The Mis-Education of Deval Patrick

His election united the state in ways nobody had dreamed possible. Now, looking back on his first year, everybody is reminded that even outsiders have to come inside to play eventually

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Charles P. Pierce
January 13, 2008

Once upon a time, Shrewsbury Street in Worcester was a long stretch of transplanted Italy, a vibrant warren of small bars, dark cafes, and an odd lot of butcher's shops, greengrocers, and restaurants owned by members of the Governor's Council. It was a place where you could place a bet in a lamp shop, or get the daily number with your six-pack of Narragansett Lager Beer. The largest businesses on the street were a couple of car dealerships and a low brick plant where they bottled Coca-Cola. Today, the bars and cafes that shared a building are merged into upscale steakhouses, and an old Cadillac dealership is a nouveau-Worcester bistro with a dining room the size of an aircraft hangar and a bar so thickly festooned with television screens that it looks like the war room at NORAD.

Deval Patrick, the governor of the Commonwealth for almost an entire year, has come to Worcester this night to raise money for the local state senator, a man named Ed Augustus. There's a bounce to Patrick as he works the crowd, which envelops him the way the crowds always used to envelop him on the campaign trail, the way the crowd looked when he was inaugurated in front of the State House in January. The faces shining, the eyes upraised. The energy of that improbable campaign, out in the world, away from The Building, is still alive. This virulently contagious optimist would be exactly the guy to elect as our next governor, except that we already did that. And now he is the governor, and the heedless optimism of the campaign seems less drained than outdated, as overtaken by events as the old poulterers and gin mills have been overtaken by all the chrome-and-glass promise of the new Shrewsbury Street. It's as hard to locate the optimism as it is to remember where the lamp shop was where you could get something down on the ponies. You have to know where to look for it. Against considerable odds, he still seems to know.

"It's a funny question, because it's like people are asking you what your legacy is before you really have a legacy," Patrick says in the car on the way out to Worcester. "I feel like I'm a better governor now than I was six months ago. And I think I'll be a better governor in six months than I am now. I've stopped worrying about what I said at the outset - trying to build my legacy before it is built."

It is not unfair to say that Deval Patrick ran for governor as an idea as much as he ran as a human politician. A vibrant liberal base found itself willing to ignore his long record on a variety of corporate boards because he talked so sincerely about "civic engagement." Many people - black and white - invested a great deal in the idea of the state's first African-American governor, even though Patrick himself spent a career in and out of government resisting anything he thought smacked of tokenism or threatened to make of him a symbol for anything except his own competence. All of this explains why, over the first year of his term, the actual Governor Deval Patrick has been struggling hardest against everyone else's idea of Governor Deval Patrick.

"I'm an English major," Patrick says with a laugh, "so I have an aversion to cliches. All through the campaign - forget the campaign, all through my life - people have been trying to wedge me into a box. And I don't fit into a box. What I want to do is just get the job done, and sometimes we're going to have to do deals and negotiate, and sometimes we're going to have to stand on principle and fight to the death. We're trying to choose those battles."

Because of the nature of the campaign he ran. Patrick has spent his entire first year walking a thin line between two cliches of the established political narrative. There is the reformer who spends all of his time at loggerheads with the culture of The Building, watching his cherished proposals vanish in the Legislature like a bowling ball dropped into a vat of oatmeal. And then there is the reformer who "sells out" to the established power against which he ran, thereby disillusioning the primary base of his support. In the context of the first narrative, he was criticized for trying to do too much. In the context of the second, he was criticized for not having done enough. Insider governors don't have these problems. Only people from outside The Building do.

HIS SUCCESS WAS sudden and unexpected: A black man with no experience in Massachusetts politics wrenched the Democratic nomination away from Tom Reilly, as clearly an Establishment Democrat as anyone ever was, and then beat the incumbent Republican lieutenant governor, ending a 16-year run for the GOP in the governor's office. Patrick's campaign unnerved people inside The Building, as well as some outside The Building whom the people inside The Building talked to regularly. The energy of the campaign placed upon the new governor an acceleration of expectations just as that energy was colliding with the fundamental inertia of representative democracy, and out of that collision was fashioned an unusually febrile first year.

"The question always has been whether he can take that base from the campaign and turn it into new policy," says Steve Crosby, the former chief of staff to Acting Governor Jane Swift and the dean of the John W. McCormack Graduate School of Policy Studies at UMass-Boston. "That's a profoundly important question, and he's still in that learning curve of how to translate initiatives into new policies and how to work with the Legislature, and that's a dance that most people never learn." Patrick began his first year with an unfortunate tin ear for the politics of perception. Patrick was roasted for leasing a luxury automobile for $1,100 a month, for hiring a $72,000-a-year assistant for his wife, and for expensively redecorating the governor's office. For almost a month, he found himself hanging higher than his expensive drapes did. He was testy and short with the media, and his staff full of rookies seemed unable to save him from his own mistakes. He's still a bit stiff-necked about it.

"I think some of that is about not feeding the beast," Patrick muses. "I don't mean to trivialize something that some people don't think is trivial. I tried to stay focused. There was a lot of stuff in the news that nobody wanted to have in the news."

Then, in a truly clumsy move - a mistake even he admits "wasn't trivial" - he called a bank that did significant business with the state on behalf of Ameriquest, a controversial mortgage company. There are politicians who could have survived all of these things. But because changing what he relentlessly referred to on the stump as the "Big Dig culture" on Beacon Hill was so central to the energy that had elected him, Patrick found these things biting deep.

He was tangled up in all of this just as his wife, Diane, was going public about her battle with depression and just as he was experiencing his first collision with the Legislature. Speaker of the House Sal DiMasi pounded him over his attempts to close corporate-tax loopholes, and Patrick looked outmaneuvered. By the summer, though, things had turned around. Patrick had decapitated his personal staff, dismissing several veterans of his campaign and installing in their place some Beacon Hill veterans. There were the beginnings of real relationships with the legislative leadership. In June, he and the leadership worked together to defeat an attempt to amend the state constitution to ban gay marriage, a victory that probably took that volatile issue off the table for good. In July, the state budget that finally passed contained a number of Patrick items that had seemed seriously endangered when he'd presented his first proposed budget to a skeptical Legislature several months earlier. He appeared to have recaptured his momentum.

He lives within the unusually accelerated expectations that his campaign created and that have survived its success. In October, as Boston erupted in gun violence, Patrick was criticized for being insufficiently involved in the problems of the city's black community. The parents of 13-year-old Steven Odom, who was shot and killed in Dorchester, called a press conference specifically to get Patrick's attention. He met with the Odom family shortly thereafter, and he still sounds shaken by the experience.

Steven's mother, Kim Odom, said, "'You know, I never meant to call you out,'" Patrick recalls. "And I said, 'Mrs. Odom, that's the grief talking, and grief gets to say what it wants to say.' But secondly, you're supposed to make a claim on your government, and that was the point of the campaign."

In every sense, personal and political, he will be haunted by the doppelganger of the candidate he was. He will never be an ordinary governor. Because of this, his agenda continues to be ambitious - from an education-reform program to a $1 billion proposed investment in the life sciences. In late summer, he came out with the loudest and noisiest project of all. Patrick proposed the establishment of four resort casinos in the state, a fundamentally transformative proposal for which he seemed the most unlikely of advocates. Whatever was being discussed in The Building now, it was originating, again, in the Corner Office.

"He has made the dominant question on Beacon Hill what new revenue sources there will be," explains Crosby of UMass. "Not whether they'll be new revenue sources, but which ones. That is a colossal paradigm change up there. He's put on the table a huge set of very big issues, and all of those are going to be dominating conversation within various constituent groups. It's an extraordinarily ambitious agenda."

This runs counter to the conventional wisdom that Patrick would have been better off focusing on one big issue on which he could concentrate his efforts in order to get a victory to hang on his wall. It is fundamental to his evolving relationship with the Legislature that Patrick doesn't think in those terms. "We don't have the luxury of leisure," he says. "We don't have the time, and that's not just me being impatient. There's a market out there. There's a globalized interaction happening in every one of these fields, and either we're going to play or we're not. We are not trying to lead in everything, but the fact is that if we actually want to move Massachusetts forward, we're going to have to perform brilliantly on several fronts at the same time.

"There are very capable, informed members of the Legislature on each of these points, and on others. Structurally, it's hard for people to move things. I will say that, one of the bigger surprises of the job for me is the number of conversations I witness among the leadership, and I use that term broadly, about how not to bring things forward, for fear that other members' legislative initiatives will be amended to them."

He continues: "So, I mean, there is all this effort to avoid bringing issues to the floor for debate. Now that's part of what's structurally challenging about the House and the Senate, I think. But, you know, we can't say, 'OK, the first term is all about affordable housing stock,' and not deal with how you get to and from that stock - transportation. Or what the impact on the local school system and school finance will be. It's connected. And that doesn't mean we have to pass every proposal we make the way it went in all of the time. But we do have to start raising consciousness about the interconnectedness of these issues. Or, otherwise, we're just not going to keep up.

"You know, the Commonwealth is out of practice. This is not just the Legislature. It's the media's ability to distill all that at a time when they're under stress in terms of resources. It's the public's ability to absorb the interconnectedness of all this when their lives are more crowded than they ever were. The Legislature is quite capable of doing more than one thing at a time."

It all comes back to The Building, with time running as quickly as the clouds across the winter moon. Everything seems now to be a fight against an obsolescence that can come too swiftly and too soon.

THERE ARE TWO things you have to know about The Building. First, it's a wreck. The dome atop it may gleam golden in the sun, but the Massachusetts State House remains one of the oldest continuously operated government building in the United States. John Hancock is buried on the lawn, and he's likely in better shape than The Building is. The ceilings leak. The plumbing's balky. The electrical system is vague and occasionally little more than a rumor. The other thing to know about The Building is that nobody ever wants to leave it.

State legislators elsewhere meet for a week or two a year and then vanish back into their real lives as actuaries and feed salesmen. Here, nobody ever really goes home. Within the Massachusetts State House, there is a permanent culture of politics. When people on Beacon Hill talk about The Building it is as much a concept as it is the aging, tattered corral full of free-range rodents, four-footed and otherwise. The Building is something that does nothing better than that it survives.

Four of the last five elected governors - Michael Dukakis, William Weld, Mitt Romney, and Deval Patrick - were elected at least in part because they came from outside the permanent culture of The Building. In all of their campaigns, but especially in Patrick's underdog run, they ran their campaigns less against corruption than they did against stasis. The corruption was always a subtext, a byproduct of the sense that The Building's culture was stagnant and unproductive. None of them, but particularly not Patrick, ran as classic "reformers," the way that Attorney General Eliot Spitzer ran for governor of New York in the same election cycle that produced Patrick. Spitzer actually had prosecuted members of the New York Legislature. Patrick ran less against a culture that was crooked than he did against a culture that was lazy.

"I was in the Legislature for eight years," says Dukakis, now a professor of political science at Northeastern. "I should have known better, right?" Instead, Dukakis ruffled so many feathers that he was abandoned by liberal and conservative Democrats and was beaten in the 1978 primary by Ed King, whom Dukakis came back to beat in 1982, wiser and tougher than he'd been before.

"Deval's got to learn like the rest of us did," Dukakis says. "The problem with rookie governors, especially rookie outsider governors, is that they set very lofty goals. They want to get a lot of things done. It was much better for me the second time around for reasons that had to do with the fact that I had learned some things. I was just so much better at reaching out and bringing people into the process, working with them and so forth. And I had to learn that the hard way. Here is Deval, now, who's an outsider, and he's running from the outside, and then, OK, all of a sudden, here you are. How do you maintain that edge, in the best sense of the word, that got you there in the first place, while working with a very interesting group of people who, by the way, on the whole are damn good?"

As Patrick stumbled through his first few months in office, tripping over his car and entangling himself in his drapes, Joe Landolfi watched it happen from his post in the governor's office of administration and finance. Landolfi is a lifer in The Building. He came into government with Dukakis and stayed on through Bill Weld and Paul Cellucci. "Clearly," Landolfi says, "there were some missteps in the beginning. Taken individually, none of it was very significant, but they started to snowball."

The governor recognized the need for some experienced folks who could navigate in The Building, handling the media and so forth. Doug Rubin, the senior strategist of Patrick's campaign, was installed as the new chief of staff, and Landolfi was brought in to coordinate the message. In essence, Landolfi was appointed to be Patrick's ambassador to The Building. It is not an accident that Patrick's image, and the perception of his performance, turned around almost immediately. Landolfi was one of their own.

The shake-up came as the administration was confronting problems that were more serious than anyone had anticipated. There was a huge gap in revenues. Moreover, Mitt Romney essentially had checked out of his job two years before he'd left the Corner Office. The powers of the governor vis-a-vis the Legislature largely had atrophied. In most states, that confrontation would be more partisan than institutional. However, given the near-monopoly control of the Democratic Party in the Massachusetts Legislature, the first Democratic governor in 16 years found himself ensnared in a perfect paradox of a civics lesson. This was a pure contest between the branches of government, each asserting its own check on the other, unalloyed by partisan rancor. James Madison would have been proud.

"Here you had the first Democratic governor in 16 years after a historic election, the first African-American elected governor, his popularity in the 60s," says Bradley Jones, the minority leader of the House, who watched as powerful Democrats butted heads. "There was no reason why the honeymoon shouldn't have gone on and been more challenging for the (legislative leadership). And I think there were misjudgments and missteps that made the governor a mere mortal politician. It brought him back to earth, and it cut the honeymoon short."

Patrick's primary antagonist was Sal DiMasi, a veteran legislator from Boston who'd come into office as a reformist ally of Dukakis when the latter returned to the governorship in 1983. The House speaker carefully guarded the Legislature's institutional prerogatives against what he perceived to be an overly enthusiastic rookie governor, even though he and Patrick were of the same party. "I think what you had," DiMasi says, "was a lack of understanding of what the Legislature does. It's a new skill, and they don't understand it."

It was DiMasi who handed Patrick his first major defeat, rejecting a proposal to close corporate-tax loopholes that had been central to the governor's campaign. Moreover, the ambition of the administration's legislative agenda caused DiMasi to dig in his heels. Since the shake-up on the governor's staff, the relationship between Patrick and the speaker has thawed. They came together to help defeat the anti-gay-marriage amendment and to move an energy package. Just before the first of the year, the administration touted a deal it had struck that would ensure that the $1 billion life-sciences package would be acted upon by February. In other words, it was something of a victory for a Democratic governor that a Democratic speaker of an overwhelmingly Democratic House of Representatives would bring one of the governor's key programs to a committee. He no longer looked like the frustrated outsider, railing against the inertial power of The Building. However, in the fall, he and DiMasi clashed again on an issue that threatens to put Patrick squarely in the middle of another huge, noisy issue, flashing neon, on which he has gambled the very forces that made him governor. He risks being accused of selling out, one chip at a time.

DAVID KRAVITZ IS a lawyer and an opera singer from Medford. Shortly after the 2004 elections, Kravitz and his friends started Blue Mass. Group, a political blog aimed at making then-incumbent Governor Mitt Romney's reelection as unpleasant as possible. But Romney had bigger plans, and in April of 2005, Kravitz went to hear Deval Patrick speak before a corporal's guard in a local library. Kravitz was intrigued. "We started following him as best we could," he says. Patrick's campaign was well suited to the emerging dynamic of politics on the Internet. Its workers were young and cyber-literate, and a lot of Internet politics prides itself on the same kind of outsider panache that was central to Patrick's campaign. By July, Blue Mass. Group was participating in a conference call with a candidate who was only then truly gaining momentum. The success of Kravitz's blog was tied to the success of the Patrick campaign.

Consequently, this September, when Patrick announced his proposal to build three resort casinos in Massachusetts, Kravitz was uniquely sensitive to the dissonance present when this particular governor got behind this particular issue. "The reaction we got was overwhelmingly negative," Kravitz says. "The folks who were with him early on and worked hard for him are just really opposed to casinos. They had the 'bad numbers' [of Patrick's sunny casino-revenues estimates] objection. They had the unfair-regressive-tax objection. A lot of people just didn't think this was a good way to underwrite serious economic expansion. A lot of people were surprised, and unpleasantly so."

It is this issue on which the reality of Governor Deval Patrick clashes most garishly with the idea of Governor Deval Patrick.

Patrick admits that casinos were not even on his radar during the campaign. But the federal recognition of the Mashpee Wampanoags forced his hand. Casinos seemed to be coming to Massachusetts one way or the other. The governor explains: "I said, 'OK, fine. End of the summer.' And that turned into my homework for the summer, and I went through it. I will tell you honestly, I didn't expect to land where I landed. When I started looking at the data, I really began to think about it differently."

Patrick has insisted that casinos are simply a matter of revenues and of jobs. His proposal argues that the casinos would generate $2 billion worth of economic activity and that part of that would be somewhere near $400 million for property tax relief and for the state's crumbling infrastructure, including, perhaps, the State House. He says that the casinos would create 20,000 permanent jobs. Ultimately, his administration argues, the state is in such perilous fiscal shape it can't afford to turn up its blue nose at any economic engine it can muster. He is not alone in that regard. When Steve Crosby was secretary of administration and finance for Jane Swift, he began by opposing casino gambling.

"I changed my mind for the reasons he did," Crosby says today. "I mean, I loved it on fiscal grounds. The people who would run the casinos were so anxious to do it that they'd put almost any amount of money on the table. But it just didn't feel right to me. It's an incredibly regressive tax. It's no way to fund public services, and it's a crappy way to raise money. But, then, so is the lottery. Who are we to be holier-than-thou-ing-it about casino gambling when we have the regressive lottery? Who are you taxing there?"

The one thing that both Patrick and the opponents of casinos in the Legislature agree on is that "the media" are almost guaranteed to make so much out of the casino proposal that Patrick's other policy initiatives get drowned out by the din of the slot machines. "It counts as a big initiative," Crosby explains, "because if he had not pushed it, it wouldn't have had a snowball's chance in hell. It was dominating conversation before the bill was even filed. It's an unfortunate issue in that sense. Because it is a huge cultural change, and, as such, it will suck up all the oxygen in the room."

If Patrick insists on pushing casinos merely as vehicles for economic development, he runs the risk of a very noisy failure inside The Building that will not be cushioned outside The Building by the formidable base he maintains from the campaign. Talking about them purely as an economic engine, and insisting they are, he sounds breathtakingly naive to people inside The Building and unacceptably arrogant to those outside. Casinos are not a life-sciences package or an education proposal. They would be a massively transformative cultural event in the history of the Commonwealth. They touch on every serious issue from state finances to traffic control to public health. They are far from business as usual.

THE TRIP TO Worcester ends in a banquet hall built on the grounds of what used to be a state mental hospital. It is the annual meeting of the Worcester Economic Club, a crowd that on a chilly evening looks very much like a meeting of the Kiwanis, except less spontaneously rowdy. Patrick is talking about the trip to China on which he will leave early the next morning. For all the talk in the campaign about Together-We-Can and the derision by some of his "moonbat" armies, this is where he seems the most comfortable, here with small gatherings of the corporate class, trying to persuade them that civic engagement is for them, too. There is in his appeal a kind of optimism, still. Even when he talks about casinos, which are nothing more than places where some people go to take other people's money, it may be what keeps him from falling into one of those two political narratives within which he could become paralyzed by cliches. It's what has kept him moving forward through an interesting first year, inside The Building and out. "We have been coasting a long time," he'd said earlier, in the car on the way to Worcester. "It is incumbent on all our leaders at all levels to make that claim for service and sacrifice, and to show what it means if we don't.

"That's not a paean for any particular program or initiative. But it does mean we've got to ask people: 'Look around. Consider where you are and where your neighbor is and where you wish you were and who we are as a society.'"

And the first year ends, in every way, with a gamble. The one we took on him. And the one he took on us.

Charles P. Pierce is a Globe Magazine staff writer. E-mail him at

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