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Ex-rights enforcer eyes governorship

Some say he could energize Democrats

Deval Patrick, the nation's former top civil-rights enforcer and an experienced legal executive at two multinational corporations, is laying the groundwork for a possible campaign for governor, a move that would make him the first major African-American candidate for governor in the state's history.

In an interview late last week, Patrick, a Democrat, confirmed that he is spending the coming months speaking with an array of political and civic leaders to test the waters for his candidacy.

''I am spending almost all my time for the next month or two to figure it out," said Patrick, a 48-year-old native of Chicago's South Side. ''I have a lot of homework to do."

Patrick, who served from 1994 to 1997 as President Clinton's assistant attorney general in charge of civil rights, resigned last month after nearly four years as the chief legal counsel to Coca-Cola Co., where he was responsible for its worldwide legal affairs.

Patrick, who earned both an undergraduate degree and a law degree from Harvard, and his wife, Diane, live in Milton, where he has kept a legal residence while working out of state. His wife is a partner at Ropes & Gray, where she works on labor and employment issues. They have two daughters.

If Patrick were to run, he would be joining a field that already includes Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly, who has told supporters he will seek the Democratic nomination next year. Another potentially major candidate, Secretary of State William F. Galvin, said he is seriously considering running.

The Democrats lost what could have been a significant candidacy a week ago when US Representative Michael Capuano, the former mayor of Somerville, said after several months of consideration that he would not seek the party's nomination.

A decision by Patrick to jump into the race would reshape the campaign significantly and surely bring national attention to the contest.

Although he has no experience in electoral politics, his background, professional experience, and his race would offer Massachusetts Democrats a nontraditional choice.

Whether he can generate the kind of excitement to be an effective statewide candidate is not clear. As a first-time candidate, Patrick has a sharp learning curve as he tries to navigate the treacherous back alleys of Massachusetts politics.

Patrick will plunge into a world where he has no proven skills of hobnobbing with voters, jockeying with skilled political leaders, handling an aggressive media, and dealing with the party's powerful and demanding special interest groups.

Patrick must also take a crash course on the mechanics of campaigns. He has no political base or organization, and he would have to raise millions of dollars. Reilly has $2.2 million in his account. Galvin has more than $1.5 million.

But those advising him say he has time to overcome those issues and believe his candidacy will energize the party and could well draw national attention.

''Deval Patrick has the potential to be the Barack Obama of Massachusetts," Dan Payne, a Democratic political strategist advising Patrick, said, referring to the newly elected Democratic US Senator from Illinois.

''If he decides to run, the governor's race automatically becomes a national campaign," Payne said.

Ralph Whitehead, a journalism professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, said Patrick, unlike the established political figures eyeing the race, could challenge Governor Mitt Romney on another level.

''Romney exists in two dimensions, as a state politician and aspiring national figure," said Whitehead. ''Reilly challenges Mitt Romney as a state figure, while someone with a profile like Mr. Patrick could challenge him as a national figure."

Patrick said he has conferred with some close colleagues and has reached out to US Senator Edward M. Kennedy and former governor Michael S. Dukakis to tell them of his plans.

So far, he said, the reaction from those he has spoken with has been ''very enthusiastic."

''They see me as someone who has a lot of passion for trying to make a real difference in the lives of other people," said Patrick of his colleagues who know him professionally. ''They see me as someone who gets things done, is a quick study, and unifier."

Patrick said he understood the historical implications of his candidacy and the interest it would draw.

Although Massachusetts produced the state's first popularly elected black US senator with Edward Brooke's election in 1966, no African-American has been on either party's ticket -- or contested in the primary -- for governor in recent memory, according to political specialists.

Patrick said he doesn't want his racial heritage to overshadow what he has to offer: his professional experience and credentials established at the highest levels of the federal government and with two Fortune 500 firms.

''Being an African-American is an aspect of the perspective that I bring to this kind of challenge, but there is more to me than that," he said.

Brought up by his mother and his grandparents in the tough neighborhood of Chicago's South Side, Patrick received a scholarship for urban children to attend Milton Academy, an elite boarding school.

The experience there changed his life and launched him into a career working at elite Boston law firms and the boardrooms of multinational corporations.

''It would be a significant development for the nation," Patrick said, referring to his potential candidacy as an African-American in the Bay State. ''But I also bring to the contest my background, my experience, and my perspective."

Patrick avoided taking specific positions but spoke about his commitment to what he described as the values of the Democratic Party.

''To me the Democratic Party has always been grounded in values," Patrick said, contending that the issue has been ceded to the Republicans. ''Compassion is a value."

Asked about his position on state taxes, Patrick said he was not prepared to speak to the issue specifically. ''I have a lot of homework to do," Patrick said. ''I want to be careful not to oversimplify myself."

But he did tweak Romney, without naming him, with assertions that he did not plan to use the governor's office as a launching pad for national ambitions. Romney aides make no secret of the governor's interest in a potential run for president in 2008.

From 1999 to 2001, Patrick served as vice president and chief counsel at Texaco. Two years earlier, Texaco appointed him to lead a special task force to oversee the firm's progress in improving its working environment for minorities.

Texaco had been rocked after transcripts emerged in which the company's top executives were quoted making disparaging comments about minorities.

A 1982 Harvard Law School graduate, Patrick joined the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. In 1986, he joined the Boston firm of Hill & Barlow, where he became a partner.

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