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The Optimist

'I wasn't campaigning as the black candidate.' And because he didn't, because he ran a hopeful, grass-roots campaign that ended with his election as governor, Deval Patrick is our 2006 Bostonian of the Year.

(Photo by Christopher Churchill)

The buildings shone in the late-autumn sunlight, the way the high-tech buildings always seem to shine, like the first large encampments of a newer, better world. They shone that way when high tech was the explosive force behind a booming economy, and they shone no less brightly when they emptied out, when the boom went bust, and all that potential seemed to go dormant, and they shine that way again now, when the industry struggles to come back to the place where its promise was. The buildings in the office park in Waltham shone that way when Deval Patrick came to call on a morning exactly one week before he was elected the governor of Massachusetts.

It was a gathering of technology executives, bagels and fiber optics for breakfast. And Patrick moved slowly and smoothly through the crowd in the small function room, taking their questions about the creation of a technological infrastructure and its necessary reliance on an educated workforce and how neither of those is possible in a fractured, uncivil society, and he sounded like nothing more than the heir to the Michael Dukakis who was only the governor, before reckless ambition and Lee Atwater laid waste to his legacy (Dukakis worked as a block captain in Brookline on Patrick's behalf). He walked among them like the last technocrat politician, and you noticed that he was a lot shorter than most of the people who were listening to him, but that wasn't the first thing you noticed about Deval Patrick. Oh, no, it wasn't.

If the politics of newer nations are igneous, formed by sudden and violent forces, and the politics of older nations are more sedimentary, layer upon layer, Windsors atop Cromwell atop Stuarts, then American politics remain metamorphic, a conglomerate structure thrown together by the upheavals of a past that isn't really past yet. In this, the question of race is the most complex element of all, running in deep veins through our history, always present, not always obvious. For the record, then, it matters that, in electing Deval Patrick, Massachusetts has elected the second African-American governor in the nation's history. The first was Douglas Wilder of Virginia.

Virginia and Massachusetts. The two Colonies with the most revolution in their souls. Two states with histories marbled thickly through with race. In fact, two commonwealths, a deliberate and precise refinement of their identities, redolent of all the country's immigrant religions, especially the very first ones. To call your state a commonwealth is to recognize the interdependence of citizens essential to self-government; it is to leave a great bluff out there to be called. Virginia called it first with Doug Wilder. More than anything else, Deval Patrick and his campaign asked Massachusetts to call it this year. He was elected governor of Massachusetts, but he ran for governor of a commonwealth.

"I don't want to be someone else's pawn or poster child," Patrick, 50, said to me one afternoon after he'd been elected. "When it comes to public positions, the real goal is public service. It shouldn't be just for the political drama of it." No Massachusetts governor before him ever had to forge a raison d'etre on so many different levels, personal and political, and Deval Patrick's election in the face of those unique considerations makes him a clear choice as our Bostonian of the Year, an honored citizen of a new and different – and, for the moment, at least, better – place.

No Massachusetts governor ever before was the Only One in the Room.

However, at some point in their lives, and, ironically, the more successful they become, black Americans find themselves the Only One in the Room. It might be a classroom, a courtroom, or a boardroom. It can be a suburban sidewalk, when the police car starts sidling up to the curb, slowly, slowly, as they walk. Until this year, when Massachusetts elected Deval Patrick, Douglas Wilder was the Only One in the Room among the elected governors of these United States. At its worst, the phenomenon of being the Only One in the Room is born in what W.E.B. Du Bois called "the double-consciousness" of America's black citizens, "this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others . . . measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity . . . two warring souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings." At its most benign, it was expressed best by Thurgood Marshall, pursuing equality doggedly through the courts, fighting for the opportunity of kids in the next generation to be the Only Ones in the Room, and confessing wearily one day that he was "tired of trying to save the white man's soul."

"It just happens so repeatedly that you develop a sort of psychic sensibility that allows you to walk into those rooms and be able to project a sense of confidence," says Ralph Martin, a Boston attorney and formerly the district attorney for Suffolk County and someone who many had assumed for years would be Deval Patrick before Deval Patrick. "Maybe some people are born that way. I wasn't. I can remember as early as the third grade being the only black kid in a class, and I can remember – this was in Brooklyn, at the beginning of busing in New York City – feeling the hair on the back of my neck tingle. Everyone was looking at you."

In the spring of 1976, with the city of Boston roiling in racial unrest over the kind of court-ordered desegregation that sent Ralph Martin into that classroom in Brooklyn, a young black man named Theodore Landsmark was the Only One crossing City Hall Plaza. Someone grabbed him from behind. Someone else grabbed an American flag and beat Landsmark with the staff. Someone else grabbed a camera and began to shoot the pictures of it, which flashed around the world. There were so many conglomerate parts to that violent time – race, class, and the pure tribalism spawned by both of them and by so much more, all marbled together – but it was the picture that froze the focus. In their attempt to bash Landsmark with a flagpole, his assailants fastened an image of Boston permanently in the national consciousness – the volatile birthplace of abolition showing a craggy, ugly outcropping of the bigotry that had always been beneath. It is the most famous photograph involving the American flag that was not taken on Iwo Jima.

"It's not easy to be thought of as a symbol for most of one's life," says Landsmark, who today is president of the Boston Architectural College and works to recruit minority students into the design professions. "There are real day-to-day accomplishments that one is involved with, and all of our lives move forward, while being seen as a symbol tends to freeze one in the past."

Boston exploded just as Deval Patrick was finishing his time at Milton Academy. He'd grown up at 54th and Wabash on Chicago's South Side, the son of a musician who wasn't around much and a mother who worked for the Post Office. His grandparents' apartment was home to Patrick, his mother, and his sister, Rhoda. He dodged the gangs that ran the streets of his neighborhood, and one day a teacher told him about a program called A Better Chance, through which Patrick received a scholarship to Milton Academy, founded by Puritan frost-monsters in 1798. It might as well have been on the moon. "When I was growing up," he recalls, "a long-distance trip and a place that had a reputation [for being tough on black people] was the North Side."

It was through this program that Patrick stepped into his parallel life. A world that seemed heedless of the children at 54th and Wabash was suddenly offering him everything. But the opportunity could never be unmitigated, and the success derived from that opportunity would never be unalloyed, because, at 54th and Wabash, nobody had any reason to trust it. His parents assured him that he could always come back home. When he did come home for the first time, he found himself unable to explain to his friends even what Milton Academy looked like. His sister told him how white he sounded.

"Trying to describe to my friends from Chicago what my experience was like at Milton was impossible. They couldn't absorb it, so they would change the subject, which was painful," Patrick says. "You could point to a picture on TV and say, 'That's like a home I visited,' and they wouldn't get it, and my sister, when I came in from the airport, says, 'He talks like a white boy.' My grandmother instantly responded, 'He speaks like an educated boy,' and instantly saved the day. Because of what I heard from my sister, I was absolutely devastated. There's something extraordinarily painful about learning to live in more than one culture, to speak in more than one language." And then he would go back to school, and when he left campus to buy a snack, a police car occasionally would sidle up to the curb, moving slowly, slowly alongside him.

From Milton, he went through Harvard, and then through Harvard Law School. But in between, he went to Sudan on a Rockefeller Foundation grant, designed to take American students and immerse them in non-Western cultures. They are given plane fare to and from the place to which they are sent. Beyond that, the students are on their own, essentially, to build their own lives within a different culture. "The idea," Patrick explains, "is to be in a place where none of the social constructs you rely on, consciously or unconsciously, are there. You have to find a reserve inside you to build that from scratch. You realize how much of that comes from inside you."

In Sudan – and, later, in South Africa – Patrick cleared from his head the extraneous noise that complicates even the simple discussion of race in this country. "I was with the new administration in South Africa, right after the power changed," he muses, "and race [was] right on the table. They talk about it freely, and people aren't so threatened by the subject. It was quite refreshing, just the way people worked it through in plain language." He carried these lessons into his legal career and into the various corporate offices where he came to work, in which he often was the Only One in the Room. He would not be a symbol, the way Ted Landsmark came to be frozen as one, and he would not be the repository of anyone else's redemption.

The people in the Clinton administration learned that the hard way. In 1994, they wanted to appoint Patrick the assistant attorney general for civil rights. A year earlier, the administration had lost – or, more precisely, it had bailed out of – a fight over Lani Guinier, a brilliant legal theorist whose nomination for the same job had run afoul of conservative pundits and members of Congress. A friend of Guinier's, Patrick made it quite clear to the Clinton people that he was serious about the job. Then the administration people made a serious mistake. While the vetting process was still underway, they asked Patrick if they could announce that he was being "considered" for the post, because President Clinton needed something big for his address celebrating Martin Luther King Day.

"That's not the nomination," Patrick recalls. "I said there's no way I'm going along with that. Don't say a word publicly about me until I'm it, and then we'll drive hard for it. Until then, well, he's going to have to find something else to say."

Eventually, Patrick won confirmation for the post and served three years. But the episode is very much of a piece with the way he ran for governor. He did not run as the black candidate. He did not run to make white people feel good about themselves. "If all I was offering was to be the first black governor of Massachusetts, I wouldn't have won," he says. "The only way I've ever been able to move forward, leaving aside all the skills of adaptation you have to learn, is to get clear about who I am, no matter what setting I'm in."

Patrick had a long, uphill pull even without the complications of the state's racial history. His primary opponents were an incumbent attorney general, Tom Reilly, and Chris Gabrieli, a likable political gadabout who, if he didn't actually have more money than God, was certainly capable of picking up His dinner check. At the beginning, very few people knew who Patrick was. "The very first conversation I had with him, I talked to him about that," recalls congressman Michael Capuano, who endorsed Patrick's candidacy early in the process. "Look, you're a black man, in case you missed it. It will be an issue. I don't think it will be a determinate issue if you don't let it." Patrick committed to a grind-it-out grass-roots strategy, working the state one doorway at a time. (This particularly appealed to Capuano, who used a similar approach in 1998, when he first won nomination to Congress in a 10-way primary.) "It helped him get over it," Capuano says. "People already knew who he was, because their neighbor had come by to talk about him, hopefully more than once. In a vacuum, people may listen to the talking heads. When they know their neighbor is there with a candidate, it puts that in perspective."Race was intrinsic to the geology of the Patrick campaign, strengthening it at its depths rather than weakening it on the surface. Patrick couched his comments on racial issues in terms of human rights and in terms of a common civil community, defusing much of their emotional impact. He cast his own personal narrative as a kind of immigrant success story not unfamiliar to audiences increasingly composed of the great-grandchildren of the immigrants who came to Massachusetts. "I wasn't campaigning as the black candidate," he says. "I understand people saw me that way, but talking across someone's kitchen table, I made it clear that wasn't what was on offer. What was on offer was a range of life experience and a vision of civic life that transcended a lot of differences – race, party, class, philosophical differences."

Consequently, by the time the general election rolled around and Lieutenant Governor Kerry Healey inexplicably chose to draw a lesson from Republican campaigns past, there was nobody to listen to the same old songs from the same old foul violin. First of all, Healey wasn't a conservative shock trooper any more than she was Sheena, Queen of the Jungle. But, more important, the campaign did not resonate with the electorate, because Deval Patrick had not given it any space within which it could. He won in Roxbury, but he won in Taunton and in Worcester, too. He won in South Boston. Kerry Healey was playing to a piece of history that seemed for the moment to be as dead as the nativism of the 1800s. Nothing about his campaign echoed ominously, not even its footsteps. It turned out nobody anywhere had much problem sharing a parking garage with Deval Patrick.

The roof of the Reggie Lewis Center was threatening to go aloft. Just pick up right there and waft away over Roxbury and Dorchester, over the suburbs of the South Shore, and right out to sea over Cape Cod. It was the last great rally of the campaign, and Deval Patrick's people had brought in Barack Obama to campaign for him, and the Illinois senator's reception in the vast track facility can fairly be described as frenzied. For months, Obama had been preaching a vague notion of a commonwealth around the country. "It is that fundamental belief – I am my brother's keeper, I am my sister's keeper – that makes this country work," Obama had said two years earlier in his star-making performance at the Democratic National Convention not 5 miles from where he now stood, waiting to introduce Deval Patrick, whose campaign was reaching a crescendo this night on many of the themes that Obama had preached in 2004.

But Obama on this evening seemed to be stepping into a fait accompli. He made his introduction, and the hall exploded, and then he took a step back, disappearing into a welter of sheriffs and mayors and state legislators and other assorted coatholders, almost all of them white. It was the last stump speech of the campaign, the last time to take out for a spin all the themes that had been road-tested over 18 months. It was as devoid of phony piety as it was of easy reconciliation. It was a speech for the beginning of something, and not for the end of it. The one spontaneous note came when Patrick mentioned that Kerry Healey had "some grand ideas," and more than a few people booed her name.

"That is not," Patrick told the audience, "what we're doing here. If we don't learn to work together better, then we can't move forward." The applause rose, and at that moment, even the biggest superstar in the Democratic Party seemed to fade into the background. In the fullest sense imaginable, Deval Patrick was the only person in the room.

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