Saint Patrick and His Devils

Gubernatorial candidate Deval Patrick may be hailed as a savior by liberal Democrats, but he doesn’t have a prayer if he can’t beat his rep among conservatives as the “quota king.”

Massachusetts may be the birthplace of the American racial justice movement, but that was a long time ago. These days, we’re better known as a place where minority political power is conspicuously scarce, and upwardly mobile blacks are far more likely to flee to more hospitable states than stay and run for high elective office.

But less than nine months from now, the unthinkable might happen. A poor kid from the Midwest, who came here under unlikely circumstances 35 years ago and went on to become one of the nation’s leading civil rights crusaders, could become this state’s first black governor. And if he should pull off that improbable feat, watch for a turn in the long-retreating tide of black professionals like Anna Waring, a Roxbury native who runs a private girls’ Catholic school in Chicago.

If Deval Patrick is elected, Waring says, “I might have to move back.”

Waring has been a huge Patrick fan since they were freshmen together at Milton Academy in 1970. But Patrick, who has unexpectedly become the hottest ticket in the Massachusetts gubernatorial race, has picked up plenty of new believers. Local liberals have been waiting for someone like him for some time, their hope dwindling with each inept insider failure coughed up by the calcified Democratic Party. “You tell someone a candidate came up through the ranks, was a rep, then a senator, and their eyes just glaze over,” moans longtime party activist Barbara Miranda.

So for Miranda and the other suburban liberals packed into a recent meeting of the Belmont Democratic Town Committee, the Patrick candidacy is a latter-day miracle. These folks would have laughed you out of Starbucks if you had told them two years ago that a handsome Harvard grad—a ghetto kid made good with impeccable progressive credentials as a defense lawyer, a top Clinton administration drum major for justice—would come out of nowhere to lead them to the promised land.

Skepticism and despair give way to exultant applause as Patrick walks into a sweaty second-floor meeting room in Belmont Town Hall. Like Tom Cruise courting the love-struck Renée Zellweger in Jerry Maguire, Patrick has this crowd at “Hello.” And these are precisely the sort of earnest, affluent activists whose money and labor Patrick needs to compete with the plump war chest and institutional support stockpiled by Attorney General Tom Reilly, let alone the even fatter Kerry Healey bankroll that will confront the Democratic nominee this fall.

With his flawless diction, restrained tone, and flat Midwestern accent, Patrick is a soothing study in sincerity. He does not play pretend by mimicking the evangelical passion of the pulpit or the rostrum-pounding rhetorical heat of the pol on the make. He’s a calm, Ivy League lawyer, artfully leading the jury to its inevitable endorsement of his argument. His left hand stays in his jacket pocket, leaving the right to provide occasional, understated punctuation. His facial expression is unblinking and intense, but not in an off-putting way. The image projected is of intelligence, poise, and, above all, thoughtfulness, a trait emphasized by his habit of cocking his head to one side and looking off to a brighter horizon as he reaches for a particularly profound expression: “I am so in my soul convinced the same old thing isn’t gonna work.”

Soul far, soul good for the Deval Patrick Express, an improbable bandwagon that has yet to hit a serious bump. Once barely registering in name-recognition polls, Patrick is now well within striking distance of Reilly in the polls and beats Healey in most trial heats. With the help of true believers like those in the Belmont audience, he cleaned Reilly’s clock at the February caucuses, a show of organizational force that will likely ensure his victory at next month’s state party convention in Worcester.

Perhaps most promisingly of all, he is by far the most engaging speaker in the field. It’s one thing to be one of the few black faces among the adoring crowd in upscale Belmont, quite another to be the exception to the rule at a pre–St. Patrick’s Day luncheon in blue-collar Lawrence. The upstairs room at the Claddagh Restaurant is packed with socially conservative, urban Catholics, the kind of late-breaking swing voters who abandoned Shannon O’Brien for Mitt Romney in 2002 in horror over her pledge to let 16-year-old girls get abortions without parental consent.

“My name is Deval Patrick,” he tells the crowd. “I’m from the other Southie, the South Side of Chicago, and it’s great to be here with all my cousins from the clan. I say that with a ‘C,’ not a ‘K,’ so relax.” That gets a good laugh. And the place breaks up when Patrick recites a litany of ways in which Reilly’s campaign is mimicking his own. “By the time of the primary, Tom Reilly will be a black man from the South Side of Chicago.”

But will the blue hairs and scally caps still be laughing when they learn about Deval Patrick, “quota king”?

THAT IS THE DERISIVE nickname hung on Patrick by conservative critics of his stint with the Department of Justice, a period when he pursued preferential treatment for minority workers and businesses in several high-profile cases. Patrick’s stock statement on the subject: “I do support affirmative action. I believe in outreach to and recruitment of women and minorities, including reasonable and flexible goals and timetables, in college admissions and in hiring. I do not support quotas, and never have.” But Utah Republican Senator Orrin Hatch has claimed Patrick took a “pro-quota” approach. In 1995 testimony before a congressional subcommittee, anti-quota conservative Clint Bolick of the Institute for Justice accused Patrick of “shedding any pretense of impartial law enforcement in favor of unbridled ideological activism.”

And Patrick’s zeal for affirmative action issues has raised eyebrows well beyond the right wing. “Deval Patrick has committed the Clinton administration to a vision of racial preference that fulfills the most extravagant fantasies of a conservative attack ad,” wrote Paul Burka in a 1994 New Republic article. “Rather than honestly confronting the costs of affirmative action, Patrick has blithely endorsed the most extreme form of racialism.”

At the heart of the controversy over Patrick’s reign at the Justice Department was the case of a white woman and a black woman who had been hired on the same day to teach business skills at Piscataway High School in New Jersey. Both teachers served with distinction, but nine years later, budget cuts required a layoff in the department. Past practice had been to flip a coin to decide such cases. But this time, even though blacks were already represented on the faculty by nearly double the percent of eligible black teachers in the county, the board chose to fire the white teacher.

She sued. And while Patrick inherited the case from the first Bush administration, he took the opportunity to stake out a position on minority hiring preference that could well bring the Red Sea waters cascading down on his gubernatorial dreams. Race, he argued, “played no greater weight in the board’s decision than any other qualification,” a claim directly undercut by the school’s personnel director, who wrote to the white teacher to assure her that her job performance wasn’t a factor. Patrick turned the case, according to a 1997 column by civil libertarian Nat Hentoff, into “a relentless crusade.” He called the Piscataway school board decision “about as benign as affirmative action can be,” and accused his critics of believing that “once slavery was ended, nothing more had to be done.”

Amid mounting national controversy, a coalition of black civil rights activists, including the Reverend Jesse Jackson, raised $433,500 to settle with the plaintiff, reportedly out of fear of setting a legal precedent that could undermine race-based affirmative action programs. The Clinton administration reacted to the uproar and a rising chorus of political and judicial protest by publicly promoting the notion of affirmative action based on economic status, not race. But Patrick says he has no second thoughts about his handling of the matter: “We did the best we could. [The case] was right on the law, hard on the politics. I sided with the board, it wasn’t about black and white. There wasn’t any precedent entitling her to a coin toss.”

That might strike elements of the white, working-class electorate, already touchy about the appearance of reverse discrimination, as a tad harsh. But it’s nothing new from Patrick, who told a congressional hearing in 1995, “It is a myth that there are unqualified, undeserving women and minorities who are getting benefits that should go to qualified, deserving white men.” While he is fond of saying that “the notion of equality is never even mentioned in discourse today,” he has little patience for complaints about the unequal treatment implicit in even the most well-intentioned race-based set-asides and personnel decisions. “I don’t see the suffering that is presumed by white males,” he once said. And while he went along with the Clinton-era switch to an emphasis on economic need, Patrick maintained that “it is a complete ruse to suggest that declaring ourselves colorblind in law is going to cause us to be colorblind in fact.”

IN LIGHT OF his personal journey out of poverty and through the gauntlet of American racism, it’s not hard to see why Deval Patrick became a hardliner on this subject.

Born in 1956, Patrick grew up on welfare, sharing a single bedroom with his mother and sister on Chicago’s rugged South Side, and learned firsthand the hard lessons of racial turmoil. Summers brought visits to his grandparents in Louisville, Kentucky, including trips to the segregated stands at Churchill Downs to watch the horse races. Patrick recalls being terrified by the fallout from Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1968 murder in Memphis. “I saw a lot of anger and bitterness, storefronts being smashed, and the fires and the gunshots and the sense of chaos,” he says. “Everybody was angry.”

Patrick did well in middle school, finishing at the top of his class, and got a lucky break. An admiring teacher recommended him to A Better Chance, a New York group devoted to “recruiting, identifying, and developing leaders among young people of color” by plucking them out of poverty and arranging scholarships to top schools. At Milton Academy, Patrick was an academic star, edited the school paper, and earned spending money by delivering newspapers to the sprawling homes near the Milton campus, including the neighborhood where he now shares a luxurious spread with wife Diane, herself an accomplished lawyer, and daughters Sarah, 20, an NYU sophomore, and Katherine, 16, who attends a private high school.

Milton Academy launched Patrick into orbit: honors at Harvard (class of 1978), a year on a United Nations project in the Sudan, then Harvard Law, where he was named best oral advocate at a moot court competition on a team named after legendary 19th-century abolitionist Sojourner Truth. That was where former Milton classmate Anna Waring recalls seeing the “powerful adult” Patrick emerge. “The judge asked him some question, and he said, ‘I will answer it, but it really is irrelevant, and I will tell you why,’” she recalls.

Patrick hasn’t stopped speaking his version of truth to power since. He specialized in voting rights and death penalty cases for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and made affirmative action his trademark at the Justice Department. Even his lucrative post-Clinton career as a top-tier corporate lawyer instilling racially sensitive corporate practices at Coca-Cola and Texaco, and his work on the board of directors of mortgage-lender Ameriquest, echoes the theme of correcting the injustice he grew up with. “The law wasn’t a game for him,” observes Waring. “It really was about making somebody whole or trying to correct the system.”

There was an incident during the Milton years, recalled quite vividly today by Patrick, that helps explain the intensity infusing his career-long devotion to civil rights causes. Periodically, Milton would treat the kids to dinner from McDonald’s, and, one night, young Deval accompanied a teacher on the burger run. They pulled into the parking lot at the Adams Corner McDonald’s in Dorchester. “There was a group of white teens hanging out there,” recalls Patrick. “I had a big afro at the time, and as soon as I got out of the car it was ‘nigger this’ and ‘baboon that.’ We went inside to pick up the food and kids were banging on the plate glass window and flicking cigarette butts at me as we left. I ended up comforting the teacher.”

That was hardly the first or last time Patrick has had to deal with America’s most vile cultural habit. He told the crowd at last year’s state Democratic Party issues convention that, “I have sat in the Oval Office and counseled a president of the United States, and then had trouble hailing a cab when the meeting was over.” To another audience, he confided that, “I still get followed in department stores and harassed by the police. Maybe these are nothing more than what my wife calls the ‘indignities du jour.’ But they nag at my personhood every day—even in my rarified life. Imagine what effect it has on the life and mind of a young man or woman who knows less about hope and faith than I do.”

And imagine what effect it will have on Deval Patrick’s demeanor—and the swing voters eyeing him skeptically—if and when his views on governmental remedies for racism become a campaign issue?

AS HE PICKS AT a plate of slow-roasted Long Island duck at Rialto, Patrick characterizes questions about the fairness of his Clinton-era positions as “part of the rhetorical attack against affirmative action. I expect everything to be thrown at me, a lot of insinuations, all kinds of ways to question my motives. They’ll replay all that stuff to stir people up.”

With a fair chance of success. In a University of Massachusetts poll eight years back, 40 percent of respondents statewide agreed with the statement that “the government should not make any special effort to help minorities because they should help themselves.” Only 29 percent believed “government should make every effort to improve the social and economic position of minorities.”

While he’s not giving an inch, and vows to press forward aggressively with current state affirmative action policies if elected, Patrick seems to sense the potential for political damage from stories like that of the Piscataway case. “No person is reduced to one decision in the course of a lifetime of decision-making,” he says. “I’m trusting the voters to understand that one decision is not the sum of a person’s life.”

Perhaps after several more months of exposure to Patrick’s engaging demeanor, even the most quota-phobic swing voters will shrug off his record of devotion to race-based social engineering. But there’s no guarantee how even the supremely buttoned-down Patrick will react if and when the subject comes up.

In one memorable on-camera encounter last year, an interview on criminal justice issues turned to the infamous subject of Willie Horton, the convicted murderer serving life who raped a Maryland woman while out on a weekend furlough from a Massachusetts prison. The episode, turned into a TV ad by the Republicans, and the ensuing outrage over the furlough policy helped cost Michael Dukakis the presidency in 1988 and has for liberals become a symbol of race-baiting politics.

“Would you have let Willie Horton out on furlough?” Patrick was asked.

“I have no idea about Willie Horton’s background, history, what that furlough program is,” he replied, visibly exasperated.

“Should first-degree murderers be eligible for furloughs?”

“Let me try to be clearer,” snapped Patrick. “The death penalty does not work. And in the case of those who are convicted of the most serious crimes, I believe in life without possibility of parole.”

“Or furlough?”

“Without possibility of parole.”

Political professionals who saw the interview were appalled at Patrick’s prickly response and his failure to denounce the now universally reviled furlough policy. And the message apparently got back to Patrick. Asked the same question months later, he quickly said he would oppose any such furloughs. Patrick admits that he was “irritated” to have had the issue raised. The furlough issue, he says, “was a scare tactic. It doesn’t help the quality of the discourse.”

Funny thing about discourse, though—especially in the sharp-elbowed world of Massachusetts politics. Once you travel beyond the friendly confines of a suburban liberal get-together or a congenial holiday luncheon and venture onto the high-stakes turf of stretch-run debates and confrontational ad wars, the discourse tends to abandon the Marquis of Queensberry rules.

Deval Patrick has every right and reason to be especially invested in issues of race and affirmative action. Given the central role they’ve played in his extraordinary life story, he’d be a cipher to be emotionless about those subjects. But the million-dollar question for Patrick and his potentially history-making candidacy may well turn out to be this: Will his formidable cool burn off when blunt questions about his devotion to race-based remedies come up under the hot campaign lights, as it does over coffee in the muted confines of Rialto?

“Am I always gonna make the call in favor of the black person? That’s ridiculous,” he snaps, the brilliant smile suddenly gone. And without a trace of irony, Deval Patrick spits out the same angry question his harshest critics have been asking for years: “Why are we always talking about race?”