A Long Way From Home
Deval Patrick Ran From the Gangs in Chicago. In Boston, He's Running Again -- For Governor.

By Wil Haygood
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 25, 2006

BOSTON It wasn't Mississippi and it wasn't Alabama. But in the 1970s, many blacks were frightened just to climb the steps of Charlestown High. Police officers had to escort students to their classrooms while this tightknit white neighborhood howled and demonstrated against integration.

And now, here is Deval Patrick, 50, a black man and the Democratic candidate for governor, gliding through his main campaign headquarters.

In Charlestown.

Only one other black man -- L. Douglas Wilder of Virginia -- has been elected governor of a state in America. The race is a roiling political drama, drawing the kind of interest here that is usually reserved for the Red Sox or the Patriots. Patrick, who faces the Republican nominee, Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey, on Election Day, has a double-digit lead in the polls.

If he's successful, Patrick would not be the first black elected statewide in Massachusetts. That distinction belongs to Edward Brooke, who in 1966 became the first black elected to the U.S. Senate since Reconstruction. Nevertheless, the state's racial history has been bloody and complex, both brutal and glorious.

Two miles from Charlestown and directly across the street from the gold-domed state capitol stands a lustrous bronze statue honoring the Massachusetts 54th Regiment, the first all-black regiment recruited in the North to fight for the Union Army in the Civil War. The regiment's casualties were huge. Inscribed on the base is "For the Union Dead," a haunting poem written by Robert Lowell as a tribute to the soldiers:

. . . Two months after marching through Boston,

Half the regiment was dead;

At the dedication,

William James could almost hear the bronze Negroes breathe.

But harsher winds also swirled across the commonwealth.

The nation was introduced to a black man named Willie Horton during the 1988 presidential contest between Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis and Vice President George H.W. Bush. Horton was an imprisoned murderer who received a weekend furlough while Dukakis was governor. Horton escaped and made his way to Maryland, where he raped and robbed a woman. Horton became a seminal figure in the anti-crime ads of candidate Bush, and there were those who thought Bush was pandering to racial fears.

On Oct. 23, 1989, Charles Stuart, a furrier, made a frantic call to Boston police: He and his pregnant wife, Carol, had been shot, by some black man who went thataway.

Young black males were stopped on streets during the manhunt and patted down by police. Civil rights activists were outraged. Willie Bennett, a black man, was picked out of a lineup by Stuart. But it all unraveled with a florid flourish: Stuart, who had been having an affair, had taken out an insurance policy on his wife. His own brother implicated Stuart in the crime.

Before an arrest could be made, Stuart ended his life by jumping into icy waters off the Tobin Bridge. In Charlestown.

Leaving Chicago

Deval Patrick was a witness to some of this turmoil. But his story starts not in Massachusetts, where blacks are only 7 percent of the state population, but in Chicago, that mecca of the black migration from the South.

Chicago childhoods can be sweet, especially if you live in Hyde Park or in one of the pricey abodes on Michigan Avenue, the wind gently rustling through the trees in summertime.

But if you lived at 5346 S. Wabash Ave., on the South Side, life could be a whole lot different. Patrick's father was gone from the small house he shared with his mother, sister and grandparents. The infamous Robert Taylor Homes housing project was nearby, and Patrick had no older brothers to protect him from the gang members who chased him home.

"Instead of being drafted into gangs, he'd run from them," Rhonda Patrick-Sigh, 51 and Patrick's only sibling, says about her brother. "That -- him running -- gave us a sign that he was not going to surrender or concede to the gangs."

He'd read books and dream. He dug the Lone Ranger. He'd tend to the needs of his grandmother, Sally, and grandfather, Reynolds.

Emily, his mother, worked at the post office. Pat, his father, was a jazz saxophonist who played with Sun Ra and was always on the road.

A teacher told Patrick about the Boston-based A Better Chance program, which provided scholarships to prestigious prep schools for disadvantaged students. In 1970, he was accepted by Milton Academy, a school outside Boston that was founded in 1798. Pat Patrick worried about his boy losing his cultural identity. But Deval was eager to go. "I think he felt relief he'd be leaving the neighborhood," says his sister.

At the airport, ready to fly to Boston, Emily Patrick and Deval ran into an acquaintance who told Emily she must be so afraid of him leaving home.

"And my mother," Deval Patrick recalls, "said to me, 'You can always come back home.' "

Home then became -- from a mother's loving and well-meaning breath -- a place to land in case of failure. Because the world was harsh and people sometimes failed. But to Deval Patrick the words held another interpretation, too: Back to the South Side and the tough teenagers and the brick, so much brick, and the police sirens, and the men and women with bodies bent like hanging tree limbs from drugs.

She meant to soothe and comfort him. A mother sending an only son out into the world. Of course he could come back home. But that was the very thing that frightened him: He wanted to get away, through the looking glass, to soar off into another world.

He came to adore Milton, both the school and the town. Kennedys had gone there. Teachers took him out on Cape Cod. Grilled fish, blue skies, ocean waves, the glow from the fireplace. He didn't have to run from a single soul.

His family -- grandparents, sister Rhonda, mother Emily, even Pat, thin, proud, alone -- all got themselves to his Milton graduation. They all returned home. To Chicago.

But he stayed and went to Harvard. Then Harvard Law School.

Harvard Law: Hot tea and studying decisions by Justice Felix Frankfurter, by Justice Thurgood Marshall, by Justice William O. Douglas.

A Harvard Law degree.

Through the looking glass and, then, on the other side of it.

He went to work for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, where Marshall had made his mark and then joined a Boston law firm. In 1994 President Clinton nominated Patrick to become assistant attorney general for civil rights. They were riveting and edgy times: Conservatives launched attacks against affirmative action; a wave of black church and synagogue burnings erupted in the South, echoes from another era, when burnings and bombings haunted America. The burnings turned out to be the work of drunk boys playing arsonist and insurance-scam artists. Still, the probe consumed Patrick and his investigators. "You know how hard it is to solve arsons? Sifting through ash?" Patrick says.

There were family sacrifices along the way. His wife, Diane, 54, also an attorney, stayed home in Massachusetts with their two daughters, Sarah, now 20 and a student at New York University, and Katherine, 17, who attends St. Andrew's School in Delaware. Patrick made it a priority to get home on weekends, even though he had to drive when airline tickets started taking too big a bite of their budget. "I'd leave for home Friday after work," he remembers. "Get home Saturday morning. Take the kids to their soccer games. Then, around 6 or 7 Sunday night, I'd leave to go back to Washington."

After Justice he taught at Stanford Law School. Then he went to work as general counsel for Texaco in White Plains, N.Y., and later, for Coca-Cola in Atlanta, two corporate giants that had come under intense scrutiny over their relationships with black employees and consumers. "I went there because both of those companies had, in various ways, been broken," Patrick says. "They needed help. A lot of that change had to come in the culture."

When Patrick left the corporate world, Chicago was a long time ago and a world away.

He went home. To Milton.

Climbing Beacon Hill

Over the years there had been overtures from both Republican and Democratic administrations to run for office. He shook his head no.

Then, on the night John Kerry lost his presidential bid, Patrick was with him in Boston, ready to serve as a spokesman if a legal challenge to the vote count had to be made. The loss prompted Patrick to think about his own political philosophy.

"I think Democrats concentrate too much on how to win," Patrick says, "and have forgotten to tell people why we ought to win. The Republicans didn't win pretending to be Democrats. They set a clear vision and didn't apologize for it."

During a trip to California, he lunched with Dukakis. Patrick told Dukakis he was mulling a run for governor. Dukakis liked the moxie.

Patrick went to Beacon Hill, the seat of the state government, to get the blessings of Democratic powerbrokers. In the era of Jesse "the Body" Ventura and Arnold Schwarzenegger, no one argues that there is a required path to a governorship. But the party elders were focused on state Attorney General Tom Reilly. Also in the running was former lieutenant governor nominee Chris Gabrieli. "They told me it wasn't my turn," Patrick says.

He smiled, shook hands and ignored them.

On the issues, Patrick wants more money for middle-class and low-income housing. He wants to lighten skyrocketing property taxes across the state. He stresses the need for alternative energy strategies. He has assailed overcrowded classrooms and called for better employment and education programs for drug offenders when they are released from prison.

But his appeal to voters rests just as much on a message of optimism, his personal charisma and his uplifting personal story.

He can sound so old-fashioned as to be Jimmy Stewart corny. "Sometimes I look at Massachusetts and all the people who took a chance on a runny-nosed kid from Chicago, and who exposed him to all the opportunities it had, and I think: If they can do that for me, how come we can't do that for all the kids?" he says.

Meeting voters around the state, "I'd talk about growing up on the South Side of Chicago. I'd talk about community. I'd say to those gathered around, 'You know what I'm talking about.' That type of talk is not confined to race. It is a human thing to want to find common cause."

Patrick corralled Ron Bell for breakfast one morning. Bell was a nonpartisan voting rights activist. He didn't want to jump on either side of the political road. Right down the middle is where he imagined his power lay.

"We're talking," Bell recalls of their first meeting, "and he says, 'You can do anything you want to do.' He wasn't talking necessarily about the campaign but about my life! No one had ever talked to me like that before. I walked out of that meeting. My wife was outside in the car. She looked at me -- I had tears in my eyes -- and she said, 'What's wrong with you?' And I said, 'I'm going to work for Deval.' "

At the state party convention in June, Patrick surprised many by winning 58 percent of the delegate count. Three months later, he did it again, winning the primary with 50 percent of the vote. Gabrieli finished second with 27 percent; Reilly had 23 percent.

Sitting in his campaign office in Charlestown, Patrick is telling a story about an elevator operator, a naturalized immigrant, who stopped him one day while he was campaigning. "And she said, 'Mr. Patrick, I'm casting my first vote. And I'm gonna vote for you. I've never voted in 20 years. But I am going to vote for you.' "

He wants to finish, but the words get caught. And suddenly he's crying. Maybe it's exhaustion.

Maybe it's the memory of Emily Patrick. His mother trying to push him out into the world and still make him feel safe and secure if things fell apart: You can always come back home .

He wipes at the tears. There's a heave of the chest.

"People are hungry for hope," he says, slowly, nearly whispering. "They want a reason to believe."

The Opponent

Despite this state's reputation as a Democratic bastion, Republicans have held the governor's seat for 16 years. William Weld, Paul Cellucci, Jane Swift and current Gov. Mitt Romney have all held the office since the end of the Dukakis era. (Swift was appointed when Cellucci became ambassador to Canada. If Healey were to win the election, she'd become the first woman elected outright to the governor's job.)

Healey, Nebraska-born and also a Harvard grad, worked 10 years as a public policy consultant. She has a doctorate in political science and law from Trinity College in Dublin. (Her office canceled an interview with The Post, citing her commitments as lieutenant governor.) The Healey camp has criticized Patrick as being soft on crime, contends he will raise taxes to support new programs and will coddle illegal immigrants by allowing them to get driver's licenses and be eligible for in-state college tuition.

The Healey camp has recently mentioned the case of Benjamin LaGuer, a man of black and Puerto Rican ancestry convicted of tying up and raping a 59-year-old neighbor in 1983. Patrick and many others, among them novelist William Styron, once signed letters questioning the fairness of LaGuer's trial. In 2002, DNA evidence proved LaGuer was at the crime scene.

Both Healey and Romney have suffered mightily from fallout from the Big Dig construction project, a downtown tunnel and highway project that was originally supposed to cost $2.6 billion and has since ballooned to $14 billion. In August, a piece of concrete fell on a passenger in a car traveling along the artery and killed her.

Right at Home

It's a lovely fall morning, and inside the Boston Park Plaza Hotel, hundreds of Democrats are gathered in a chandelier-lighted room.

The marquee names are strolling onto the stage: New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, Sen. Ted Kennedy, Sen. John Kerry, many members of the state congressional delegation.

The statehouse is once again at stake and in sight. At the microphone, Rep. Edward Markey calls Patrick's political march "a revival." He mentions the Massachusetts soldiers who went South to fight in the Civil War and says the state has long had a respect for the "vision of revolutionaries."

Kennedy, white-haired, in a blue suit, gives dozens of speeches every year. Originality is not the goal; passion is. And he's howling.

"Are we gonna go out and do it?"

A thick pink finger is jabbing the air. The bifocals are slipping. His voice is rising as if singing an aria.

"Are we gonna elect Deval Patrick the next governor of Massachusetts?"

Patrick, who has given $350,000 of his own money to the campaign, steps to the microphone. "This campaign is about asking people who've checked out to check back in," he says. He calls the string of Republican governors "recreational governors." He talks about the small towns and the big cities across the state he's visited. About those burned churches and synagogues. And then he's down off the stage, shaking hands, and more hands.

The next evening, Patrick is sitting at home, in his enclosed patio with tall windows. It's a gorgeous 15-room home in Milton, valued at nearly $2 million. The couple also own a multimillion-dollar vacation home in the Berkshires. Moonlight seeps through the trees. His wife, Diane, is upstairs, talking to one of their daughters on the telephone. He's munching on a cookie.

When Patrick started his campaign, he enjoyed telling his mother about it, the joy and dream of it. But Emily Patrick died at the beginning of last year, his campaign still in its nascent stage. (His father died in 1991.)

You can always come back home .

Now Deval Patrick has no mother's home to go home to.

So the child who made it through the looking glass brought family home to him: The ashes of his grandparents Sally and Reynolds Wintersmith are buried in the back yard. His mother's ashes at the moment are at his sister's house, elsewhere in Milton, but will be buried in the same yard. "Right out there," he says, pointing. "It is where my mother will also go."

He is outside now, waving at the police officer sitting in her car in the circular driveway. There have been threats, but he won't talk about them.

Patrick is rolling off to the train station. Past the fine homes, the very homes he used to toss newspapers to when he arrived here to go to Milton. Had a paperboy job; hoarded his nickels and dimes.

He rolls up to a red light.

"Look at that," he says, pointing to a "Deval Patrick for Governor" bumper sticker. "It's quite humbling."

The light turns green.

"You know," he says, "it was the great Dr. Benjamin Mays who said, 'Not failure, but low aim is sin.' Isn't that powerful?"

The high aim of the governor's chair.

On Beacon Hill, where the poet could nearly hear the battling bronze Negroes breathe.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company