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Brian McGrory

Learning curve

By Brian McGrory
Globe Columnist / October 27, 2010

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Deval Patrick walked into the men’s room of a Boston radio station where Charlie Baker already was, and the two men, political enemies, had an unexpected meeting at the sink.

It may have been Baker who first said something about how wild it all was and what a learning lesson it’s been. Patrick brought up a line that Baker was widely criticized for, about how surprised he was in his travels to learn about how many ways people make a living, and said he knew exactly what Baker meant.

Baker said there are many times when he understands exactly what Patrick means as well. They went on like that, until Baker handed Patrick some paper towels, and Patrick fixed Baker’s collar. And the two returned to a life of punishing attack ads and roundhouse criticisms.

The chance encounter of a few weeks ago, confirmed two ways, gets to my belief that campaigns do more than give voters a chance to learn about the candidates. They also give the candidates a chance to learn about the people they want to govern.

The candidate who learns the most from the people he or she meets invariably makes the best public official.

I asked Baker and Patrick yesterday, in separate interviews, what they’ve learned about the people of Massachusetts and how it’s changed them over the course of the campaign.

Baker vividly recalled a recent afternoon in Winthrop, a backyard barbeque when he was approached by a few tradesmen who hadn’t worked their trade in well over a year.

They told him they traveled New England picking up odd jobs for less money than they were supposed to make, trying to survive the crush of bills at the end of every month. “They were burly guys,’’ Baker said, standing on the edge of Boston Harbor between campaign stops. “They had mortgages. A couple of them had kids in college.’’

He also talked about a sweaty and solemn fisherman who described his job as a “cancer’’ and regretted bringing his two sons into a vocation that was heading toward death.

Baker paused in the recounting and said, “The urgency in my voice comes from those conversations.’’

Half an hour later and a few miles away, Patrick came bounding into the foyer of his stately colonial in Milton. Techs and aides buzzed around the first floor preparing to film a television spot. His regal Labrador limped down the hall searching for her master. Patrick settled into a study and talked about fear and optimism.

“I’ve seen people rattled to their core,’’ he said. “Not just because of the loss of their income or their savings, but their confidence.

“People want to know that you see them, that they’re on your mind, in your heart.’’

Patrick talked about the wives and parents he has met at military funerals who are coping with unbearable loss, the mothers and fathers of young boys who are gunned down on city streets before their time. He began his tenure not wanting to bother families during a time of grief, but came to realize that he was expected to provide comfort.

“I didn’t have to learn to empathize,’’ Patrick said. “But I never expected that just showing up was an expected part of me as governor. It’s important to people that you are there.’’

As Baker spoke, people and stories seemed to keep popping into his head, and he mentioned the privilege that it has been. As he left, he turned around and called back, “I wouldn’t trade these last 15 months for anything.’’

Likewise, as Patrick offered an unsolicited observation as we wrapped up. “You are surrounded by people, advisers, telling you what to turn yourself into,’’ he said. “If you don’t know who you are all the way into your core, I’m not sure this is worth it.’’

I left thinking these are two good men who took the time to listen to people’s fears and dreams — a very good thing indeed.

Brian McGrory is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at mcgrory@globe.com.