Bright Star of Mass. Tarnished by Lapses
Sunday, March 18, 2007
BOSTON -- Only a few months ago, Deval Patrick was being hailed by his party as a savior, becoming Massachusetts's first Democratic governor in 16 years and only the second African American to lead a state since Reconstruction.
But circumstances have changed quickly for Patrick, as they have often in a life that saw him plucked from the South Side of Chicago at 14 and awarded a scholarship to a prestigious prep school in the Boston suburbs. He was recently forced to plead, "Don't give up on me," to state residents, and at a news conference Friday he found himself repeatedly sidestepping questions about a staff shake-up that included the resignation of a controversial aide.
Missteps involving the use of state funds and a series of gaffes have transformed a budding star who was swept into office running as an outsider into something the rough-and-tumble arena of Massachusetts politics is more familiar with: an embattled pol.
"People felt that Deval was really going to come into office with a ball of fire and change things," said Mary Ann Marsh, a Democratic political strategist in the state. "Some of these things seem to be more about doing favors than fixing problems. They seem to be the antithesis of the campaign trail."
When Patrick, 50, entered office, he decided to lease a 2007 Cadillac DTS as his official state car, replacing the Ford Crown Victoria his predecessor used; it cost the state an additional $543 each month, but he explained to reporters that the old car had a lot of miles on it and a broken heater. The move might have caused minor grumbling, but critics saw it as just another decision of a series in his brief tenure that embraced the very political elitism he ran against during his campaign, a list that includes the purchase of $12,000 drapes as part of a $27,000 renovation of the governor's office at taxpayer expense, the hiring of a chief of staff for his wife, and attempts to help a controversial mortgage company that has been accused of predatory lending.
Now he must recover his public support while dealing with a major trauma in his personal life. Patrick's office announced more than a week ago that the governor's wife, Diane, was suffering from depression and exhaustion, and Patrick says he will cut down the number of nights and weekends that he works.
"The rest of it pales in relation to what's going on at home," Patrick said in an interview in his statehouse office in Boston.
Looking to get beyond the controversies, Patrick has admitted that "we screwed up on spending." He agreed to pay the difference between the monthly lease cost of the Cadillac and the Crown Victoria and the cost of the new drapes and furniture in his office. His wife's chief of staff, whose position had not existed in recent gubernatorial administrations, resigned as part of the changes unveiled Thursday.
Patrick said he thought he was being targeted for a bit of "hazing" by the Massachusetts political elite, but on the advice of prominent Democrats, he added two veterans of Beacon Hill politics to his staff, reflecting the view among many in the state that mistakes have stemmed from the inexperience of Patrick and his team. One of the new staffers will run his press operation.
That inexperience has been made more daunting by the fact that Patrick, who had never run for elective office before his gubernatorial campaign, is having to learn politics on the job in an atmosphere in which newspapers are ready to pounce and the Democrats who control the legislature are wary of any moves to cut them out of the political process.
The controversies have served as the first major detour for Patrick, who seemed to be the kind of political star who thrived despite a minimum of seasoning. The Chicago native, who grew up sharing a room in his grandmother's house with his mother and sister, spent much of his life as a civil rights and corporate lawyer outside government and politics, except for three years when he headed the civil rights division at the Justice Department in the Clinton administration.
His campaign rhetoric that was focused on getting people in Massachusetts to "believe again" and his emphasis on hope and optimism, illustrated by his own story, captivated voters in the Bay State. He defeated two prominent opponents in the Democratic primary and won with a 21-point margin in the general election.
"Deval's campaign captured a lot of imagination and public support, so the expectations are high," said former presidential nominee Michael S. Dukakis, the last Democrat to hold the governor's office in the state.
Patrick, according to people who have talked to him, expected he could stop paying close attention to politics after he got elected. "He's a policy guy and he doesn't want to get dragged down by politics," said Rep. Michael E. Capuano (D-Mass.), who was an early supporter of Patrick and talks to him regularly.
That attitude was reflected in each of these controversies, which all followed a pattern: Patrick would call a flap trivial, dismiss it for a few days and then apologize after criticism escalated. When talk about the Cadillac began, the governor at first made light of the matter, telling an Associated Press reporter he should take a ride in the $46,000 car.
Even Patrick's supports criticize his call last month on behalf of ACC Capital Holdings to Robert E. Rubin, the former Treasury secretary and an executive at Citigroup, a call Patrick said that he made as a private citizen. Patrick was formerly on the board of ACC, the struggling company that owns Ameriquest Mortgage, which has long been accused of predatory lending. ACC wanted financial help from Citigroup, and Patrick knew Rubin from their days in the Clinton administration.
Critics said the distinction Patrick tried to draw between his private and public roles did not exist when the governor of Massachusetts was calling an executive at Citigroup, a financial giant with significant business interests in the state, a point Patrick later conceded.
"That was a mistake in judgment, not just cosmetics," said Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.).
Patrick said he now realizes he needs to focus more on his image. "What I'm not interested in, but I have to get more interested in, is government by photo-op," he said.
Just a day earlier he was displaying his commitment to that idea, making an appearance Thursday in Revere, a small town outside Boston, where he read "The Very Busy Spider" to kindergarteners at a school while more than a half-dozen reporters looked on. When one child asked, "Why do we have cameras here?" the governor smiled.
Patrick advisers said that they expect the governor to bounce back as voters start learning more about his accomplishments in office. Health-care advocates have praised his work in implementing the state's landmark insurance law, passed last year, which requires all residents to have health insurance by July 1. The governor personally called several major insurance companies in the state to negotiate cheaper prices for individuals who do not have insurance and earn too much to receive government subsidies.
The governor's team is also trying to get Patrick out of the statehouse more, so that Massachusetts residents will remember what they liked about him when they voted for him. With a slender build and soft voice, Patrick lacks the commanding presence of some politicians, but his quick wit and inspirational rhetoric can warm people to him.
At a St. Patrick's Day lunch in Lawrence Friday, he joked that, as part of his staff changes, he planned to hire Martha Stewart to decorate his office, and added, "I do have to tell you, parking is a problem. It's hard to find room for both the helicopter and the Cadillac," referring to criticism about his use of state helicopters earlier in his term, which Patrick has defended.
Back in his office, he said he is trying to reduce the blunders but sought to put the controversies in context. "When I ran, I said I would make some mistakes," Patrick said Friday. "I didn't run for saint. None of them are fatal."