A chill in the political air

Patrick’s rifts with Menino point to bigger woe

Mayor Menino and Governor Patrick regularly find themselves at odds. Mayor Menino and Governor Patrick regularly find themselves at odds. (David L. Ryan/Globe Staff)
By Matt Viser
Globe Staff / August 6, 2009

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When Deval Patrick took office amid a burst of hope for Democrats, several leading members of the party were given a role at his Election Night celebration.

There was one notable exception: Mayor Thomas M. Menino of Boston, left on the sidelines, walked out of the party.

In the more than 2 1/2 years since that inauspicious start, their chilly relationship has only grown colder. In the past few weeks alone, Patrick declined to endorse Menino’s reelection bid and slashed, without warning, funding for the zoo in the heart of Menino’s city.

And Menino? He belittled Patrick over zoo funding. (“Another bad decision on budget cuts.’’) He publicly came to the aid of the MBTA leader Patrick is trying to oust. (“We need to support Grabauskas in any way possible.’’) He also sharply broke with Patrick on cutting police details, one of the governor’s signature issues.

The result: The governor of the state and the mayor of its capital city, both Democrats aligned on core party issues, have regularly found themselves at odds.

Their personal distance is emblematic of a larger dilemma that Patrick, who came into office challenging the status quo on Beacon Hill, is facing heading into his 2010 reelection campaign. Poll numbers suggest the governor needs all the political help he can get to win a second term, but he has strained relationships with several leaders of his own party.

“He’s warm and fuzzy to his constituents, but he’s not warm and fuzzy to elected officials,’’ said Menino, who enjoyed closer ties with Republican governors.

Menino, known for his thin skin, said he has “watched and admired’’ Patrick, adding that the governor is a “great spokesman for us and the Commonwealth.’’ But in the back-slapping, glad-handing world of Democratic politics in Massachusetts, Menino sees Patrick as out of his element.

“He doesn’t come out of the governmental world; he comes out of the business world,’’ said Menino. “He doesn’t understand every word is weighted. It’s something he hasn’t mastered.’’

But Patrick never wanted to master the political decorum that many long-time politicians have come to expect. He prides himself on being a politician of a new order, oriented more to the public than his colleagues in elective office.

“I mean to be respectful to all people, and my first focus is and must be the regular folks who are looking to the governor for leadership, or comfort, or support,’’ Patrick said in an interview. “And that is where I give most of my attention, and that implies nothing about the importance of other elected officials. It just says something about where my first focus tends to be.’’

Patrick added that he was crazy about the mayor, whom he called “one of the best mayors in America.’’

“We don’t agree on everything,’’ Patrick said, “and I don’t think that’s a problem. By the way, Democrats don’t agree on everything. The mayor is very helpful to me, and on a couple of occasions has gone out of his way to be helpful to me.’’

Patrick has had rocky relationships with several of the state’s top Democrats. Senate President Therese Murray, who declined recently to explicitly endorse Patrick’s reelection bid, has made little effort to hide her hostility.

“I like the governor personally; I think he’s a decent person,’’ said House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo. “I’ll throw in the proviso that it hasn’t been without disagreements with him.’’

Patrick had an on-again-off-again relationship with former House speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi, and he has frequently clashed with State Treasurer Timothy P. Cahill, who left the Democratic Party last month to lay the groundwork to run against Patrick next year as an independent.

“The niceties are there, but, fundamentally, if you were going into battle with someone and you had to trust somebody, I don’t think that he’s earned their trust,’’ said one Democratic consultant, who asked not to be identified for fear of alienating clients. “And he would say, ‘Fundamentally, I don’t understand them.’ They would say it’s about introducing them or acknowledging them at events, and he would say, ‘Who cares?’ ’’

Despite the friction, Patrick celebrates what he believes are major achievements he and top lawmakers have achieved together, including a balanced budget in a dismal economy.

State Senator Mark C. Montigny, a Democrat from New Bedford and an early Patrick supporter, said the fact that the governor has some strained relationships is unsurprising.

“People didn’t elect a schmoozer in chief,’’ Montigny said. “Naturally, when you take on that entrenched, immovable culture, there is a price. Part of that price is the ruffled feathers in that culture.’’

But, he added: “The sandbox spats need to fade away. We’re getting ready to face a partisan battle, and we’ve got important business to take care of.’’

Last week, Patrick summoned several dozen lawmakers to his campaign headquarters for a 90-minute meeting to thank them for their support, ask for their help in his reelection, and hear any concerns they have. But ultimately, said state Senator James B. Eldridge, a Democrat from Acton and a strong Patrick supporter, it is not about how many elected officials you have in your corner.

“I’d like to think my endorsement means a lot, but I’m not sure that it does,’’ Eldridge said. “It’s his message and his grassroots support.’’

Patrick and Menino, who hail from vastly different political cultures, started off on opposing political turf, with Menino supporting former attorney general Thomas F. Reilly over Patrick in the 2006 Democratic gubernatorial primary. Menino has never had to interact with a Democratic governor, and before Patrick took office it had always been clear that the mayor was at the pinnacle of Boston politics.

Tellingly, Menino enjoyed good personal relationships with previous GOP governors. Menino and Bill Weld would get together at the Parkman House on Beacon Hill, and he met Paul Cellucci for dinner about once a month, often at the Filippo Restaurant in the North End; His relationship with Jane Swift has been described as one like a father and daughter.

The mayor and Patrick have had phone conversations, including several in recent days, but the only dinner together that Menino remembers is one they agreed to attend with guests who won the dinner in a raffle.

Still, people close to both men say they are able to work together. They both testified recently in favor of reforming the state’s criminal records laws. Patrick pushed, successfully, to give cities and towns the ability to increase taxes on meals and hotel rooms, something Menino has long desired.

They have both supported the licensing of resort casinos and reforming state pension laws, and Patrick recently helped broker an agreement to bring the Tall Ships to Boston.

But Menino is not known to forget a perceived slight, despite his insistence otherwise. That night in 2006 when Patrick won the election, Senator John Kerry introduced the new lieutenant governor, and Senator Edward M. Kennedy introduced the new governor. Confetti poured down from the ceiling.

“They didn’t want me to say anything,’’ Menino said. “Fine, I’m leaving. But I understand that. They’re flubs. I don’t make big things out of them.’’