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Democrats gracefully navigated racial divide

Racial tensions ran high when Deval L. Patrick entered Milton Academy in 1970. There were only a few black students and some felt frustrated that in order to make friends they constantly had to put the white students at ease.

But not Patrick. The 14-year-old from the south side of Chicago found it easy to make connections in the overwhelmingly white school.

"It wasn't so hard for me to build bridges and to love people who were different from me and I think that frustrated some of my buddies who were black," Patrick said last week on WCVB-TV.

Thirty-six years later, Patrick's unusual ability to skillfully navigate the complexities of racial relations helped propel him to the highest office in a state where the electorate is more than 90 percent white.

The subject of race was seldom discussed publicly during the long and intense campaign. But race shaped the election in subtle and powerful ways, and revealed how it still reverberates and influences politics in Massachusetts.

Interviews with more than a dozen people who study race and politics and watched the race closely suggest Patrick tapped into white voters' desire to mend racial divisions and make a positive statement about their own values. His rhetoric, with its mantra of "Together We Can," stressed an encompassing optimism that downplayed the injustices of the past.

In that approach, Patrick is part of a new generation of black political leaders, many of whom came of age on elite Ivy League campuses rather than the Civil Rights battlefields of Selma and Birmingham. As he traveled the state, Patrick drew cheering audiences from black churches in Roxbury to the white hill towns of the northern Berkshires. In the primary, he did best in the tiny Western Massachusetts towns of Mount Washington, Richmond and Wendell, where few blacks live, while his margin in more diverse urban areas like Boston and Worcester, was not as impressive. And when others said that he was the target of racially-charged attacks, Patrick rarely joined in, instead bringing the discussion back to his message of hope.

Mingus Mapps, a political scientist at Brandeis University whose specialty is black candidacies in state elections, recalled discussing race with Patrick at a fundraiser in August.

"One of things he presented to me was an exhaustion with doing press, where the press was quite eager to talk about race issues, and where he wanted to focus on his explicit political agenda," Mapps said. "I think early on he wanted to avoid being pigeonholed as the black candidate, which will help you to some degree but you can only grow that so far in a state that is 87 percent white."

One of Patrick's central themes highlighted his rise from Chicago to Milton, Harvard and the Clinton Administration. But he cast the story in universal terms of overcoming poverty, and seldom mentioned race.

"There was probably a conscious decision that most voters could relate to the Horatio Alger part of his story -- struggling out of poverty and working his way up," Mapps said. "But the percentage of Massachusetts voters who could relate to his black experience would be much, much narrower."

Observers see similarities in the successful candidacies of US Senator Barack Obama of Illinois and Mayor Cory A. Booker of Newark, N.J., both of whom are also Ivy League-educated lawyers born after 1960. They represent an evolution in black political candidates. Ninety-eight percent of black state legislators represent districts where a majority of voters are black. But the success of Obama and Patrick suggest a new approach to attracting wider support from white voters.

Abigail Thernstrom, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, said Patrick's race was an asset in the election, and offered white voters a sense that they could become part of a movement for justice.

"There are a lot of good-willed people who would like to vote for a black candidate, when that candidate is obviously articulate and smart and caring," Thernstrom said. "People don't feel good about the history of blacks in this country and so I do think they welcome the chance to do their little bit in changing the picture of white dominance and black subordination, which is the historical picture."

Patrick called on Obama to campaign for him several times. But he never considered calling on another longtime ally, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, a more divisive figure known for the more combative rhetoric that Patrick shunned.

Doug Rubin, Patrick's spokesman, said of Jackson, "There was never any discussion one way or the other to bring him here when we had people like Obama who reached out." Jackson told the Globe he has campaigned "where I was needed the most," but praised Patrick's election as an example of people "voting their hopes, not their racial fears."

Rubin said Patrick would not comment for this story. He said the campaign was waiting until after the election to assess the role race played in the contest.

Conservative critics suggest the enthusiasm for Patrick among white voters is driven by a superficial desire to make themselves feel better about racial conflict.

"You want to feel good?" Michael Graham, a conservative talk radio host in Boston, said on his show last week. "I know a biracial masseuse in Framingham that makes you feel great, but that doesn't mean I think she should be governor."

Race exploded most openly when Lieutenant Governor Kerry Healey launched ads last month highlighting Patrick's work on behalf of a convicted rapist, Ben LaGuer. Critics said the ads, one of which showed a woman walking alone in a dimly-lit parking garage, played upon a stereotype of black men as sexual predators.

But Patrick was careful not to label the ad racist. "I'm positive that Deval knew there was a racial subtext to those ads," said Ralph C. Martin II, a former Suffolk district attorney. "But he also knew the way he handled this was going to say a lot about his character."

Lani Guinier, a professor at Harvard Law School, said she worries that voters will feel they have no further responsibility to address the difficult problems facing the black community as a whole, simply because they have elected a black governor. Some may seize on Patrick's life story, she said, as evidence that anyone can overcome racial discrimination merely through hope and hard work.

"If we just view this one act at the ballot box as vindication of progress, then we are misreading the moment, because it's a moment of celebration but also of opportunity," Guinier said. "And that opportunity will be lost if we spend all the time patting ourselves on the back."

Patrick's victory is unquestionably a milestone. He is only the second black governor elected since Reconstruction, following L. Douglas Wilder's win in Virginia in 1989. And he is the second black candidate elected to statewide office in Massachusetts since Edward W. Brooke's election as attorney general in 1962.

Donna Brazile, the veteran Democratic strategist who managed Al Gore's campaign in 2000, said that no matter the role race played in the election, Patrick proved he was the best candidate.

"Deval really has run one of the smartest campaigns I've seen this cycle," Brazile said.

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