Desperately Seeking Deval
Three years ago, Deval Patrick was an inspirational outsider who rode a wave of goodwill into the State House. Today, he’s one of the least popular governors in the country. Granted unprecedented access to Patrick and his inner circle, Carlo Rotella offers an intimate look at a beleaguered administration and a governor aiming to reclaim his once-sterling image.
“You could say I’ve been thinking about this house for 50 years,” Deval Patrick said one day this summer. He was standing in the airy kitchen of his home in the Berkshires, barefoot, wearing faded jeans and a soft green short-sleeved button-down shirt, preparing a lunch of homemade tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches.
Patrick and his wife, Diane, bought the land, which they christened Sweet P Farm, long before he became governor, but the house wasn’t completed until 2006, the year he took office. Located in Richmond, at the far western edge of the state and set on 77 rolling green acres, the house is low, rambling, and roomy—open to the landscape. It’s as if Patrick had set out to create a place that was the exact opposite of the State House, the insular bastion of old-school politics that he was elected to transform.
When he was a boy growing up in a cramped apartment on the South Side of Chicago, Patrick was fascinated by the floor plans of suburban tract houses published in the Sunday edition of the Chicago Tribune. He used a triangular ruler to explore the plans in three dimensions, and he cut schematic furniture out of paper, shifting the pieces around as he tried to imagine what it would feel like to live in such places.
Patrick left Chicago a long time ago: A Better Chance brought him to Milton Academy at the age of 14, and from there he went on to Harvard, Harvard Law, Hill & Barlow, the Justice Department, Texaco, Coca-Cola, and, finally, the governorship. But he has sustained a lifelong interest in the emotional and psychological effect of physical spaces. He comes to Sweet P Farm not only for a respite from his wrestling matches with the legislature and the attention of the press, but also to get away from the State House itself.
It was a beautiful July afternoon after a month of rain. Sitting at a table on the back patio and dipping his sandwich in his soup, the governor talked about the state’s split personality. “Massachusetts has a long history of innovation,” he said. “The U.S. Constitution is based on our constitution, and look at abolition and all the social entrepreneurs who took their dot-com money and tried to make the world better. But sometimes you see flashes of the other side of Massachusetts, the capital of the status quo.” Local business history is littered with the names of companies—Wang, DEC, Polaroid—that failed because they stood pat and “broke faith with the risk-taking that made their greatness.” On Beacon Hill, capital of the capital of the status quo, “you get more credit for stopping something from happening than for making something happen.” The observation echoed what Patrick had told reporters from the Boston Globe a few weeks earlier, that he would not turn into “the classic overcautious Massachusetts politician.” He added, “We have a very ambitious agenda. We’re going to keep driving that agenda.”
Patrick, who campaigned in 2006 as a reformer and a pro-business Democrat, finds himself trying to reaffirm his political identity in the face of new realities. His personal story doesn’t carry the same payload of novelty and aspiration it once did, and the promise “to change the way business is done on Beacon Hill” can no longer be counted on to galvanize the electorate, which seems far more concerned about unemployment than ethics reform. His approval rating, once as high as 64 percent, fell precipitously during the spring and early summer; by the end of July, it stood at 36 percent. And while polls are notoriously imprecise measurements of enduring political viability, even Patrick, a man who prides himself on taking the long view, can’t afford to ignore such a significant swing in his relationship with voters.
As he talked, the house and its surrounding hills seemed to enfold him in a sort of calm. If he loses next year’s bid for reelection, he’ll retreat to here to lick his wounds, to consider his next career move, to hang out with his pals James Taylor and Yo-Yo Ma, and to tell himself that our shortsighted political culture came between him and his ambitious plans. Sweet P Farm is a long-developing vision that Patrick carefully brought to life as physical fact; it’s what he’s all about. But it’s private property. He didn’t have to work with the legislature to get it designed. He didn’t have to sell his ideas one sound bite at a time to get it built. All it took was money, imagination, and initiative, and he has those to spare.
Holding on to higher office takes a different sort of vision, one that has as much to do with symbolism as it does with substance. The challenge facing the governor, therefore, is one of perception: Having ascended to office as an outsider, can he now craft an image that is more suited to the times, while still remaining true to his beliefs?
“The State House is public space,” Deval Patrick likes to say, and to walk the halls of the building with him is to experience the truth of that claim.
It was a Monday afternoon in May, and the legislature was debating the details of the 2010 budget as one breaker after another of bad news rolled in and economists argued about whether it was 1973 or 1933 all over again. Massachusetts was in better shape than most other states, but it needed to close an alarming, ever-widening gap between revenue and spending. There was no painless way to do it. Programs would be cut, taxes raised. Legislators favored an increase in the sales tax; the governor favored hiking specific taxes in order to meet specific needs. Most controversially, he wanted to raise the gas tax. Though he said he was willing to consider any reasonable plan, he also said he would veto any tax increase if the legislature did not first pass three reform bills—on pensions, transportation, and ethics—that had been in the works for months.
At the moment, however, the governor had a more pressing concern: He was trying to get out of the State House. He had almost an hour before his next meeting, enough time to grab a late lunch and a little fresh air. Escorted by a couple of aides and a state trooper, Patrick left his third-floor office, walked past the portraits of former governors in the reception area, and took the elevator down to the first floor. But in the corridor leading to the exit, he ran aground on a shoal of citizens. They had come to Boston from Worcester, Fall River, and other distressed Bay State cities to urge their representatives not to dump the pain of responding to the economic crisis on working people and the poor.
Patrick heard them out, thanked them, and promised to meet with them the following week. When he broke free of the scrum, a gaunt, intense woman from Brookline blocked his path. With a determined smile, she explained why the budgets of certain mental health programs should not be cut. Then representatives of an arts program for young people waylaid him for a few minutes. Next up was a big, anxious-looking guy who rushed over to ask how to file a complaint about a Waltham police officer. Fleshy, with dark stains on his T-shirt and beads of sweat forming along his receding hairline, he loomed over the compactly built governor. The trooper on Patrick’s security detail made a discreet upward-tipping drinking gesture with his thumb as an aide stepped in to direct the guy to the constituent services office upstairs. “All right, Governor,” the guy said. “I’m gonna do that after I go outside and have a cigarette to calm down, ’cause I’m not doing too well right now.”
Just when the governor thought he was out of the State House, they pulled him back in. As Patrick crossed the lobby to the exit, an aide asked if he would meet briefly with a citizen group right now. He went back down the hall to the first-floor press room, where about 40 people were waiting for him. Several told him about the importance of imperiled state services in their lives. One asked why no one was talking about increasing the corporate tax rate, or creating a progressive income tax. “If we wanted to talk seriously about a graduated income tax, it would take years to do, and it would require a change in the state constitution,” Patrick said. “Meanwhile, we have a billion-dollar problem right now.” He urged them to call their legislators—not just about the cuts that affected them most, but also about the reform bills. “It’s one thing you can do right now.”
Patrick finally slipped out of the building through a back door and made it across the street to a diner for a cup of takeout chicken soup. On the sidewalk, he ran into Jon Hurst, president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts. As the two men exchanged a hurried greeting, Hurst urged Patrick to consider raising the income tax rather than the sales tax. In his Rotarian sort of way, Hurst was saying what almost everybody was saying to the governor: Look, I’m not doing too well right now. I know times are tough and sacrifices have to be made, but you can’t put it on me, on my tribe. Put it on somebody else.
It was the end of last year, the midpoint of Patrick’s first term, when that Boston Globe poll showed he had a 64 percent approval rating. After a bumpy start—replacing his original chief of staff and chief media adviser, weathering media tempests about money spent on upgrading office decorations and the motor pool—he had settled into the position. He and his staff had seemed to learn that appearances count. More substantively, his administration had gradually extended its political reach in the State House to put Patrick’s agenda into effect—with, for instance, the passage of a billion-dollar life-sciences initiative in 2008. Meanwhile, the legislature was in turmoil after a series of ethics scandals that featured the arrest of two state senators and the resignation of House Speaker Sal DiMasi. By early 2009, Patrick’s standing, inside and outside the State House, had never been greater.
At the same time, however, the breadth and depth of the global financial crisis was coming into view, and Patrick, like governors all over the country, found himself confronting an unprecedented challenge. Initially, voters appeared ready to trust him to lead the state through the downturn. (A 64 percent approval rating is a surprisingly high mark for a midterm governor whose state was, in fact, already in a recession.) Patrick had spent many Saturday nights in the fall going over the budget line by line, making the decisions about where to cut. But as the recession dragged on, month after month, a large portion of the population began to lose faith in his leadership.
Part of the disaffection was to be expected: When things go wrong, voters tend to blame whoever’s in charge, even if they know a mess of such magnitude isn’t his fault. Yet Patrick’s sense of himself, as a leader who rises above a short-term fixation on the news cycle, is also part of the problem. He reframed his reform initiatives and long-range economic development plans as important elements of his strategy for managing the crisis, and he continues to believe that cleaning up old messes and letting light into the State House will recruit citizens’ confidence in his administration. Massachusetts, as Patrick sees it, will come out of the crisis in good shape—with a leaner government, an updated education system, and a renewed commitment to growing economic sectors like life sciences and clean energy. But to a lot of voters, Patrick seems to be simply staying the course even when circumstances demand a fresh approach.
To Patrick’s prospective 2010 opponents, such constancy makes him an inviting target. If the governor won’t redefine himself in the face of the crisis, they will do it for him. They could depict him as a moralizing idealist, one who stubbornly persisted in squabbling with legislative leadership and holding the budget hostage over minor reforms while the economy collapsed. They could call him a failed populist who is now seriously out of touch.
On May 20, in the middle of the drama over the reform bills and the budget, Senate President Therese Murray said on a radio show that the governor was “irrelevant.” The next day, Patrick stood before TV cameras in an echoing State House corridor. He was wearing a pale gray checked suit and a thin smile indicating effortful forbearance, a characteristic expression that says, I’d be within my rights to get mad about this, but that would only produce more fodder for the sensation-seeking press and make it harder to get things done. He held his hands loosely clasped in front of his belt buckle, below the cameras’ view. The thumbs slowly rotated around each other, twiddling backward.
“It’s not about anything personal…. Whatever the revenue package is, whether it’s broad-based like the sales tax or the more targeted measures that I have advocated—not one dime until the reform agenda is complete,” Patrick said. A reporter asked what he had to say to critics who complained about his recent trip out of state to attend a biotechnology convention in Atlanta. Shouldn’t he have been fighting for the reform bills, if it was so important to pass them before a new budget could go through? “I was in Georgia fighting for jobs,” Patrick said.
Patrick believes he can—and must—go directly to the electorate, that part of his mandate and his duty is to get beyond The Building. That’s what people who work in the State House call it: The Building, by which they mean not only the physical place but also the political culture for which it serves as both headquarters and central metaphor.
In 2006, Patrick won by running against The Building, and he hasn’t stopped running against it, even as the occupant of the corner office. Emphasizing that he’s “governor of the whole commonwealth and not just of the State House,” he makes as many appearances as he can beyond Route 128, where, he says, “a little attention generates a lot of love.” But his powerful desire to get out of The Building goes deeper than a need to feel the love. To Patrick, leaving The Building means escaping what he calls “the echo chamber,” allowing him to get in touch with citizens’ priorities and make his own known to them.
Later that afternoon, the governor sat in the back seat of an SUV crawling out of the city through bumper-to-bumper traffic to a community forum in Marblehead. He tapped out messages on his BlackBerry and returned calls: scheduling Barack and Michelle Obama for breakfast in the fall; getting an update on an eight-year-old in Boston Medical Center with a bad case of H1N1 flu; following up on contacts from the biotech conference; determining the precise difference between a “closed” and an “unstaffed” state forest.
In the library of Marblehead High School, which was packed with more than a hundred citizens, Patrick shed his jacket and told participants to expect “a substantive conversation, but an informal one.” After a sobering PowerPoint presentation—”If you cut salaries by laying off every state employee on the operating budget, you would still be short $1.1 billion”—he said: “So, let’s talk.”
Patrick has had lots of practice in town hall settings; he has his moves down. He let the participants talk their way into their points and guided them with follow-up questions; made his characteristic pinch-and-jiggle gesture with thumb and forefinger while breaking down a dozen different complicated matters in plain speech; and moved up close to speakers to attend to them with a chin-tucked, up-from-under gaze that made them feel they were saying something important. The discussion ranged from the gas tax, clean energy, and the Big Dig’s lingering fiscal consequences to a single-payer healthcare system and how spending cuts would affect services. The citizens were scared, and he tried to make them feel better without sugarcoating things. “Economies are cyclical,” he says at these forums. “Things will get better. But we have to responsibly address our short-term problems and plan ahead for the long term to position ourselves to take advantage when they do get better.”
All this plays well enough at the forums themselves, where everyone is on his or her best behavior, but to what extent does a conversation like this amount to “going to the people” in a meaningful way? Yes, constituents voice their concerns, or rather a smattering of the small, self-selected subset of well-informed and highly motivated citizens who attend community forums voice their concerns. Participants are often animated by a particular issue that has drawn them into political life—closing a local coal-fired power plant, for instance, or preserving mental health services for a loved one—and have a command of the facts that makes them more akin to lobbyists than the man on the street. More important, the one thing folks don’t have to do at a forum is cast an up-or-down decision as they do in an election.
The crowd in Marblehead, for instance, applauded when someone brought up the idea of a graduated income tax. Patrick and his staffers, talking it over later in the car, were surprised. One adviser said, “In Cambridge or Northampton, sure, you’d expect it, but Marblehead?” Still, what did the applause really tell them? That there was overwhelming support for a graduated income tax? Or just that the kinds of people who go to community forums in Marblehead like the idea—or like the idea of liking the idea, or want to please their important guest?
The governor and his staff take the community forums to heart, but Patrick’s belief that getting beyond the echo chamber of the State House is a matter of physically leaving the building may very well create another, subtler sort of echo chamber, one that travels with him no matter how far across the state he roams.
The community forums also raise a question that will matter a great deal between now and next November: Why doesn’t the Deval Patrick who wowed them in Marblehead show up very often in the media? Some of the answer can be found in the awkward fit between the governor’s political style and the shape of the news hole. Most people do not learn about the issues by taking a couple of hours to knock them around in an intimate setting. And Patrick’s aversion to the short-term news cycle can also come off as disdain for the game of politics as it’s played and watched by most Americans—the game he calls “two heads screaming at each other on TV.”
Patrick’s undisguised disapproval of the media’s priorities in reporting on politics (early in his governorship, he told a gathering of newspaper publishers that the media’s cynicism made it oblivious to the significance of his election) helps explain the retributive glee with which his mistakes have been reported. But what really stands out when you compare his performance at community forums with, say, his on-camera turn when asked to respond to Therese Murray’s calling him “irrelevant” is the difference in the level of patience he displays with those on the other side.
At the forums, he extends a courtly regard to every speaker. He let the antitax crusader Barbara Anderson have her say in Marblehead, even when she said government would “steal even more from us, they’ll pick us off one bracket at a time” and incorrectly claimed that Massachusetts had the nation’s fourth-highest taxes. He was patient to a fault with the Ayn Rand zealot and the Larouchian who sat together at a Braintree forum and asked bizarre questions. When a white-haired gent named Tom rose to assail the proposed gas tax, Patrick suggested ways to strengthen Tom’s criticism of Patrick’s own plan.
But with the TV cameras on him and only a few seconds in which to deliver a response to Murray, Patrick looked as if he was counting to 10 to avoid snapping at somebody—visibly curbing his impatience with Murray for descending to name-calling, with the press for treating it as news, with what he clearly regarded as the whole disappointing business of politics as it usually shows up on the news.
Patrick admits that impatience, with himself and others, is his principal temperamental failing. At times it breaches the air of measured, far-seeing reserve he has done his best to inherit from his grandfather. “A lot of his life was about delayed gratification,” Patrick said of his grandfather, who worked as a janitor at a bank for 60 years. “Sticking to your knitting, building toward something, humility.” Patrick may have been born in his grandfather’s bedroom and grown up under his influence, but he’s also a product of corporate boardrooms and high-powered law firms, a member of the elite who is comfortable in command and not inclined to turn the other cheek. “I have feelings,” he said one day in the car on the way to another event. “My stomach gets to churning. I get angry and short.” When that happens, Patrick can look like a holier-than-thou rich guy who’s getting testy because lowly functionaries—such as the duly elected legislative representatives of the people of Massachusetts or the sensation-grubbers of the Fourth Estate—are preventing him from getting his way. Even as he has brought more State House insiders onto his staff, Patrick still radiates suspicion of those who live by The Building’s traditions.
When the community forum in Marblehead was over, a gangly teenager in a blue blazer, the president of Marblehead High School’s student body, came up to ask the governor if he had any advice for a fellow politician. Patrick thought for a moment, then said, “Know your values. Govern by them. Run on them. If you lose, you lose.”
Returning to Boston after the Marblehead forum, the governor got back to the State House at 11 p.m. About 20 members of his inner circle were waiting for him around the conference table in his office. Most were in after-hours gear: jeans, shorts, T-shirts. An air of suppressed excitement charged the room. They were fired up by the prospect of the “reform before revenue” agenda succeeding, but they were also trying to be cool about it. Patrick, who had been going nonstop since early in the morning, was still in business attire, his white shirt still crisp, no sign of slackening in the knot of his tie. Someone handed him a bottle of Harpoon ale, which he sipped as, one by one, each person present offered an assessment of where they stood.
The consensus around the table was that the governor held a strong hand with the legislature but had to be careful not to overplay it. All he needed now was for a couple of representatives with the right sort of clout to go to the speaker of the House and tell him they would not vote to override a gubernatorial veto of the budget. Such votes could be found, but the governor wanted to press gently, cultivating his relationship with Robert DeLeo and taking care not to undercut him as he settled into his role as speaker.
Therese Murray remained a more difficult problem. Over the past few months, her posture toward the governor had gone from chilly cordiality to the kind of naked personal dislike that bigtime politicians rarely allow themselves to display. She had developed a patent aversion to uttering Patrick’s name or making eye contact with him. Explanations abounded in The Building as to the exact mix of reasons for the bad blood, but most agreed that Murray felt compelled to be the legislature’s chief defender in the face of the governor’s habit of criticizing members in public to improve his political leverage, even as his staffers made deals with them behind the scenes. “A lot of members are still really ripped at him,” as one seasoned observer in The Building put it, because the governor was “still punching us in the face on the radio.”
The advisers around the table considered such bruised feelings to be an acceptable price to pay for what they had gained. They believed they were finally exploding the perception that Patrick couldn’t get much done with the legislature, putting to rest the persistent narrative of the State House novice who had gotten off to a slow start. Some saw a bigger sea change, a passing of the old guard and the gradual rise of a new generation of political professionals whose frame of reference was not circumscribed by The Building. One staffer said, “We’re doing what we said we’d do, and it makes even our friends nervous.” They were as giddy as self-consciously hard-boiled political professionals could allow themselves to be.
Having heard from everyone at the table, the governor spoke. First, he cautioned them to calm down. “Testosterone is a poison,” he said. “A poison.” He looked at one of the toughest-talking staffers. “Okay?” “Okay.” Patrick caught another’s eye. “Okay?” “Okay, Governor.”
“You’ve heard me say it before,” Patrick went on. “Watch yourself. When we’re in a position to embarrass back, we cannot sink to this. I have to check myself not to get down into this personal thing. The office always deserves respect. If we’re going to set a different tone, if we’re going to ask for a different tone, we’ve got to show it.”
Then he directed them to the longer view. “Let’s win on reform so we can have the credibility and leverage to do the big ones: life sciences, clean energy, healthcare, the Readiness Project”—a major educational reform. “I believe that we can’t do those until we do the smaller ones that are really important to people. I think we can get revenue and reform, but if we accept revenue without reform, then we won’t be able to fight for what we really want.”
Victory was in the air at that late-night session, but the poll putting the governor’s approval rating at 36 percent, released a few weeks later, would cast the gathering in a different light: Whatever Patrick and his staff were seeing and believing, they still had a great deal of work to do to convince the citizens of Massachusetts to see and believe the same thing.
On the July afternoon when Patrick whipped up soup and sandwiches for a visitor at Sweet P Farm, he had just signed the three reform bills and the budget, initiating a midgame in his administration that would be measured in months or years, depending on the results of the 2010 election (and, perhaps, the comings and goings in President Obama’s cabinet). Wrangling over line items was under way; his staff was putting the finishing touches on proposed legislation that would lift the caps on charter schools.
The list of potential campaign opponents had also begun to shape up. There was no Democratic challenger in view, but Tim Cahill, the state’s treasurer, had left the party to set up a potential run as an independent. On the Republican side, Christy Mihos was in again, as was Charlie Baker, the president and CEO of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care and a former aide to Governor Bill Weld. Baker was regarded as a formidable challenger, an opponent to worry about. After he announced his candidacy, Therese Murray immediately issued a statement saying she had “a great deal of respect” for Baker.
There was an upcoming surgery to worry about, too, a hip replacement in early September that would put Patrick on crutches for a while. He and Diane, who came in and out of the kitchen while her husband cooked, joked about his squeamishness over needles and other medical indignities.
Out on the patio during lunch, Patrick’s cell phone rang. It was Baker, for whom he had left a message earlier in the day. They had been undergraduates at Harvard at the same time, and knew each other slightly. Patrick said, “I just want to welcome you warmly to the race. I think there are real philosophical differences between us, and I look forward to discussing them…. I’m aware of the wear and tear on you and on your family…. I see you as my competitor and not my enemy…. Keep this number. Call if you need to.”
When he was off the phone, the governor said, “It’s possible that circumstances”—by which he meant the economic crisis—”will sharpen the mind, and we won’t devolve into the usual rhetoric. I think people are hungry for someone just leveling with them.” (Soon the lieutenant governor, Tim Murray, to whom Patrick delegates much of his political aggression, would be attacking Baker as a leading culprit behind the Big Dig and the nation’s healthcare problem.)
The discussion turned to the topic of a graduated income tax, which citizens kept raising at community forums. “The question that’s always begged in this is, What do we want government to do? Is this the way to generate more revenue?” Patrick said. “There’s so much work we have to put into a civic conversation about this. Using the media available, the question is, Can we have that conversation?” Asked if it was really possible to conduct such a conversation with 6.5 million people during a campaign via newspapers, TV, radio, YouTube, and Twitter, he said, “I believe that the approach has to be to see the commonwealth as a series of rooms full of people.”
Patrick circled back to the issue that was foremost on his mind, the tension between winning the political game and governing on personal values. “There are changes we have to make today that, if we make them with courage, we will be better off for in the long run. There may be a political price to pay, but they’re worth doing. Look, I want to get reelected, but there are things worth losing an election over, to get them right. There are decisions that are politically expedient, and things that are the right thing to do. I’d like them to align, but…” and he let the thought hang there. For a guy who wants to be governor for five and a half more years, he talks a lot about losing elections.
Patrick has put his bets on the table, convinced that if he can weather the short-term hits, the gambles will eventually pay off. The state’s economy is showing signs of a nascent recovery. A local breakthrough in clean energy or a major discovery in life sciences wouldn’t hurt, either. Meanwhile, “reform before revenue” has given him a legislative win, and he always has a potent hole card to play: his close relationship with the president of the United States. Massachusetts has already secured more than its proportional share of stimulus money, and he can call on Obama himself to provide a welcome boost during the campaign. Just the thought of Air Force One touching down on the runway at Hanscom Air Force Base would strike fear into the hearts of Patrick’s opponents.
But even if some of those bets come in, he still faces a major crisis, one partly of his own making. Reform, taking on the legislature, opening up the State House—those issues served him well in 2006, but they no longer carry the same weight with the electorate. Even if long-range planning and staying the course are the best way to handle the financial crisis, they aren’t winning over potential voters, and Baker will soon be wooing independents with “Read my lips: no new taxes.” Keeping one’s eyes on the prize is an estimable virtue, as long as you don’t forget a critical caveat: You have to win to stay in the game, and that means playing by the rules, no matter what you think of them—short-term news cycle, dueling sound bites, and all.
Patrick, who majored in English and American literature at Harvard, brought up a passage in Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi that has remained a touchstone for him. As a boy, dreaming of becoming a riverboat pilot, Twain was smitten by the river’s beauty, but his romantic view of it changed when he actually learned to do the job. A scenic ripple became a warning of a boat-snagging hazard; sunlight on the water became a portent of wind:
“It’s a beautiful passage,” said Patrick, and fell silent, contemplating it. Birdsong punctuated the stillness. Out in front of the house, a rental company delivered a rather elegant port-a-potty for a campaign fundraiser the Patricks would be hosting over the weekend. After a long pause, the governor went back to talking about The Building.
CARLO ROTELLA is director of American studies at Boston College.