Desperately Seeking Deval
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?