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Deval's United years

Deval Patrick was a virtual unknown to most voters when his name first surfaced as a candidate for governor 19 months ago. The campaign, as campaigns are supposed to do, has helped fill in the blanks.

We've learned about a man with an incredible life story -- abandoned by his father at age 4, raised in poverty in Chicago -- who against the odds made it through Harvard and Harvard Law School and rose to the top levels of the Clinton administration's Justice Department. We've also learned about Deval Patrick, the businessman, who held top jobs at Coca-Cola and Texaco. It is the kind of resume that can make you a credible candidate for governor.

Why then do we know almost nothing about his four years on the board of United Airlines' parent company -- a position he held longer than the ones at Coke or Texaco or even the Justice Department? Could it be because the turbulent history of United Airlines during his years on the UAL Corp. board -- like his role on the board of Ameriquest, the notorious predatory lender -- does not play well in campaign ads?

Patrick's role s on the United and Ameriquest boards are omitted from the English, French, and Portuguese versions of his campaign website -- though they do appear on the Spanish-language website. While Patrick's years at Ameriquest have been well chronicled -- ending in his resignation from that board -- his time at United has not. A Globe archive search turns up only a single reference to his four years at United.

It was, in fact, an eventful four years. During that period, United's key initiative to save itself, a highly touted merger with US Airways, was shot down as anti competitive by the Justice Department -- Patrick's immediate past employer. Earnings plunged, and United, the country's number two airline, faced considerable labor problems. One union complained that Patrick, named to the board to represent employees, had undercut its efforts to organize workers.

Patrick didn't create airline deregulation, which turned the industry inside out. But his time at United is worth exploring.

Start with the proposed merger with US Airways, which would have created the nation's largest carrier. Chicago-based United spent 14 months trying to complete the $4.3 billion acquisition before the Justice Department threatened to sue, saying the deal would raise fares and quash competition. ``The concept was right," Patrick says now, but over time it became clear that the changing economics and differing governance structures of the companies -- United was owned in large part by its employees -- doomed the deal.

United, like other airlines, was also rife with layoffs and labor conflict. In one instance, the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers charged that Patrick undermined its organizing campaign by holding meetings with workers where he supposedly promised wage increases. A national labor panel found that United and Patrick acted properly. Patrick says he has no recollection of the complaint. Patrick's departures tend to be noteworthy. In 2004 he resigned as Coke's general counsel with a $2.1 million severance package in part, he has said, because of conflict with chief executive Douglas Daft. Patrick left the United board in December 2001, a year early, after the company decided to stop letting workers choose members of an employee group that made nominations to the board, according to news reports. Patrick declined to detail his specific reasons for leaving the board, but said: ``It was a great lesson for me in a promising governance structure that worked well when times were good and not as well when times were not."

Deval Patrick is an intriguing candidate. But campaigns are long for a reason. They give voters a chance to understand who the candidates are. That understanding comes day by day. It is a system that -- if you pay attention -- works pretty well.

Steve Bailey is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at or at 617-929-2902.

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