Person of the Week
James Baker: The Art of the Political Spouse
James Baker is a Chester graphic designer and business owner who’s also known to many as husband of State Representative Christine Palm (D-26). (Photo courtesy of James Baker )
By now, you have probably heard about Doug Emhoff. That is Doug Emhoff the second gentleman, the husband of Vice President Kamala Harris. It puts the role of vice presidential spouse in a new light, or at least in a new gender.
James Baker knows about political spouses; he is one. James is married to Christine Palm, Connecticut State Representative for District 36, comprising Essex, Deep River, Chester, and Haddam. Palm, a Democrat, was re-elected to her second term in November 2020.
James likes his role in the background.
“I’m not a natural fit for public life, though it is something I value and support,” he explains.
He notes his wife’s accomplishments with pride, describing her as an honest, authentic legislator and adds, “I’m happy to have her back in the same way she’s had mine, personally and professionally, for the last 30 years.”
Still, Palm’s election to the state House of Representatives has made some major differences for the couple.
“My life has changed unexpectedly and dramatically since Christine ran for office in that a number of her supporters have become good friends. Our social circle widened considerably and happily,” he notes.
Constituents from time to time tell him things they would like Christine to know and he says he is happy to relay them “when it makes sense.” He doesn’t often hear criticism of Christine personally. Instead, he says the criticism often comes through social media.
“People say things they wouldn’t say to your face and that bothers me,” he says.
A graphic designer who has long run his own business, James does all the graphic material for Palm’s campaigns and goes to most, though not all, of her campaign events. He even introduced her at her announcement for her second campaign. It can be an exhausting schedule.
“During the campaign it is intense; I’m working all the time,” he says.
James has a solution for decompressing when the campaign is over. He paints. His paintings have been shown at galleries in Hartford as well as locally at the Chester Gallery and on his own website jamesbaker.cloud.
“When the campaign is over, the painting just flows over me, as though it has all been bottled up,” he says.
James does landscapes, often scenes including the Connecticut River now that he is in Chester. He sees a connection between the environmental issues that Palm has championed and the painting he does.
“She advocates for the environment, for science, for education. It’s good to have someone talking about things like climate change, its dire effects,” he says.
When he needs a break from both graphic design and painting, James often plays the piano. He inherited a piano more than two decades ago and without lessons began picking out tunes. He learned to read the notes in school music classes.
Palm also plays and their four adult sons play as well. James says when there is family get together, music is always a part of it.
“We run through the Beatles catalog; it’s great fun,” he says.
He describes the Beatles as intuitive sophisticates and then adds, “I’d love to be described that way myself.”
In addition to the Beatles, James like to play the music of Bill Evans and Keith Jarett and reharmonized contemporary versions of classic American popular songs.
James grew up in Manchester and even as a youngster he was drawing, doing his own comic books. At the University of Connecticut, he majored in fine arts but with a secondary specialty, a useful subject for his present life: political science.
The couple met at work, Palm as writer and editor and James as a graphic designer. They lived in Hartford for many years but with their children grown, they decided to downsize.
“Christine must have looked at 30 or 40 houses,” James recalls.
James found a new hobby in the couple’s Chester home: a wood stove. At first, he bought loads of wood. Then he thought he might try supplying the stove himself. He bought a chain saw and one thing led to another. Now he harvests the wood, cuts it to length, splits the logs and stacks them. Neighbors often tell him when they are taking a tree down and he is always on the lookout for wood sources.
He used to be a determined runner but his knees no longer make that possible. Chopping, splitting and stacking are his exercise now.
“It’s another way of being in nature, being in the environment, and recycling,” he says. “It’s hard work, but it’s very satisfying.”
James knows with a name like James Baker, it is likely that he will find, or at least hear about someone else with the same name. There was James Baker, President George H.W. Bush’s chief of staff, and another person in the news where the name was spelled differently but pronounced the same way, Jim Bakker, with two Ks, the televangelist and convicted fraudster.
“There were Jim Bakker jokes, but fortunately not too many,” he remembers.
Palm has always used her own name, something that began to be more common when she and James grew up than it had been previously.
“In the ‘60s and the ‘70s, many women didn’t change their names,” he says.
As for the reverse situation, James reports that people very seldom call him Mr. Palm.