Deval Patrick, 49, hopes his gift of building bridges on divisive issues can carry him to the governor’s office.
Candidate profile: Deval Patrick

Beating odds, a uniter rose from Chicago's tough side

By Scott Helman
Globe Staff / May 24, 2006

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CHICAGO -- In neat cursive, Deval Laurdine Patrick penned an autobiographical essay in the seventh grade that predicted a future far from his modest apartment on Chicago's South Side.

``The Story of My Life " recounts his many feats to that point: how he had moved through grade school with ``ease," won first prize in a science fair for a project on clouds, and been named ``outstanding student of 1968."

``I thank God that he thought enough of me to take me this far," Patrick wrote, predicting that he would move out of his tough neighborhood, graduate from UCLA, and work in real estate within 10 years.

He was mostly off the mark, but Patrick nailed it about being destined for greater things: He would leave the South Side after the next school year, win a scholarship to Milton Academy, receive degrees from Harvard College and Harvard Law School, and rise to the highest levels of government and business.

What has fueled Patrick's success as a lawyer, civil rights prosecutor, and corporate executive, according to people from every stage of his life, is his ability to draw on his background to float comfortably among many different worlds. That skill, which Patrick honed over four decades, has come to define who he is: He's at home among both blacks and whites, civil rights advocates and civil rights violators, corporate boards and prison inmates, opera lovers and jazz fiends.

``What I saw in him is that he was bound for something," said Sondra Brigandi, 61, who grew up in Patrick's Chicago neighborhood. ``He was bound out of there."

Now, Patrick, 49, hopes that gift for moving ``seamlessly across cultures and environments," as one Milton classmate put it, can carry him to the governor's office in November.

Patrick has turned to old-fashioned shoe-leather politics -- traveling to all corners of the state to court voters from many geographic, ethnic, racial, and economic backgrounds. Supporters say Patrick would win easily if he could meet every voter in the state.

He can't do that, of course, and recent polls suggest he faces an uphill fight to win the Democratic nomination. But he's faced and beaten longer odds before.

`Good home training'
Patrick was born in his grandfather's bed July 31, 1956, in a two-story brick apartment on South Wabash Avenue in Chicago. He was immediately put in the oven to keep warm, he would later say, recalling that his family told him the doctor suggested it because his body temperature was low.

Patrick, his mother, Emily, and sister, Rhonda, returned to his grandfather's apartment for good after being on welfare -- not long after his father, Pat, left them for New York as the baritone sax player for cosmic-jazz legend Sun Ra. Patrick was 5 or 6. He, his mother, and his sister shared a set of bunk beds.

The family was small but tight. His mother worked a lot -- at a dry cleaners, a currency exchange, and later sorting mail at the post office. His grandmother planted roses, tulips, peppers, and tomatoes behind the apartment, in the shadows of the towering Robert Taylor Homes, a rough public housing development a block away. The smell of fresh bread from Schulze Baking Co. filled the streets. Patrick was ``Boopy" to his relatives, though no one remembers where the nickname came from.

``Their family was like a pillar of the community," Brigandi said.

The neighborhood was a kind of family, too. You couldn't sneak down an alley, Patrick said, without someone calling your mother. For several summers, Patrick helped Brigandi's father sell ``Snow Balls" -- snow cones -- out of a white converted Jeep.

The family had its struggles . Patrick's uncle, Sonny, was a heroin addict. Patrick recalled catching him shooting up in the living room, prompting a huge fight between his mother -- who tried to kick Sonny out -- and his grandmother, who ``wasn't tough enough," Patrick said.

``His presence in the apartment, especially when he was dirty, was a real source of tension between my mother and my grandmother," he said.

Patrick's sixth-grade teacher, Mrs. Eddie Quaintance, exposed him to the world, taking him to the opera and teaching him to count in German. But it was Patrick's seventh-grade English and social studies teacher, a 22-year-old named Darla Weissenberg, who seized on that awakening.

Weissenberg signed up Patrick for a national program called A Better Chance, which sends promising minority students to top schools. Weissenberg, now 60 , recalled that Patrick was the best-equipped to take the opportunity and run with it.

``What they would have said in those days is that he had good home training," Weissenberg said. ``He just knew how to talk to people, look people in the eye."

Weissenberg both relishes and downplays her role in Patrick's success, and she's convinced he would have done well even without the scholarship opportunity.

``I shouldn't say he wasn't like the rest of us, because he was," said Patrick's cousin, Renae Wintersmith-Griffin. ``But he was just very intelligent. He knew what he wanted. He didn't want to be there all his life. And we understood that."

Heading east, for good
Patrick landed at Milton Academy a shy but self-assured 14-year-old the evening before he started ninth-grade in 1970. He was so overwhelmed his first night on campus he couldn't eat dinner.

Gradually he found his bearings, then a direction: Patrick, among a small group of African-American students at the tony prep school, sought to bridge the black and white worlds at a time of raw racial divisions in Boston and across the country.

He grew an Afro and knew first-hand the frustration his black classmates felt at being stopped by police and asked for identification.

Yet some black students called him an ``Oreo" -- black on the outside, white on the inside -- because of his close friendship with whites and his attempts to bring the two groups together socially, classmates recalled.

``Deval chose to be a moderator and peacemaker and to see both sides," recalled classmate Matthew A. Peckham, now an architect in New York. ``And that rubbed some people the wrong way."

Patrick had an ability, classmates and former teachers said, for explaining to black and white students what the other camp was feeling.

``What I remember is that he would be able to articulate . . . what the more extreme kids were voicing," said classmate George Chase, now a teacher at St. Paul's School in Concord, N.H. ``And he was able to articulate that in a way that was non threatening and intellectually engaging."

Patrick's classmates and teachers say he was also a bright, committed student who impressed the faculty and had no qualms about telling friends cigarettes were bad for them. Classmates also recall that Patrick managed to be at once cool and somewhat square: He regularly bought his girlfriend flowers and was not invited on the wilder students' adventures.

Asked what kept him focused at Milton, Patrick said: ``You know how many people are depending on you, how many people are counting on you to make them proud and not disappoint. And that's a lot to carry around. It keeps you in a very narrow corridor."

From Milton, Patrick went to Harvard, where he and now-prominent conservative activist Grover Norquist , a fellow student, sparred in debates. Chuck Breaux, a Colorado pediatric surgeon who was Patrick's roommate all four years, recalled that ``Dev" -- because he had such a gift with words -- was always asked to give the toasts for events at Dunster House, their dorm. Every Friday night, he said, they drank gin-and-tonics and watched ``Kojak."

Patrick graduated in 1978 and spent a year living and working in Africa, on a United Nations development project in Sudan. He returned to enroll at Harvard Law School, earning his degree in 1982. He then clerked for a year for a liberal US Appeals Court judge in Los Angeles, Stephen Reinhardt .

Drawing conservatives' ire

Patrick didn't reconnect with his father in a meaningful way until he moved to New York in 1983 to work for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. He first introduced his fiancé Diane to his father at a gig. His father later played the saxophone at their wedding. But it is evident Patrick is resentful that his father left their young family back in Chicago.

Patrick worked at the Legal Defense Fund until 1986, focusing on capital punishment and voting-rights cases. The couple and their first daughter, Sarah, then moved to Boston, where Patrick took a job at the former law firm of Hill & Barlow. (Their second daughter, Katherine, was born in 1989.)

His first real taste of public life came in 1994, when President Clinton tapped him to head the US Justice Department's civil rights division. Patrick served as an assistant attorney general for a grueling three-plus years, overseeing many high-profile cases -- including investigations into arsons at churches in the South and racism allegations against the Los Angeles police.

``One of Deval's amazing accomplishments was really to kickstart the place and bring it back to life," said William R. Yeomans, Patrick's counsel during his tenure, contending the division had been ineffectual under two prior Republican administrations.

Former attorney general Janet Reno added: ``I think he came in to the civil rights division and had a sense from the beginning of what was necessary to pursue."

That same spirit, though, made Patrick a lightning rod over affirmative action, a favorite Republican target during Clinton's presidency. A columnist for the conservative newspaper Washington Times once dubbed Patrick ``the grand autocrat of affirmative action."

In one controversial case, Patrick defended a New Jersey school board's decision to fire a white teacher instead of a black teacher because it wanted diversity in a department. Patrick also vowed to test a 1995 Supreme Court decision invalidating a voting district in Georgia drawn to give black voters more representation.

``This is clearly over the line, saying that, `Well, you know, the Supreme Court ruled this way, but we're going to resist any attempt -- any attempt -- to rely on the court's decision," said Roger Clegg, who was a deputy in the civil rights division under presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush.

Patrick dismisses such criticism as tired Republican rhetoric, but he relishes his role in the fight.

Kerry Scanlon, who was deputy assistant attorney general under Patrick, said he deftly navigated prickly situations. When the Justice Department was about to sue a company, Scanlon said, Patrick would invite its lawyers in and genuinely listen to them. ``He has a gift for appealing to the best in people, and not just on one side, but on both sides," Scanlon said.

Worn down by the politics and constant commuting to his family, who had moved back to Massachusetts after a year in Washington, Patrick left the Justice Department in 1997 and returned home. The civil rights division, former employees say, hated seeing him go.

Lawyer, then a candidate
The town of Milton has, for many years, been the family's home base. Patrick's sister and their mother eventually moved there, too, and his house became a sort of bed and breakfast. Relatives, friends, friends of friends, even strangers with ties to friendly organizations were welcome .

But Patrick's return to Boston marked a new, and in some ways controversial, chapter of his career.

Months after joining the law firm Day, Berry & Howard, Patrick became chairman of a task force overseeing employment practices at Texaco, part of a $176 million discrimination case settlement with black employees. Eighteen months later, Patrick became Texaco's general counsel. It was the first of several instances in which Patrick, who had spent three years pursuing civil-rights abusers, went to work for the accused.

After about 2 1/2 years, Patrick left to become general counsel of Coca-Cola, which had recently agreed to pay $193 million to settle a similar employment discrimination case. He was the first African-American to head the company's legal department.

Cyrus Mehri, who, as a plaintiffs' lawyer in the Texaco and Coca-Cola cases, was on the other side of the table from Patrick, praised him as a diplomatic problem-solver.

``I've seen him in very, very tough situations, and yet be able to come up with solutions where everyone feels good about it," Mehri said.

Patrick left Coca-Cola in 2004, in part over how the company was handling new controversies. Marc Garber, a lawyer for a company auditor who had filed a whistleblower lawsuit, said Coca-Cola didn't share Patrick's commitment to ``trying to do the right thing."

``He was a duck out of water at Coke," Garber said.

Patrick doesn't get off so easily from labor leaders, who contend he did not do enough to address the alleged killing and torture of union officials at bottling plants in Colombia owned by a Coca-Cola subsidiary. ``I deny him the high road here," said Terry Collingsworth, executive director of the International Labor Rights Fund , which sued Coca-Cola over the issue.

Patrick also left the company to rejoin his family -- they hadn't moved to Atlanta when he took the job, nor had they moved to White Plains, N.Y., when he worked for Texaco. (Diane Patrick has been a labor and employment lawyer with Ropes & Gray in Boston for 11 years.)

In 2004, Patrick joined the board of ACC Capital Holdings, the parent company of mortgage lender Ameriquest, which agreed to a $325 million settlement with Massachusetts and 48 other states earlier this year over predatory lending practices. His involvement with the company is repeatedly criticized by Thomas F. Reilly, who, as attorney general, worked on the settlement. (Patrick said last week he will resign from Ameriquest this summer.)

Patrick explains that his decision to work for Ameriquest, Texaco, and Coke came partly from an interest in the corporate sector, but from a conviction that he could improve them from within. Those jobs also earned him millions in salary and stock options, though he has declined to disclose exactly how much. ``I think there are responsible ways for companies to behave, and I want to be a force for that," Patrick said. ``And I enjoy that, and I'm good at it, too."

Many friends, colleagues, and family say they've long seen Patrick as a future political leader. ``This is something that has percolated for a very long time," his wife, Diane, said.

Patrick said he's always wanted to be a ``citizen-lawyer" who came to public service when he had something to offer. In 2004, he decided he did. ``The leadership vacuum is huge," Patrick said. ``And frankly only the governor gets to set the agenda. And I wanted that agenda to be ambitious."

Patrick speaks proudly of all he's done, but his desire to lead Massachusetts is not about ego, said longtime friend and Milton classmate Anna L. Waring.

``That's not to say he doesn't have any -- we all have some," said Waring, who runs a Catholic girls' school in Chicago. ``But there are other things he could be doing with his time, his talents, and his energy."

Regardless of what Patrick has done, people from his life say, he's still the boy from South Wabash with a reverence for those who shaped him. ``You know why it makes me proud?" Carrie Jones, 82, a former neighbor, said of his running for governor. ``Every time he comes to Chicago he visits me. And I like that."

Scott Helman can be reached at

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