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Missteps test faith of Patrick devotees

'Don't give up on me' is response

Governor Deval Patrick listened to attendees at the Massachusetts High Technology Council breakfast in Burlington yesterday. (Josh Reynolds/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

With the latest headline, dissent erupted in the blogosphere. "The caddy didn't matter. The drapes don't matter. This matters," wrote Charley Blandy, a cofounder of Blue Mass. Group, the state's leading left-wing blog and a strong voice for Deval Patrick during last year's gubernatorial campaign.

Some voters like Donald W. Bourne of Yarmouthport, who backed Patrick last fall because of his populist appeal, worry that the governor has begun to lose that touch.

"I hope he learns," he said.

Even Mr. Bartley's Gourmet Burgers in Cambridge has changed Patrick's namesake burger from the optimistic "Together we can eat this," a play on his campaign theme, to "The 'Cadillac' of Burgers," a reference to his opulent official vehicle.

Nine weeks into his four-year term, Patrick is struggling to keep his balance amid a wave of mini-scandals and bad press days.

The normally composed governor seemed rattled yesterday when asked what he would say to core supporters who may have begun to question his judgment. "Don't give up on me yet," he said.

Many grass-roots supporters haven't; they remain fiercely loyal to the chief executive they helped elect. His missteps, they say, were at worst innocent blunders that should not eclipse his positive agenda.

"I myself and people I talk to around here are just as strong," said Paul Hush, a campaign volunteer from Brewster. "They still see a real person behind all these stories and are convinced he's going to be a wonderful governor."

But there are emerging hints of displeasure and unease among some supporters.

"He was going to shake things up," said Lisa Willis, 36, of Waltham, who voted for Patrick. "I knew he was a lawyer and he had money, but he seemed to be able to talk to people and to take an interest in a grassroots approach. Now, that all seems to be gone. It was a facade."

This is supposed to be Patrick's honeymoon period. But after a quiet first month in office, February was overtaken by stories about the $1,100-a-month Cadillac, the helicopter trips, the fancy drapes, the pricey aide hired to handle his wife's schedule. March began with his acknowledgement of a call he made on behalf of a controversial mortgage company to a large bank with significant dealings with the state. Yesterday, the Massachusetts Republican Party asked the state Ethics Commission to investigate Patrick's Feb. 20 call to Citigroup.

William G. Mayer, a political science professor at Northeastern University, said that if Patrick continues to make unwise decisions, not even the strongest grass-roots network in recent memory can shield him from the consequences.

"If you make a call that is purely illegitimate, or you seem to be using the resources of your office to pamper yourself, merely saying 'I've got these people who support me on the issues' is not going to carry a whole lot of weight," he said. "A grass-roots network, however extensive it is, represents a very, very narrow slice of the electorate."

As a relatively unknown, first-time candidate with little money to launch his campaign, Patrick built a strong sense of loyalty among many of his supporters during 20 months on the trail, getting to know them at fund-raisers, town hall-style meetings, and house parties. By Election Day, his grass-roots network had grown into a powerful machine of thousands of volunteers who raised millions of dollars, propelling him to victory.

Candidate Patrick tried to steel his supporters to eventual disappointment, repeatedly warning them that he was not perfect. Yesterday, asked what he would tell supporters who had begun to doubt him, he said: "What I said all through the campaign, which is that I will make mistakes, but don't give up on me, because I don't intend to give up on the people of Massachusetts."

Most of the numerous hardcore supporters interviewed this week said their faith had not been shaken. They viewed Patrick's phone call as the forgivable mistake of a political neophyte. They also tended to see the previous stories about Patrick's office decor and vehicles as unfair stories overplayed by a voracious media.

"I just know that this is such a huge human being, a deep human being, and one that has the best intentions for the Commonwealth and for the whole concept of civic engagement," said Susan Wadia-Ells, a holistic health educator from Manchester-by-the-Sea who volunteered on the campaign. "There are so many people who are dying to trip him up and give him a really bad bloody nose because he's trying to change some systems here. And this is only the beginning."

But over the last couple of days, some of the liberal bloggers who were Patrick's strongest champions in cyberspace sharply criticized the governor for calling Citigroup, which has extensive business with the state, on behalf of the parent company of the controversial subprime mortgage lender Ameriquest, on whose board Patrick sat until last year.

"He simply cannot advocate to a company that does business with the state, on behalf of a company that does business with the state, and with whom he has a prior relationship in this way," wrote David Kravitz, another cofounder of Blue Mass. Group. "At best, it's a major-league 'appearance of impropriety,' and he of all people should understand why such appearances should be avoided. And, frankly, I wonder whether this doesn't tread dangerously close to the dividing line between appearances and the other thing."

Patrick himself seemed out of sorts yesterday morning, a day after the Ameriquest story broke. During a breakfast speech to the Massachusetts High Technology Council in Burlington, he uncharacteristically stumbled over a few sentences. A few self-deprecating jokes fell flat. At one point, he lapsed into coarse language as he urged business leaders to get involved in government rather than "spend all day . . . bitching and moaning on the outside about what's wrong with the state of government."

When he spoke with reporters afterward , Patrick acknowledged he was worried that his missteps may have cost him some of the momentum from his victory.

"Of course I'm concerned about that," he said. "But it's a four-year term. We have a very ambitious agenda. We have put a lot of powerful proposals on the table; there are more to come. We just have to keep plugging and learning every day."

Later this month, Patrick will relaunch his political committee and an accompanying website and plans a fund-raiser.

About a week ago, the governor's former campaign aides also began hosting a series of 14 "kitchen Cabinet" meetings with the campaign's most active volunteers to discuss how they can stay involved and how the governor's organization can assist their efforts. Liz Morningstar, executive director of the committee, said neither the kitchen Cabinet nor the committee's revival are related to Patrick's recent troubles.

Lisa Wangsness can be reached at lwangsness@globe.com.

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