which is a tough assignment under normal circumstances.And then COVID-19 added new challenges.

The hot seat is nothing new for the Arlington resident. But dealing with this latest crisis comes while Baker, 64, has been juggling a personal one, too.

More from Brave Little State: How Are Vermont Prisons Handling COVID-19?

'Call Sign Chaos'

A man in glasses.
Credit Nina Keck / VPR
Jim Baker sits for a portrait outside his Arlington office.

Jim Baker’s office in Arlington is filled with plaques, police awards and photos, mostly of men in uniform.

Baker doesn’t wear one of those anymore, and with his stylish glasses, plaid shirt and light blue sweater, he looks more like a preppy accountant than a former state police commander. 

But he says there was never any doubt what he wanted to do with his life.

“Since I was a kid, maybe going back to fifth or sixth grade, I wanted to go into law enforcement," Baker said. "Never changed.”

And more than 50 years later, he’s still trying to get better at it. He's got a stack of books on the corner of his desk, one of them about leading during conflict.

“And in that book, the author talks about how you have to be present. You have to be awake. It just isn't enough to come to work every day,” Baker said. "You have to be awake and paying attention to everything inside an agency.”

The book is by former defense secretary Jim Mattis, called Call Sign Chaos. And to me, it seems like a good metaphor for Jim Baker.

A very stressful time

When Baker took over the Corrections Department in January, the agency was coming under fire over allegations of drug misuse and sexual misconduct among staff at Vermont’s only prison for women, as reported by Seven Days.

Then COVID-19 hit.

“So, right here, at this desk in my office, I’ve learned to use Zoom, Skype, and quite honestly, it’s worked,” Baker said. “We're running an incident command system with people in different parts of the state, communicating two and three times a day through Zoom. It’s calmed down a little bit over the past couple weeks, but at the height of it, when the inmates tested at St. Albans,that was a very stressful time.”

More from VPR: Vermont Corrections Commissioner: 'We Didn't Expect This Number'

Stressful not only because Baker was dealing with a public health crisis, but he was grappling with a personal one as well.

In December 2017, doctors found a cancerous tumor on his kidney that had spread to his lungs. He said it was, well, bad.

“My life changed quickly, very quickly," Baker said.

For more than two years, he traveled to New York City every three weeks for experimental treatment, first chemo, then immune-boosting therapy.

A man in a blue suit jacket next to a sign.
Credit Nina Keck / VPR
Jim Baker has continued working through cancer treatment. In 2019, he led a pilot program in Arlington geared toward addressing the shortage of quality, affordable housing in the area.

Because of COVID-19, Baker now gets his monthly infusions in Rutland, and he tries to work around them.

“On [a recent] Wednesday, from the chair getting my infusion, I testified at Senate Judiciary on corrections,” Baker said. “I didn’t Zoom in because I didn’t want people seeing me sitting there in a sweatshirt and a pair of jeans with an IV hanging out of my arm. But I did testify.”

His health took a nosedive in January after a bad reaction to one of the treatments. But on a recent morning, sitting in his office, Baker looks good. He’s a little heavier than he’d like. Weight gain has been a side effect of the treatments, he tells me. But his cancer has been contained, and he says his latest scans have showed his tumors are shrinking. It’s good news, his doctor told him.

That doctor, a highly regarded specialist in New York City, is part of the reason Baker agreed to take on the corrections job in the first place, a decision he admits his wife, Kim, wasn’t thrilled about.

“You know, somebody needs your talents?” Baker said. “And in my situation, somebody gave me a chance to live, who has a talent that could easily say, ‘No, I don't want to see you as a patient because I have enough patients.’ But took me on, saved my life. And I just feel like when you're put in that position, you've gotta give back.”

Taking the tough jobs

It's one thing to give back, but something else entirely to take on jobs again and again that most people, frankly, would run from.

Like in 2012, when Baker was asked to straighten out the Rutland City Police Department. The city’s heroin problem was exploding, and officers had been accused of racism, viewing pornography at work and other misconduct.

“You know, obviously, you walked in there and it was a very tough situation," he said. "Even folks that I knew were not happy to see me, because when you bring someone in from the outside, it’s kind of a slam to your agency."

Before that, in 2010, then-governor Jim Douglas called on Baker to fix things at the Vermont Police Academy.

At the time, an instructor was being investigated for child pornography, and just days after Baker agreed to take the job, that instructor died by suicide.

“So I walked in...  and started my venture as the executive director there, with a staff that was demoralized," Baker said.

In 2017, Baker was working at the International Association of Chiefs of Police outside Washington D.C. when he led a team investigating the police handling of a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. That was the one where a young woman was fatally run down in the street.

"It was pretty challenging, because it was pretty political," Baker said.

Then in December, the Scott administration called Baker to head up the Corrections Department.

“I told him not to do it,” said former Rutland City Mayor Christopher Louras, a close friend of Baker's.

"Baker willingly enters those s--t storms, 'cause Jim Baker is the consummate public servant," Louras said. "I don’t know if that’s how he defines himself, but that’s what I see.”

Not everyone feels so warmly toward Baker. Critics have called him arrogant. He’s been named in multiple lawsuits over the years. More so lately, he said, as the state's head of corrections, where he's also come under scrutiny for access to hand sanitizer and virus testing protocols within the state's prisons.

More from VPR: Mississippi Inmate Settles With State Over COVID-19 Protections

'The way I roll'

So I’m curious why someone who retired more than a decade ago with a full state pension would want to spend his golden years in such stressful jobs. And no, he tells me, it’s not the money.

“People ask me this all the time," Baker said. "The only way I can explain it is ... this is the way I roll.”

Baker grew up in a big Irish Catholic family in Hoosick Falls, New York. Both his parents were high school dropouts, he tells me, but they worked hard.

Jim Baker stands with his daughter, grandmother and mother
Credit Jim Baker, courtesy
Jim Baker pictured with his mother, grandmother and daughter Lindsey at his first promotion to Sergeant in 1988. Baker says his grandmother was a major influence on him.

His dad especially had a big influence. Baker remembers this powerful storm when he was a kid.

“Trees were down, and people were without power, and I remember my dad running out and getting into a back of a pickup truck with a bunch of other volunteers, clearing the roads," Baker said. "It always made an impression on me.”

Baker says his dad managed the produce department at the local grocery store. But he also served on the local rescue squad, the village board and in the National Guard.

I remember the first time I interviewed Jim Baker in 2010 at the Vermont Police Academy. As we walked to his office, he introduced me to every single staff person we passed, including one of the cleaners.

That’s something he learned from his grandmother, he tells me.

“She just taught me that people matter," Baker said. "And I went into the people business. Law enforcement is a people business.”

He says people used to laugh at him in the state police because he carried around a three-ring binder with a photo of every employee:

“And I would make notes in there about, you know, 'Hey, here's Nina Keck. She's a trooper in Rutland,'" Baker said. "You know, 'She's married. She's got two kids. Her daughter's name's Maria.' Whatever the case may be.”

He added that if you don’t know your staff and really understand what they’re about and what motivates them, “You can't possibly get them to do what you need them to do as a leader.”

A man stands on a porch under an American flag.
Credit Nina Keck / VPR
Jim Baker isn't sure how much longer he'll head up Vermont's Corrections Department. But he says it'll likely be his last job as a high profile fixer. He says he's looking forward to fly fishing, writing a book about Rutland and spending more time with is wife Kim.

Baker points to the closet in his Arlington office, where he keeps the various binders and notebooks he’s used over the years.

“They’re all still there,” he said.

Baker says he's been going through his mementos more, keeping what's important, tossing what's not and reassessing his long career.

He thinks this latest job with the Department of Corrections will likely be his last as a high-profile fixer. Initially, Baker says he only expected to head up the department through April. But he didn’t want to leave during the coronavirus crisis.

Now he’s not sure how long he’ll stay.

He worries about his health and wants to spend more time with his wife, Kim. They were high school sweethearts, he says. And time with her, and his family, has become more precious. 

Correction 8:30 a.m. 07/9/2020  An earlier version of this story incorrectly called the Vermont Police Academy, the Vermont State Police Academy. 

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