The Latest Line
Handicapping Deval Patrick’s governorship using the only standard available—his favorite campaign catch phrases.
Even today, two months after Massachusetts voted him into office, you can still hear Deval Patrick’s smooth-as-suede stump speeches. You can hear him, with that Mike Tyson–meets–John McCain voice, repeating favorite slogans to his ever eager followers. He doesn’t so much speak his stock phrases as sing them; during the campaign, “government by sound bite isn’t working” became the chorus to a ballad voters never tired of hearing, even if it was playing on a loop. Coming out of Patrick’s mouth, words like that are the rhetorical equivalent of Dunkin’ Donuts ads (Alarm clock catastrophe!). They tend to get stuck in your head.
Thanks to those same speeches, we’re all familiar with Patrick’s story, too. He grew up in a tough section of Chicago. There was only one bunk bed in the tiny apartment his family shared. They made the best of things by setting up a sleeping rotation, taking turns going from the top bunk, to the bottom, to the floor—every third night on the floor.
And so on.
This is what we know about the man who officially becomes our governor this month. We know he had it tough at first, then not so much. And we know all about his knack for snappy language, his oratorical punch. Less clear, however, is what kind of executive he’ll turn out to be. It’s tough to predict exactly how he’ll work on any given issue or how he might handle troublesome situations, because during the election he provided precious few details.
So, in the absence of any real specifics, we’re left with little more than a smattering of catch phrases. What are the odds he’ll live up to them?
TOGETHER WE CAN
For years, Republicans have wisely preyed on voters’ fears that should a Democratic governor be elected, there’d be no checks against the Democratic legislature. With the Dems running the whole damn show, we’ve been warned, a plague of locusts would surely descend on Massachusetts. And voters hate locusts. There’s a problem with the rubber-stamp theory, though: It presupposes that state Democrats will put the party before their own personal or political inclinations.
“Something like 90 percent of the legislators are Democratic,” says Republican pundit Dan Kelly, “but that doesn’t mean you could get them to agree on where to go to lunch.” Former Democratic state Senator Patricia McGovern breaks her old office mates into “moderates in the middle, a conservative wing, a progressive wing.” Technically, she says, “it’s one political party. But in practice we’ve really become a number of parties, and the governor has to navigate them.”
After Patrick breezed through September’s Democratic primary, the party swore it would do something it hadn’t really done in 16 years: march together in lockstep. And it did. For two whole days. Then a handful of Democrats lost the beat and stepped on Patrick’s toes. The largely center-right-leaning troupe—state Senator Steven Baddour of Methuen, Representatives Eugene O’Flaherty of Chelsea and Peter Koutoujian of Waltham, and Suffolk DA Daniel Conley—appeared with Lieutenant Governor Kerry Healey at a bill signing for a law cracking down on sex offenders. They praised Healey effusively. They clapped. The cameras and tape recorders rolled.
All but one of those Dems had supported Tom Reilly in the primary, but they swore there was no ulterior motive to their appearance, swore it was all about the bill and nothing more—because, hey, they were standing up against sex offenders. “What people fail to understand is that I worked on that bill for four years,” Baddour says. “[Healey] deserved credit for that bill.”
Maybe so, but credit wasn’t all she got out of the photo op. Not long after the press conference, Patrick’s rival ran an ad trumpeting the Democrats’ Healey-fest. Naturally, the state party wasn’t thrilled, and the offending Dems immediately called for Healey to remove the spot—so shocked were they that she would do such a thing. (What a monster—turning a political appearance into a political ad during a political campaign.) “It troubled me that she did that,” Baddour says.
Not everyone was convinced. “Of course it was a slap,” one prominent Democratic strategist says. “If Jesus had come down and said that it was an accident, people would ask, ‘Why is Jesus lying?’”
They weren’t the first Dems, local or national, to fraternize with the enemy (see Hanoi Jane, et al.). As some party players tell it, Senator Robert Travaglini once walked in a parade with then GOP gubernatorial candidate Paul Cellucci just to send a message to Dem hopeful Scott Harshbarger. In fact, the long-standing spirit of donkeyness among state Democrats has led many observers to speculate that the new governor won’t have to worry about getting rubber-stamper’s elbow. Especially those who see parallels between Patrick and Mike Dukakis.
“My first term, I had a terrible relationship with the legislature,” admits the former governor, who, like Patrick, came into office on a wave of popular support. “I was the reformer. I was antiestablishment. But I didn’t reach out. I did a lousy job. I didn’t bring anyone together. What happened? I got thrown out. It’s all about building coalitions. Deval is smart enough to understand that.”
Perhaps. But that doesn’t mean Patrick will be able to coast. And the friction he’ll inevitably face will arise not from headline-hogging battles like gay marriage or illegal immigration. The real rubs between the governor and the legislature, according to insiders, will come on smaller issues—who gets a bridge in his or her district, and who doesn’t. If Patrick decides to reinstate some of the $425 million in spending that Romney initially cut on his way out the door, he’ll be faced with a kind of Sophie’s choice: Who will he make happy, and who will he piss off? Because everyone wants to eat, but no one wants to hear there isn’t enough pork to go around.
“There was $31 million budgeted for construction of the new Y, the Boston Museum, and the New Center for Arts and Culture” slated to go up on the Greenway, says someone familiar with the budget process. “If Patrick restores the money, they go forward and he’s a big spender. If he doesn’t, then he doesn’t care, and all the people who are invested in those projects are upset. And you know whose district the Y is in? [State House Speaker Sal] DiMasi’s and [Senate President] Travaglini’s. These are not easy decisions. That’s why a lot of people don’t want to run for office—you make one friend and 20 enemies.”
Shortly after becoming governor-elect, Patrick met with DiMasi and Travaglini. So he understands the need for olive branches and ego salves. Says one Beacon Hill insider, “I’ve seen him go up to [state Senator Therese] Murray and DiMasi and Travs, put his hands together like a disciple and do a little bow, basically saying to them, ‘I know. I get it.’”
“A lot of governing is based not on what sort of Republican or Democrat you are, or your ideology, but on collegiality,” says state Senator Jarrett Barrios. “It’s about relationships.”
Chances that Patrick will unite the party: Tough, but not impossible. His management style will be the key. Odds: Even money. (Or about the same as Barney Frank giving a feisty national television interview this week.)
WE CAN DISAGREE WITHOUT BEING DISAGREEABLE
By most accounts, Patrick’s interpersonal skills—especially how he interacts with people under highly stressful conditions—have served him well throughout his career. Which is good, considering that his new job will largely consist of defusing tense situations in short order. Think of him as a political MacGyver (only without the paper clips).
Patrick honed his charm-and-disarm skills while working as an attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. In the early 1980s he sued the State of Arkansas for violating the Voting Rights Act, which protects minority voters from discrimination. At the time, the governor of Arkansas was Bill Clinton. Coming long before he’d been labeled “the first black president,” the dustup was seen as a potentially crippling hit for Clinton, who had designs on a bigger, better job. Patrick, though, handled the situation well enough that Clinton remembered him fondly, and later hired him as an assistant attorney general for civil rights. That’s the kind of balancing act most unicyclists couldn’t pull off on a bet.
In terms of intellectual acumen, Patrick and Clinton have a lot in common. Like Clinton, Patrick has the ability to rapidly process complex ideas. One former Patrick consultant recalls the governor-to-be sitting down to a “bewildering presentation” from Big Dig patriarch Fred Salvucci. Patrick, the consultant says, seemed to be the only person in the room (with the possible exception of Salvucci) able to grasp what was being said.
Patrick, claims communications director Richard Chacon, is “always seeking counsel.” But, he adds, “he’ll challenge people on the advice they give him. He’s a lawyer, remember. It’s an inclusive environment, but that doesn’t mean it’s a free-for-all.”
The former consultant tells another story, this one dating from the early days of the campaign, about a staffer prepping Patrick on questions he might field. At one point, the staffer asked the candidate what he’d say if pressed to take a stand on a momentously important issue: What his favorite color was. “[Patrick] never betrayed his impatience,” says the consultant, who watched the exchange. “He would never think to say, ‘What a ridiculous question, let’s move on.’ A lot of politicians I’ve worked with might have, and they might be right to do so. But he won’t belittle people.”
Instead, Patrick indulged the staffer, allowing him to continue. Asked about his hobbies, Patrick noted his love of gardening, and his specific interest in peonies. It was a revealing moment. A tough plant with large, fragrant blossoms, the peony attracts ants, which swarm all over it in their attempts to get at the sweet flower buds. At times, it looks bad for the plant—as if the ants have overrun it. In actuality, the peony has no problem with the overwhelming attention.
Patrick is notably accessible when it comes to his staff, and there’s every indication he’ll be available to the legislature, too. But that doesn’t mean his open-door/open-ears approach will be wholly beneficial. It’s one thing to suffer foolish staffers in the nascent stages of a campaign; it’s quite another to do so when you’re governor and the demands on your time dramatically increase.
Shortly after his election, Patrick caused a stir when he selected 18 campaign contributors to serve on his transition team. Later, other team members were added, among them David Kravitz, founder of Blue Mass Group, a left-leaning website that was vociferous in its support of Patrick’s campaign. And Patrick also decided to keep active his lauded field organization, a move that allows him to quickly mobilize supporters on the ground or reach hundreds of thousands with an e-mail. In total, it’s a group that could make Patrick a power broker come the ’08 presidential campaign. But keeping so many loyalists involved also begs a question: What happens when Patrick disappoints the base, as he (like all governors before him) inevitably will?
“At some point,” says a State House observer, “after you’ve won, it’s like, ‘Holy shit! What do we do now? All these people got us here, but we can’t include everyone.’ It’s just not possible.”
Chances that Patrick’s management style will help him govern: Patrick is a likable guy, willing to listen and adjust. That’s good for the plant, because the ants aren’t going anywhere. Odds: 2 to 5. (Or about the same as Mitt Romney spending a lot of time in Iowa and New Hampshire this year.)
PUT YOUR CYNICISM DOWN
On election night, a crowd of thousands gathered at the Hynes Convention Center to hear Patrick’s acceptance speech. Some carried signs bearing the campaign’s “Together We Can” mantra; others brought nothing more than wide, crescent smiles. A few wept. It was quite a scene, and it turned more raucous with each word Patrick uttered.
“This was not a victory just for me,” the governor-elect began. “This was not a victory just for Democrats. This was a victory for hope.”
There were people in attendance who weren’t so enamored with the kumbaya moment, who found the sentiment not just abstract, but a bit saccharine. When Patrick urged us all to “put down” our cynicism, one member of the press corps couldn’t resist rolling his eyes. (There could have been more—hard to watch everyone’s eyes at once.) That response highlights another challenge facing Patrick and his new administration: Will his we’re-all-in-it-together slobber-fest develop into actions that convince the media that, a) he is not just full of sappy rhetoric, and, b) he is not only an agent for change, but also an agent for progress?
During the campaign, Patrick did what most politicians do when they’re ahead by a comfortable margin: He talked in broad strokes. He said things like “Together we can have advances in stem cell research” and “Together we can build a healthcare system that’s affordable.” Mostly, Patrick got away with the vagueness, though he did take some hits from the press. He was beaten up for corresponding with convicted rapist Ben LaGuer (and for his seemingly deliberate obfuscation when the story broke), for his legal defense of cop-killer Carl Ray Songer, and for his political inexperience. His supporters bristled at the scrutiny, and, apparently, so did Patrick himself.
If there’s a crack in Patrick’s otherwise polished veneer, that’s it—the result of his odd, love/hate relationship with the local media. During a May 2006 interview for Boston magazine, he responded to questions about affirmative action and quotas with an abruptness that verged on rancor. In November, during a speech in front of the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association, he scolded the assembly for failing to appreciate his message. “Whether it was skepticism, distraction, or the cynicism so many of us try to pass off as sophistication,” he said, “some of your reporters missed it.”
Aside from the matter of tone, the Patrick-press relationship has other issues. His transition team was notoriously slow when responding to local press inquiries; sometimes, they didn’t respond at all, leaving more than one Boston reporter (including this one) having difficulty communicating with the communications team. That’s a not-so-subtle approach you can bet the press won’t “miss.” It’s perplexing: If you’re hoping for peace, the last thing you want to do is drop bombs. It’s little wonder, then, that some writers are already questioning his administration.
“They keep moving the goal line on this guy,” says one Democratic strategist. “First they said he can’t win the caucus, then they said he can’t win the primary, then they said he can’t raise enough money, then he can’t respond to the attack ads. Now he can’t govern? What’s next?”
What’s next, frankly, is the end of the honeymoon and the beginning of business. The protests of Patrick’s supporters notwithstanding, this is exactly what the press does, and what it is supposed to do. Like animals, journalists hunt instinctively. Their function is to evaluate, to prod and poke and ask questions, even if some find the prodding annoying.
“No matter what, he’ll have to speak in specific terms now,” says Republican pundit Dan Kelly. “There’s no way around it. And that’s when the press will really start pinning him down.” As a candidate, you can say that you want to roll back property taxes or cut the budget. But as governor, you have to get specific about how you plan to do those things—and then you have to do them. It’s when Patrick has to be the governor, rather than just talking about being the governor, that he’ll start really getting smacked around.
Chances that Patrick will manage to help the media overcome its natural cynicism: Patrick may win over a fair amount of the state, even a large portion of the legislature. But that doesn’t mean he’ll convert the journos. Put your cynicism down? Some rhetoric simply asks the impossible. Odds: 1,000 to 1. (Or about the same as John Kerry being elected president in 2008.)