Joan Vennochi

A vindication for Patrick

By Joan Vennochi
Globe Columnist / November 7, 2010

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IT WAS more than victory. It was vindication.

When Governor Deval Patrick snatched a second term from the jaws of a possible defeat, he added another successful chapter to the story of his life. But this one did not come easy.

Charlie Baker, the Republican and ex-CEO who also ran for governor, was criticized for living what was he was born into: a charmed life. Patrick’s was charmed in a different way, but still charmed.

He was the lucky kid plucked from Chicago’s South Side and eased onto a path that took him to Milton Academy, Harvard, the US Justice Department, and then the boardrooms of corporate America. He capped that off with his improbable election as the first African-American governor of Massachusetts. He was also the first Democrat in 16 years to win the corner office.

That’s when the man who knew only success hit a wall that might have been tougher to vault than any accident of birth. In the strange universe that thrives under the Golden Dome, Patrick was the outsider, up against entrenched backstabbers. Just like in the song, they do it with a smile on their face. Fellow Democrats did not want to share power with the new governor; indeed they were used to using their power to get what they wanted from a series of Republican governors.

Shortly after winning election, Patrick blasted the press for being too cynical to understand the fabulousness of his effort. Quickly, he became “Cadillac Deval’’ after the fiasco of his expensive new drapes and fancy leased car. He was mocked as naive and inept and vilified for failing to deliver what he promised during his campaign: a different kind of politics. And it all happened before he finished his first 100 days in office. His wife, Diane, also underwent treatment for depression, adding to the stress.

Beacon Hill was turning out to be a cold, unwelcoming mountaintop. By the third year, the low poll numbers, the quarreling with the Legislature, the carping by the press, the institutional impediments to getting things done, and the economic collapse were wearing him down.

Citing family reasons, he could have decided not to run. He could have framed a reasonable, if not triumphant, legacy around the political history he made just by winning election. Then, he could have retreated to a comfortable life in law, business, or academia.

Instead he sought reelection.

People who know him say Patrick ran again because he truly believes that government can play a role in lifting up society. He cares about “generational responsibility.’’ And, last but not least, he wanted his record and ideas to be vindicated.

Adversity breeds strength. Just ask Martha Coakley. When she lost to Scott Brown, she faced absolute failure, not the threat of it. She returned to the arena anyway. Unlike Patrick, she had no serious opponent. All she had to do was beat the ghosts of a past election.

Patrick had to fend off Baker and a narrative that painted his rival as the rightful heir to the governor’s office. He did it by running a champion’s race. Voters can only hope he continues running it during his second term.

It isn’t easy for anyone in public life to hear mean assessments of their efforts, no matter how accurate the analysis may be. During political campaigns, the tiniest mistakes and shortcomings are magnified. Opponents and the media gleefully trumpet them and they are fodder for endless loops of attack ads. Perspective is the first casualty in the battle to win political office.

In theory, there should be a kinder, gentler way of deciding who deserves to represent the people, and then judging those who prevail. In practice, it doesn’t play out that way. Perhaps that is the price attached to the peaceful handing over of power that goes along with democracy. There are no guns, only harsh words and cruel critiques.

Patrick survived them and came out a winner.

Something to think about: Patrick’s great victory handed Baker his first serious setback in life. His future is defined by how he handles it.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@