Desperately Seeking Deval
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.”