New Star Among the Democrats

By David S. Broder
Thursday, October 5, 2006

BOSTON -- The buzz here this autumn is all about the newcomer to elective politics who is threatening to break the hold that Republicans have had for an unusually long time on the governorship of this overwhelmingly Democratic state.

His name is Deval Patrick. Barely two years after he moved back to Massachusetts from a business career that had taken him to New York and Atlanta, he beat two better-known and better-financed opponents for the Democratic nomination in last month's primary. Now he is favored over Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey, the Republican nominee to succeed Gov. Mitt Romney, who is moving on to pursue the presidency.

In its long history, Massachusetts has never elected a woman or an African American as governor. This year it will have one or the other, and the betting is heavily on Patrick to be the one to break the mold.

For a state with the turbulent racial history of Massachusetts, Patrick's victory would be as monumental as any of its achievements. Many Bostonians still remember when the city was shattered by the violence that accompanied efforts to desegregate the public schools. Louise Day Hicks, a popular local politician, mobilized the white ethnics of South Boston to resist black children coming in.

I got a measure of how much things have changed when I went to see "Billy" Bulger, the former state Senate president and longtime political boss of Southie. "Have you got a candidate this year?" I asked. "I sure do," he said, adding jocularly, "I'm backing the Irish fella, Patrick."

Patrick has been making friends in unexpected places all his life. Reared in the slums of South Side Chicago by a single mother at times on welfare, Patrick got the break that changed his life when he was chosen by A Better Chance, a private philanthropy, to receive a scholarship to attend Milton Academy, a prestigious boarding school in Milton, Mass.

He starred in the classroom, edited the school paper and went to Harvard, where he graduated in 1978. He worked for a year in Africa -- Darfur, before it was in the news -- then returned to Harvard Law School. There he won the moot court competition and began getting practical trial experience defending legal aid clients who could not afford private attorneys.

Three years as a staff attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund led to a partnership at a Boston law firm. In 1994 President Bill Clinton named Patrick to head the Justice Department's civil rights division. Then it was back to the private sector, where he became vice president and general counsel of Texaco Inc. and then executive vice president and general counsel of Coca-Cola Co.

Returning to Milton, where he and his family had their home, and nearing 50, Patrick last year began exploring the possibility of running for governor. The incumbent attorney general was already in the race, and a wealthy, self-financing businessman was soon to join. But Patrick electrified the Democratic state convention in Worcester in June with a speech decrying cynicism as a drug as lethal as the heroin that tormented his uncle and asking delegates to "take a chance on me" because "I have built bridges across more differences and helped solve more problems in more varied settings than any other candidate in this race, from either party."

Patrick is riding that momentum in a campaign that is notably nonpartisan in tone and studiedly vague on some issues. But he has staked his chances on resisting Healey's call for a rollback in income tax rates -- something Romney has also advocated. "We cannot starve the government of resources any more than we can justify wasting the public's funds," he told me. "We can build together if we work together."

The one concern I heard expressed about Patrick comes from Democrats worried about the destination of his rapid trajectory. With his racial background, his Illinois roots, and his crossover appeal to independents and even some Republicans, he is inevitably compared to Barack Obama, the young African American senator from Illinois who keynoted the Democratic National Convention in Boston two summers ago.

Obama has become the hottest ticket on the national Democratic speaking circuit and figures in speculation as a future presidential candidate -- maybe even in 2008.

"We need a governor who will stay here and do the job," one Patrick supporter told me, recalling that two Republican governors in succession, William Weld and Paul Cellucci, have resigned and now Romney is declining to run for a second term.

Patrick says he will stay. But given his gifts, he is certain to be in demand by starry-eyed Democrats across the nation if he wins this race.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company