After soaring entry, a mixed first year for Patrick

Tally shows victories, but most of agenda stalled in Legislature

Email|Print| Text size + By Frank Phillips
Globe Staff / December 31, 2007

As Governor Mitt Romney made his final exit from the State House, he paused to shake hands with Deval Patrick at the door of the governor's office. "We are looking forward to a great administration," the ever-polite Romney told the incoming Democrat.

"You can count on it," Patrick said, with a self-assurance that reflected his extraordinary journey from political obscurity to a landslide victory.

But Patrick's first year in office has been marked by initial high-profile missteps, political frustrations, and a senior staff shakeup. He scored some victories and produced sweeping policy initiatives, but most of his agenda remains stalled in the Legislature. And he faces a challenge in the months ahead with his proposal to license three resort casinos that has ignited controversy, upset some members of the coalition that elected him, and is being held up by a deeply skeptical House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi, who has opposed gambling expansions in Massachusetts.

It is a decidedly mixed record for a governor who rolled into office with huge popular support and a clutch of big, fresh ideas.

After a year watching him, even some of his allies feel that Patrick, whose professional experience is mostly rooted in the corporate boardrooms of Coca-Cola and Texaco, is still finding Beacon Hill politics the toughest part of the job to master. His most difficult hurdle has been figuring out how to honor campaign pledges to change the culture of Massachusetts politics, while also operating within that culture to get things done.

John Sasso, chief of staff to former governor Michael Dukakis who is credited with guiding his reform-minded boss through the political thickets in his second term, said that he believes Patrick retains the "aura of independence" that helped elect him and is "working hard to gain an effective working relationship with the Legislature."

"Public independence and legislative teamwork is a winning formula for any successful governor. He understands that," said Sasso.

Patrick's decision to raise large political donations from lobbyists and executives of state-regulated industries - the heart of the very culture he pledged to reform - is one sign that he is willing to set aside his "agenda for change" to deal with the political realities. In a recent interview as his first year in office drew to a close, Patrick said he recognized the difficulty of working within the system without becoming captive to insiders.

"We have our rituals in this building, we have our protocols, much of it unspoken," he said. "It is enormously important to understand that, and the staff and I have learned that."

"But I don't want to be about just that," he quickly added. "We do have a change agenda. Just as I am having to get used to some of those rituals, my colleagues down the hall, the legislative leadership and some of the members . . . are having to get used to some of the ways we want to do things."

Indeed, as the first black governor in the state's history and the first Democrat to hold the office in 16 years, Patrick seemed to embody a new era in Massachusetts politics at his inauguration on Jan. 4. "It's time for a change," he told the crowd who came to the steps of the State House to hear his inaugural address. "And we are that change."

After four years of Romney - who was perceived as aloof on state issues and embarking on his own quest for the US presidency - Massachusetts has a governor who rejects the GOP's dim view of government and is embracing an ambitious Democratic agenda. He has rolled out broad and expensive proposals on economic development, education, the environment, transportation, and public safety.

Relations between the governor and the Legislature, while at times testy since the early 1990s, are free of partisan posturing. Yet it was not until recent months that Patrick appeared to hit a comfortable stride with his fellow Democrats. He has lined up some potential victories for 2008. He won a commitment from legislative leaders to get action by February on his $1 billion initiative to boost the state's life sciences industry. After he expressed a willingness to compromise on his goal of closing corporate tax loopholes, he won the support of a special commission and could break a logjam in the Legislature over the issue.

At the same time, Patrick showed he could play political hardball with entrenched powers. This fall, he muscled Stephen Tocco, a Romney appointee with strong ties to powerful Democrats, out as chairman of the University of Massachusetts board of trustees and replaced him with an investment banker. He has been making similar attempts to gain control of commissions and authorities dominated by GOP appointees.

The face of state government has become more diverse under Patrick. Of the management hires in the administration, 19 percent are minorities, more than double the Romney administration's numbers. Patrick has hired a staff that is made up of 27 percent of people of color and more than half have been women.

Patrick has grappled in other ways with the unique expectations thrust upon him because of his race. He came to office at a time when urban violence was on the rise and has faced criticism from some in the black community for not providing stronger leadership on issues of gangs. When 13-year old Steven Odom was killed in a gang-related crossfire, the governor was stung by criticism from Odom's mother that he had not reached out to her. But he went to her house and later to the boy's services.

"If a 13-year-old gets in the way of a stray bullet, we are not doing enough," he said at the funeral. "I accept my responsibility."

Patrick and his staff express confidence now about their prospects in 2008, contrasting with the first few months of his term - which were marked by negative news stories that snuffed any honeymoon period he could have hoped for.

He generated headlines for upgrading his official car to a Cadillac, refurbishing his State House office with expensive furnishings, and placing a call to a national banking institution on behalf of a controversial subprime lender that he once was closely connected to. At the same time, his wife, Diane, struggled with depression. He refers to that period as "the darkest of days."

"I think he underestimated the difficulty of a transition from nonpolitical to a political situation," said US Representative Barney Frank, one of his early supporters who gives him good grades for the first year. "It is a common problem when people have not been on the political side."

At times prickly and thin-skinned, Patrick can bristle at the media when it is aggressive and he expresses frustration when confronting an unwieldy political system that he can't control. Shortly after his election, he lectured a gathering of newspaper publishers that the media's cynicism blinded it to the significance of his election.

Two months into his term, he appeared before the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce and alienated its business leaders with what many in the audience felt was his supercilious tone as he pitched his plan to close corporate tax loopholes.

The blunders of the early weeks in office prompted increasing anxiety among Democratic supporters. By late March, he was getting some strong advice from the likes of Dukakis, outgoing state Democratic Party chairman Philip W. Johnston, and his early band of supporters in the Legislature, among others. The urgency of their message: clear out his senior staff - none of whom had experience or background in handling a rambunctious press and the sharp-elbowed politics in the State House - and get some political hands on board to run his operations.

By early April, a new team was in place, led by his chief political consultant, Doug Rubin as chief of staff, deputy chief of staff David Morales, who was a top aide to the Senate president, and Joseph Landolfi, a veteran media relations specialist for government agencies, as his director of communications.

While overhauling his staff was clearly a pivotal moment in his first year, Patrick downplays its significance. In an interview, he brushed aside suggestions that it was a mistake to initially pick a senior staff with no experience in the public sector or in state politics. He also would not discuss what his closest advisers and supporters feel were critical events that helped inform him how to govern.

"I'm not looking back" he said, when asked if he had any regrets on his early months in office.

Patrick insisted the departure of his first chief of staff, Joan Wallace-Benjamin, was voluntary. He said she had "set up" his office and much of the administration. He implied that after three months on the job, her work was done and she was ready to return to her old job as president of The Home for Little Wanderers.

"That wasn't spin," he said. "She was ready to go."

With a new political team in place, Patrick scored a major victory in June when he helped defeat a proposed constitutional ban on gay marriage. Patrick, using the powers of his office and his persuasive charm, worked closely with DiMasi and Senate President Therese Murray to kill the proposed amendment that had diverted attention from other issues.

That June victory helped stabilize a wobbly administration and allowed Patrick to gain some credibility as an effective political player on Beacon Hill. Now the administration is looking with optimism to the challenges of 2008, when the Legislature will take up his proposal to license three resort casinos, close a potentially large budget gap, and consider a reorganization of transportation agencies, among other things.

"It has been a huge learning curve for everyone," said State Representative Corey Atkins, a Concord Democrat and one of the first lawmakers to endorse Patrick's candidacy. She remains optimistic about his potential. "He came from a rational world into an irrational world and he has to figure that out. He still has to learn to get along with the Legislature and the Legislature has to work with him."

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