Keeping the Wrong Promises

Deval Patrick told voters he’d be an outsider who’d deliver a lot more than business as usual. If his supporters want the governor to get anything done, it’s time to let him off the hook.

THIS SPRING, IN THE MIDST of his high-profile efforts to shore up his staff and put his early missteps permanently behind him, Deval Patrick did something that perfectly encapsulates the biggest lingering challenge for his administration. Not that you would have been able to tell from the glowing reviews. In fact, the town hall meeting Patrick held on March 27 at South High Community School in Worcester generated the kind of positive ink the governor hasn’t gotten enough of: The next day, the local paper described the standing-room-only event as equal parts “old-time political rally” and “revival church service,” with Patrick, flanked by hometown boy Lieutenant Governor Tim Murray, transfixing the audience with visions of slashed property taxes and tightened corporate tax loopholes. Among Patrick’s online boosters, the praise was, predictably, even more breathless. Read a typical post: “To say that Deval and Tim were well received would be putting it mildly!”

That Patrick was on his game at the South High event is hardly a surprise: It’s the very type of forum he exploited so effectively as a novice candidate who needed to use his rhetorical gifts to overcome a shortage of establishment backing and drum up a grassroots following. Now that he’s in office, he’s turned to town halls to push policy initiatives and keep his most ardent supporters fired up. “This is his ace in the hole,” says Charley Blandy, coeditor of the Patrick-friendly BlueMassGroup blog. “People respond to him. The more he plays to his strengths, the more people like him.”

The problem is, a governor can’t afford to operate only within his comfort zone. Especially if that comfort zone falls outside the traditional political fray—which, for better or worse, is where you make things happen on Beacon Hill. When Patrick told the Washington Post this spring that he would reluctantly engage in more “government by photo op,” the remark was revealing not for the shift it supposedly signaled but for the glimpse it offered into his deeper desire to continue down the path he started on when he began his run for office. The drapes, the Cadillac, the call on behalf of Ameriquest—those much-chewed-over gaffes weren’t signs of a populist morphing into an elitist, nor a reformer showing himself as favor trader. They were the actions of a leader who came to office without a deep and hard-earned understanding of the ins and outs of Massachusetts’ singular political culture. And one who, despite recent steps to bring in advisers well versed in that culture—and subsequent encouraging news cycles, such as the one he enjoyed last month after rolling out his statewide plan to bolster law enforcement—gives the sense that he’d prefer to continue running the state from an outsider pose.

That’s the thing about outsiders, though. We’re suckers for them when they’re asking for our votes. But once they win, we just want them to get the job done.

THE PUMMELING THAT PATRICK has taken for his rookie mistakes is a bit unfair—it’s not as though he tried to portray himself as a wizened political hand during his upstart candidacy. Still, viewing it now, with the benefit of hindsight, it’s striking how little direct training the positions on his impressive résumé gave him for the responsibilities of governor, and what scant attention that fact received during the campaign.

While Patrick was running for office, his career trajectory—Harvard Law Moot Court winner makes a splash in private practice; gets tapped by Bill Clinton to head the Justice Department’s civil rights division; goes on to lead the in-house legal teams at Texaco and Coke, tasked with troubleshooting race-related issues—provided the foundation for how he was popularly perceived: as someone who overcomes the odds, who has a real passion for public service, who shakes things up. “He was a change agent,” says one close observer of Patrick in the private and public realms. Indeed, the common thread of Patrick’s work history is his status as a maverick charged with solving specific problems by operating outside the system.

But let’s look at the day-to-day duties of his various posts. A law partner, as Patrick was at the now defunct Hill & Barlow, is conditioned to wallow in minutiae—essential when you’re gearing up for a big case; less so when you’re putting together your first budget, and you’d be better served delegating to experienced lieutenants while using the bully pulpit to press a broader agenda. Assistant U.S. attorneys general and corporate general counsels can rely on oratorical prowess more than managerial skills to excel; both also arrive in their positions inheriting long-serving deputies who can provide invaluable institutional memory and advice on how to, well, not screw up. By contrast, a governor (or at least this one) has to build a team from scratch—a challenge that proved doubly vexing for Patrick when he followed his outsider heart and initially surrounded himself with fellow State House neophytes.

Considered this way—and not to be too harsh here—Patrick assumed his office less prepared for the job than your average state rep. Even a lowly city councilor is better accustomed to the necessary evil of “partnerships” with other elected officials, the tedium of constituent requests, and the constant give-and-take with the press.

What Patrick has badly needed, and now belatedly has on board, is a political pro with the battle scars to make up for the governor’s lack thereof. As one of the key architects of Patrick’s up-with-people election strategy, new chief of staff Doug Rubin (who replaced the esteemed but overmatched Joan Wallace-Benjamin in April) might be misread as an outsider, but he is very much an inside guy, having made his bones in part as a top aide to Treasurer Tim Cahill. Rubin’s background surely makes him aware of one of the major downsides to town hall meetings: Aside from the preaching-to-the-choir aspect, they also generally take place too late in the day to attract local TV coverage.

Following Rubin’s appointment, BlueMassGroup members hit the blog to debate whether hiring such a career operative represented a devolution into politics as usual on Patrick’s part. But if the governor’s base is truly rooting for him to succeed—that is, to push through the policies he’s been promising since the campaign—he should be universally cheered, and given the green light to continue full-throttle down the apparent new course. One such move came on April 18, when Rubin convened a closed-door meeting of veteran Democratic strategists recruited to help market the Patrick message—a meeting that, in true insider fashion, someone made sure to leak to the press. Patrick also headed west down the Pike again for another goodwill mission, this time a sit-down with the editorial board of the Metro-West Daily News—a less noble errand than his appearance at South High one month earlier, perhaps, but likely a better use of his time. And then there was a May 10 item in the Herald, which said the Patrick administration was offering favors to fence-sitting legislators in exchange for voting against the proposed ballot measure to ban same-sex marriage.

Patrick denied the rumor. (Certainly the horse-trading, if true, would have been better kept secret.) Still, for his backers, it’s cause for hope. If he’s willing to engage in that kind of quid pro quo in service of his principles, what’s next? Maybe the governor is learning that it’s far preferable to break tactical promises while keeping the substantive ones than the other way around. After all, accomplishing very little—even in a groundbreaking way—is a no-win situation for everyone.