Scot Lehigh

The transformation of Patrick

Governor Deval Patrick at the state Democratic convention. Governor Deval Patrick at the state Democratic convention. (John Tlumacki/Globe Staff)
By Scot Lehigh
Globe Columnist / June 9, 2010

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IT’S AN UPBEAT storyline that would have been hard to imagine a year ago.

The Democrats who came to Worcester on Saturday to endorse a rebounding Deval Patrick were genuinely enthusiastic about their candidate — and energized about the prospect of marching into the fall campaign behind him.

Part of that ebullience came because Patrick rallied the troops with a terrific speech, one that offered a pointed critique of rivals Charlie Baker and Tim Cahill and provided a clear rationale for reelection.

But inspirational oratory is an arrow Patrick has long had in his quiver. What’s striking is how different he now is from the thin-skinned, tin-eared, quick-to-bristle novice of the first two years, a man who seemed to think he had been elected all-powerful CEO, and who often viewed political niceties as beneath his notice.

The early Patrick reminded many veteran political veterans — including, word is, an older Michael Dukakis — of a young Michael Dukakis. That is, of the Duke that Democrats unceremoniously dumped in the 1978 primary, in no small part because he had acquired a reputation as a haughty know-it-all.

So what accounts for Patrick’s transformation?

First, he has come to understand the job better. “He’s figured out the rules of the game,’’ says one friend.

Elected on a platform of expanding services, Patrick is also said to have reconciled himself to the reality of an ongoing budget crisis and to have resolved to focus on making government work better within those constraints. Meanwhile, two recent aquatic outpourings — March’s diluvian rainfall and May’s MWRA water-main break — showcased a governor who has learned to lead.

Second, he has developed a much thicker skin. That has meant accepting that in public life you’re often damned if you do and damned if you don’t, and that the best course is just to shrug it off and keep moving forward.

Third, a more patient and less petulant Patrick has steadily put together a very solid record. No, he’s still not the full-speed-ahead reformer I’d like, but it simply can’t be said that he’s been unwilling to rock Beacon Hill’s constituency-group Love Boat.

Finally, he has improved both his public communications and his behind-the-scenes style. Patrick attributes the former to President Obama’s advice to get over his reluctance to brag about his accomplishments. When it comes to the latter, a number of prominent allies and politicos have told him that he needs to reach out more. One who did so is Dukakis himself. One source says Dukakis’s advice was blunt: If Patrick didn’t spend some time now rebuilding political bridges, he risked doing it later the way Dukakis himself had to: as a defeated ex-governor.

Dukakis says he counseled better communication about his accomplishments — “I did say to him, ‘You are doing some important stuff, you have to get out there and let people know,’ ’’ but professes not to recall warning Patrick to avoid his own first-term mistakes.

In any event, the governor has recognized the need to reach out and repair relations.

“He has been doing it very seriously and it’s had a very positive impact,’’ another politico says.

Although senior adviser Doug Rubin notes that Patrick has done town hall meetings throughout his term, he acknowledges that the governor has stepped up the outreach to alienated activists and groups.

“He has taken some of the criticism and advice to heart,’’ said Rubin. “I think he has a very good understanding of what the job entails now.’’

Meanwhile, the governor is seemingly everywhere around the state — and people are noticing.

“He has gotten a lot of energy by getting out and talking to people,’’ said state Representative David Linsky, who spent a recent half-day politicking with Patrick in Natick. “Some of his problem he had early in his term is that he was spending too much time in the State House.’’

Mind you, none of this means the incumbent is on a glide path to a second term. With independent candidate Tim Cahill fading, the campaign is shaping up as a two-person race. That could well make things tougher for Patrick — if Republican Charlie Baker ever manages to hit his own stride.

Still, here’s the bottom line: A guy who not so very long ago looked like he was holding a one-way ticket to political palookaville is now at least even odds for reelection.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at

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