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Patrick hits the road campaign-style

Tour stops offer personal touch

Governor Deval Patrick says his “summer conversations’’ are his way of interacting directly with state residents. Governor Deval Patrick says his “summer conversations’’ are his way of interacting directly with state residents. (Jessey Dearing for The Boston Globe)
By Noah Bierman
Globe Staff / July 26, 2011

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SALISBURY - Governor Deval Patrick stood in the town green with his sleeves rolled up and a microphone, ticking off his second-term priorities in a speech that sounded a lot like the one he gave last fall when he was running for reelection.

“Because we have a strategy that’s focused on education, on innovation, and on infrastructure, we are growing jobs faster than 46 other states . . .’’ he said, before taking questions from the audience of about 100.

The governor is just six months into his second term and has said he will not run for a third. But followed around by the Globe this month, he has been a man in campaign mode. He’s holding a series of town meetings called “summer conversations,’’ assuming his trademark group therapist tone as he works small crowds.

In between, he squeezes in visits to factories, schools, and even a vineyard, where he bought six bottles of sparkling pinot noir-chardonnay blends.

After town halls - held from Lenox to Martha’s Vineyard and today, to Jamaica Plain - he holds fund-raisers for his political action committee and book signings to promote his memoir.

So what is he up to?

Aides and supporters say there is no hidden agenda to the frenetic public pace, noting that he held summer tours throughout his first term. They say it is just Patrick playing to his strengths, a politician who is willing to meet the public without screening their questions ahead of time. Patrick himself says it is his way of interacting directly with residents and not through the media.

Others add that it helps him wield political clout on Beacon Hill - reminding legislators that he remains popular in their districts - and insulates him from criticism that he is leaving the state too often as he builds a national profile and prepares to campaign on behalf of President Obama.

It may also prove useful when, as the state’s top Democrat, he gears up to help his party challenge Senator Scott Brown, a Republican who has been criticized for not holding town meetings of his own.

“To govern, you need to campaign,’’ said Virginia Sapiro, a Boston University political science professor who focuses on elections and public opinion. “Day to day politics sure acts like it’s a battle, and a battle for the public.’’

As Patrick outlines his second-term priorities at these town meetings, crowds range from 70 to 100, filled in substantially by state employees and local Democratic Party officials.

Questions are mostly conventional: taxes, schools, and health care, with the occasional wild card.

In Salisbury, Patrick smiled respectfully when a 60-year-old teacher demanded civil rights charges against James “Whitey’’ Bulger.

When a young man in Westport held up a picture of Obama with a Hitler mustache, the crowd booed, but the governor coolly answered his question.

Some inquiries get technical, requiring Patrick either to call up an aide or to offer a generic but noncommittal response.

Last week in Westport, after a question about dairy tax credit, Patrick said a few encouraging words about the industry, then called up Scott Soares, his agricultural commissioner, to handle the details.

The governor disagrees with constituents at times but never confrontationally.

“That is interesting because one of the things I’m hearing is the flip-side of that,’’ he told two teachers in Westport who argued that principals have too much power over teachers.

The teachers, officers in their unions, were worried about new rules that will make test results part of teacher evaluations.

Patrick explained his transformation from skeptic to supporter of the tests with a self-deprecating joke.

“Number one, I stink at standardized testing,’’ said Patrick, who failed the bar exam twice, drawing a laugh.

“Because it’s new, it’s a huge source of anxiety, and you worry about the abuse of folks as we go,’’ he said. “We’re going to feel our way forward.’’

Patrick’s ability to win over those who disagree with him is something even his political opponents have long admired, and it is one of several factors that anchor his power on Beacon Hill.

Since his victory last fall, Patrick has been showing far more confidence in using that authority at the State House. As his second term began, he said he planned to use his grass-roots popularity more aggressively than in the past to push his policy positions.

“The more popular you are, certainly the more clout you have in the building,’’ said Steven C. Panagiotakos, a former Democratic state senator who worked closely with Patrick on Beacon Hill. “This governor, I think he’s at a height.’’

Republican political consultant Rob Gray, who worked Governor William F. Weld’s administration, said Patrick’s in-state travel is especially important as he ventures out of state more often.

If governors are not around, others on Beacon Hill are more than willing to fill in the power vacuum, he said.

“I see it mostly as political cover for being out on a book tour nationally and traveling a lot out of state on behalf of President Obama,’’ Gray said. “The governor is smart enough to have seen how out-of-state travel negatively impacted Bill Weld and Mitt Romney, so he’s trying to paint a picture of being out among the people of Massachusetts as a fig leaf.’’

Patrick’s second-term agenda started with an ambitious plan to fundamentally redesign the health care payment system. But in the heat of the summer, when the State House grows desultory, there is little hope of negotiating transformative legislation, short of an emergency.

So the governor has been using his time to travel and raise money, both inside and outside state borders.

Aides say that in choosing where Patrick holds local meetings, they look for towns he has not appeared in past summer tours and places that have local daily newspapers, which usually feature the appearances prominently.

Several of the locations are upscale, a choice aides insist is partly coincidence, and partly to reach voters while they are on vacation.

Bierman can be reached at nbierman@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @noahbierman.