Deval Patrick, machine slayer.; Mass Appeal

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NOVEMBER 6, 2006

Deval Patrick, machine slayer.; Mass Appeal

Deval Patrick has never held elected office, but he's already wonsomething that typically eludes even veteran politicians: The Sealof Broder. A few weeks ago, David Broder, the living embodiment ofthe political journalistic establishment devoted his WashingtonPost column to Patrick-- hailing the Democratic Massachusettsgubernatorial candidate as a bona fide political star. Broderrecounted the 50-year-old Patrick's remarkable life story: Raisedon the rough South Side of Chicago, at the age of 14 he landed ascholarship to a prestigious New England prep school, which set himon a path that would take him to Harvard, the naacp Legal DefenseFund, a tony Boston law firm, the Clinton administration JusticeDepartment, and the corporate boardrooms of Texaco and Coca-Colabefore recently depositing him in Massachusetts politics. Broderthen all but declared Patrick the winner of the election, whichwould make him Massachusetts's first black governor and the state'sfirst Democratic governor in 16 years. Indeed, Broder predictedthat the governorship would likely be but a way station forPatrick, who is "certain to be in demand by starry-eyed Democratsacross the nation if he wins."

But Patrick wasn't able to enjoy the adulation. The day beforeBroder's valentine ran, The Boston Globe reported that, in the lasteight years, Patrick had written two letters to the Massachusettsparole board seeking the release of Benjamin LaGuer, a convictedrapist serving a life sentence. The Globe subsequently reportedthat Patrick had helped pay for DNA tests LaGuer claimed wouldexonerate him (they didn't). "I have never met Mr. LaGuer inperson," Patrick wrote in one letter. "But, thanks to a livelyexchange of correspondence over the years, I do feel I know him. Ireceive a crushing volume of mail, much of it from prisoners infacilities all over this country. None of it is as thoughtful,insightful, eloquent, or humane as that I receive from Mr.LaGuer."

Before you could say "Willie Horton," the Massachusetts governor'srace-- which had been largely about issues like taxes and goodgovernment--was suddenly about crime. Patrick's Republicanopponent, Lieutenant Governor Kerry Healey, went on the attack. Shecut an ominous TV ad that featured a woman walking in a darkparking garage while a narrator intoned, "Have you ever heard awoman compliment a rapist?" Suddenly, Patrick's lead went from 21 to13 points. And he now faced the unappealing prospect of fightingthe campaign's final weeks on terrain that is frequentlyunfavorable to Democratic politicians- -black Democraticpoliticians in particular.

When Patrick launched his gubernatorial bid 18 months ago, he wasconsidered the longest of longshots. The Democratic nomination was,at the time, assumed to be the property of the man Patrickeventually trounced in the party primary in September--Tom Reilly,the sitting attorney general and a longstanding member of the stateparty's white ethnic political establishment. "Deval was completelyunknown on a statewide basis. He had no campaign organization, andhe had no serious financial base," says John Marttila, aMassachusetts political consultant who has been an informal adviserto Patrick's campaign. "I think most people thought it was ahopeless cause."

But two things Patrick did have going for him were personalmagnetism and timing. A compact man with a thick neck and abullet-shaped head, Patrick has a high, nasally voice; but thesomewhat incongruous combination gives him a presence that isimpressive without being intimidating. And, as Patrick traveled thestate, meeting with small groups in library basements and livingrooms, it wasn't long before he started generating considerableexcitement in the Massachusetts Democratic Party's activistbase--which was just beginning to emerge from its depression overJohn Kerry's defeat. "I think there was a critical mass of peoplewho were very eager to get back up on the horse and take anotherrun at achieving political change," says Ralph Whitehead, aprofessor of journalism at the University of Massachusetts. "DevalPatrick became the vehicle for their considerable politicalenergy."

Although Patrick has staked out conventionally liberal positions onissues like taxes, gay marriage, and alternative energy, he hasalso appealed to moderate voters by emphasizing his corporatebackground. Perhaps most importantly, he has borrowed a page fromthe playbook Republican Mitt Romney used to win the governorship in2002-- cultivating an image as a pragmatic, results-oriented leaderwho stands outside Massachusetts's dysfunctional politicalestablishment. "The failure of the Big Dig," Patrick declared,shortly after a tunnel collapsed in the infamous publicinfrastructure project in July, "is a failure of politics-as-usual.It is the failure of leaders to do the jobs they were elected todo. The Big Dig culture of Beacon Hill allowed corners to be cutand oversight to be lax."

Patrick has taken a similarly pragmatic approach to the issue ofrace. In some respects, his race has been an undeniable politicalasset. "Deval represents a chance for people in Massachusetts tofeel good about themselves when it comes to race relations," saysDan Payne, a Boston political consultant who used to work on thePatrick campaign. But Patrick has been exceedingly careful not tooverplay this political advantage, lest it turn into a politicalliability. In September, when Massachusetts Democratic PartyChairman Phil Johnston accused Healey of coming "perilously closeto race-baiting" by raising immigration issues, Patrick immediatelydistanced himself from the comments, telling reporters that "PhilJohnston speaks for himself." As Scott Harshbarger, a formerMassachusetts attorney general and current Patrick adviser,explains, "It's a very conscious strategy not to raise the raceissue."

Nowhere has this strategy been more evident than in Patrick'sresponse to Healey's charge that he's soft on crime. While some ofPatrick's supporters have complained that there are racialundertones to Healey's attacks-- particularly as they relate toLaGuer, who is black--the candidate himself has steadfastly refusedto play the race card. And, at a campaign event on a recentSaturday afternoon in Melrose--a bedroom community about ten milesoutside of Boston--he showed why he doesn't need to.

Although it was a beautiful fall day, several hundred people hadpacked into Melrose's Memorial Hall to hear Patrick speak--and manyof those in attendance were anxious about their candidate'sshrinking lead in the polls. "He's got to stop the bleeding," amiddle-aged white woman told me. As he paced on a small stage setup in the middle of the hall, Patrick tried to reassure hissupporters, arguing that Healey's attacks were a sign of herdesperation. "When you think about all of the attacks and all ofthe negative ads and all of the mean-spiritedness that you've beenhearing on the airwaves and on talk radio and maybe atconversations at work," he said, "all of that is about changing thesubject--anything but talk about their record. And, if I had theirrecord, I'd want to change the subject, too."

But then, after making this predictable--if true-- argument, Patrickdid something that Democrats branded as "soft on crime" seldom do:He faced the attacks head-on. "You know what? Let's talk aboutcrime; we ought to talk about crime," he said, his voice rising."I'm the only one in this race who's actually ever sent anyone toprison," he practically shouted, getting in a plug for his ownexperience as a prosecutor. "Let's talk about crime," he continued."I've been a victim of crime. You can't grow up in a place like theSouth Side of Chicago, with crime all around you, withoutunderstanding the impact--on families, on communities--of crime. Idon't need to be lectured to about crime. " And then, havingestablished his tough-on-crime bona fides, Patrick did one finalpivot. "But I'll tell you one other thing. I have occasionally stoodup in favor and in support of the unsavory defendant, and youshould be glad somebody does. That's what makes the American legalsystem a just system."

Thanks to impressive performances like this one, Patrick has nowregained the lead he enjoyed--and then some-- before the LaGuerstory broke. It's far too early to hail Patrick as the next bigthing in Democratic politics; after all, it's not as if thenational party hasn't had enough bad experiences with Massachusettsliberals. But, if Patrick manages to end 16 years of Republicancontrol of the Massachusetts governor's office--while confronting anissue that all too often leads to GOP victories--then that will beachievement enough.

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