Together no more

Is a GOP governor needed to balance the Democratic Legislature? One Democrat keeps bolstering the case.

By Tom Keane
June 21, 2009
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I never interpreted candidate Deval Patrick's 2006 slogan of "Together We Can" as a claim that from unity comes power or some such nonsense. Rather, it was a direct attack on the compelling argument that had spurred Massachusetts voters -- despite their clear lack of conservative sympathies -- to elect a governor from the GOP for the prior 16 years: that only a Republican could be trusted to keep the Democratic-controlled Legislature in check. Patrick contended the contrary: a Democratic monopoly was no bad thing, and reform -- and real political progress -- could in fact come from within.

Just over two years into Patrick's term, it's fair to say that the validity of that argument is in serious doubt.

The problem every governor faces is the Legislature. In caricature, the House and Senate are dens of self-interested inward-turning thieves and dimwitted clowns maniacally raising taxes and abusing the public trust. I don't buy all that; I know too many individual legislators who are smart and committed and genuinely believe in public service. Still, the Legislature does itself no favors. Its members and leaders have been under fire for alleged corruption, while current controversies over pension abuses and ethics reform only underscore the sense that someone -- namely, the governor -- is needed as a counterweight. Instead, Patrick has seemingly become part of the same toxic system.

The most obvious sign of that is Patrick's use of patronage. Examples abound, including Milton neighbor Dana Harrell (named director of real estate services), steering campaign committee member Martina Jackson (communications director at the Department of Elder Affairs), and campaign driver Mark Conrad (chairman of the state Parole Board). And then, of course, there was the Marian Walsh saga. That appointment to a $175,000 job, an apparently unnecessary position (it had been unfilled for a dozen years), dominated headlines for weeks.

On top of that, the governor has seemed curiously out of touch with the electorate and the good government rhetoric he once espoused. Even if you chalk up some early missteps to growing pains -- initially using taxpayer money to redecorate his office or traveling to New York to hawk a book proposal during a critical vote on gambling -- he's shown he has a tin ear for politics. He brought in James Aloisi, blamed by many as the cause of the Big Dig's problems -- ostensibly to clean up those very messes. He has spent vast amounts of time off the job; 60 weekdays in his term so far, according to a Globe analysis of his schedule. And his dismissal of any criticism often has an elitist tone (for example, he first described concerns about the Walsh appointment -- which never came to pass -- as "trivial").

All of this has taken its toll. Earlier this year a poll commissioned by WBZ-TV showed just 27 percent voicing approval of the governor and a stunningly high 68 percent disapproving. Those numbers don't bode well for reelection.

One tactic that Patrick seems to be considering is remaking himself into an outsider, emulating the GOP governors who preceded him by taking on the Legislature rather than trying to work with it. Republicans, on the other hand, will argue that the issue is less Patrick than it is the Democratic hegemony. An insider to the party cannot simultaneously be an outsider. The pressure for jobs, political rewards, and horse-trading are too powerful. A Democratic governor just can't keep other Democrats honest.

It's an argument voters have bought before, and, if the GOP nominates a credible candidate, one it seems they might buy again. With just 11.6 percent of Massachusetts voters registered as Republicans, it's clear the key to GOP success in 2010 will not be ideology but independence. There are several candidates out there who could meet that test: Charlie Baker (head of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care), Christy Mihos (the convenience-store king), and state Senator Scott Brown (best known as the father of former American Idol contestant Ayla Brown). All care more about fiscal issues than the hard-right social issues that seem to define the party nationally (though Mitt Romney's election is proof Massachusetts voters will sometimes disregard such matters in their desperation to find someone to ride herd over the Legislature). Next year's election likely will show voters concluding that, the governor's hopes notwithstanding, together we can't.

Tom Keane, a Boston-based freelance writer, contributes regularly to the Globe Magazine. E-mail him at