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End to one troubling chapter, but a reopening of another one

IT WAS on April 6, 1976, at an antibusing rally outside Boston's City Hall, that photographer Stanley Forman captured the image that would become one of the most notorious icons in Massachusetts history: the assault on black attorney Theodore Landsmark by an angry white 17-year-old using a flagpole bearing the Stars and Stripes as a weapon. It was an ugly moment and an unforgettable picture -- and all the proof countless viewers needed that Boston was a caldron of bigotry.

"For too many people around the country," Mayor Tom Menino lamented a few years ago, "when they think of Boston the image they remember is of Ted Landsmark getting hit with an American flag."

On Jan. 4, 2007, Americans will see another picture of a black attorney in Boston, one with even greater historical resonance. When Deval Patrick raises his right hand and is sworn in as governor of Massachusetts, he will become the first black governor in the state's 375-year history. Whatever else the next four years may bring, Patrick's inauguration will finally wash away the shameful stain of that day in 1976.

Race is a poor reason to vote for or against any candidate. But I find it hard to shake the feeling that many Massachusetts voters relished the idea of elevating a minority to the highest office in the Commonwealth. It says something encouraging about American democracy that even in this tribal state, where politics can be hard to distinguish from blood feuds and the old pols' network jealously takes care of its own, a black kid from the slums -- the Chicago slums, at that -- can grow up to be governor.

Once, Patrick's color would have been all the reason many voters needed to oppose him. In 2006, it was one more thing a lot of voters liked about his candidacy, because it reflected something likable about them. That was the real "race issue" in the 2006 campaign.

But if Patrick's election helps put an end to one troubled chapter from the Bay State's past, it also reopens another one.

With the Corner Office back in Democratic hands, Massachusetts will once again be a one-party state. Republican power will be at its lowest ebb in memory -- perhaps its lowest ebb ever. Democrats have every reason to celebrate; Patrick ran a great campaign and his election victory was decisive. But there was a reason Democrats couldn't get elected governor of the bluest state in the land for the last 16 years. Two words: Michael Dukakis.

The last time Massachusetts was a wholly owned subsidiary of the Democratic Party, the state's economy imploded. Just three years after Dukakis had run for president as the architect of a "Massachusetts miracle," the Bay State was on the verge of fiscal collapse. As revenues slowed to a trickle, red ink drenched Beacon Hill. Taxes and fees were jacked up, and then jacked up again. And still Beacon Hill couldn't balance its books. The state began floating bonds to cover operating expenses. By the time Dukakis departed, Massachusetts's bond rating was the lowest of any state, just one step above "non-investment grade" junk level.

When Democrats last controlled the Massachusetts House, Senate, and governor's office, scandals proliferated. Republicans who spoke out against the one-party mismanagement were derided by those in power. On one memorable occasion -- his State of the State Address of 1989 -- Dukakis slammed those who criticized his record and called for reform as "gutless wonders."

One-party rule, Massachusetts voters discovered, was a disaster. And having been scorched so badly the last time they tried it, they didn't try it again for 16 years.

Now they are ready to try again. Perhaps that is because so many of them find Patrick so appealing. Perhaps it is because Kerry Healey did such an ineffective job of reminding them what the absence of checks and balances can lead to. Perhaps it is because after four terms of Republican governors, voters are simply tired of the GOP. Probably all three.

Patrick ran a campaign largely free of substance and specifics. He wooed voters with inspiration and good feelings. What none of us knows is what he will do with his mandate -- and whether he will learn from Dukakis's experience. He has one great thing going for him: He is not a product of the state's political culture. And he has one great strike against him: Power tends to corrupt.

"Democracy," H. L. Mencken wrote, "is the theory that the common people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard." There doesn't seem to be much doubt about what Massachusetts voters want. The question now is, what are they going to get?

Jeff Jacoby's e-mail address is

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