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The Deval Patrick Show
Massachusetts has another gubernatorial prospect. Is he for real?

DEVAL PATRICK had a busy week. On Monday, January 17 — Martin Luther King Jr. Day — readers of the Boston Globe learned that Patrick might run for governor in 2006. One day later, Patrick sat down with Emily Rooney, host of WGBH-TV’s Greater Boston, to discuss his political future. On Friday morning, Bob Oakes of WBUR conducted a lengthy interview with Patrick during prime commuting time. Things came full circle on Saturday, when the Globe reported that none other than Bill Clinton had offered to advise Patrick as he ponders a run. It was a truly impressive multimedia barrage — but through it all, one nagging question lingered:

Who’s Deval Patrick?

If Patrick’s sudden arrival as a possible candidate surprised the general public, they weren’t alone. Plenty of local Democratic insiders seemed befuddled as well. "I wouldn’t know Deval Patrick if I went home tonight and he was sitting in my kitchen," said one. Another said Patrick had "absolutely not been on my radar" as a potential candidate. "I was not aware of him at all as someone who’d jump in the race," said a third. "I don’t know him that well," remarked a fourth. "In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever met him."

Thanks to the recent spate of coverage, the broad contours of Patrick’s life slowly are coming into focus. Patrick, who is African-American, grew up in poverty on Chicago’s South Side. He came to Massachusetts after winning a scholarship to Milton Academy, and attended Harvard College and Harvard Law School. In 1994, at the age of 37, he joined the Clinton administration, where he served as assistant attorney general for civil rights. After leaving that post in 1997, he held two high-paying corporate jobs, as general counsel for Texaco and then for Coca-Cola. Patrick is 48; he and his wife, Diane, an attorney at Ropes & Gray, live in Milton and have two daughters.

At this point, however, Massachusetts still has an extremely limited sense of who Patrick is and what’s driving his potential candidacy. Which makes it hard to take seriously the idea — first floated by Dan Payne, the veteran Democratic media consultant who’s advising Patrick — that he could be our answer to Barack Obama, the newly elected US senator from Illinois. Given Patrick’s middling public debut — and considering that he’s never run for elected office before — this suggestion seems dangerously premature. But is it?

PATRICK’S MEDIA appearances last week had something of a not-ready-for-prime-time feel. Take his appearance on Greater Boston. Confronted with the one question he should have known was coming — why are you thinking about running for governor? — Patrick declared his "very deep, soft feeling" for Massachusetts. By the time of his WBUR interview, Patrick had (wisely) jettisoned this vaguely creepy explanation; instead, he spoke of his abiding "soft spot" for the state. It was an improvement, but it still gave an indulgent, wishy-washy cast to Patrick’s hypothetical candidacy.

Then there was the strange letter Patrick sent to prospective supporters, in which eloquent tributes to Massachusetts and to the role of government were coupled with oddly plaintive requests for help. ("Tell me your thoughts not just about the political calculations, but about how I should be thinking about and learning about what people need and how an enlightened, engaged governor could help," Patrick wrote. "... Especially ask your kids what they need in a governor and pass that thinking on.") To some political veterans, it all seemed ridiculously half-baked. "To send out letters asking five-year-old kids what they think about you running for governor? It’s stupid!" complains one Democrat. "You don’t know why you’re going to run? Don’t run." "If you want to run for governor," adds Scott Ferson, a political consultant with the Liberty Square Group, "it’s nice to know why you want to run, instead of saying you’re going to figure it out."

Yet earlier this week, as Patrick discussed his quasi-candidacy over breakfast at the Omni Parker House, he was generally upbeat. "I’ve had hundreds of e-mail messages and phone calls with encouragement and support," he said. "I’ve started receiving money. I’ve had calls from Democratic activists, from people who are not very involved in politics, from Republicans, from self-declared independents. I’ve had offers to do fundraisers and friend-raisers all around this area, in the western part of the state, in New York and Washington, DC, and Atlanta and Chicago and St. Louis and Los Angeles and San Francisco. On the whole, it’s been very heartening." (Given a recent development in his family, he adds, it also has been somewhat overwhelming: his mother, Emily, died early on the morning of January 18.)

Patrick also defended his collaborative (or, put less kindly, his undirected) approach to deciding whether to run — and, in the process, took a nasty swipe at Mitt Romney. "What I’m trying to find is whether what I offer is what people need," he said. "If there’s a completely different idea — if the electorate were to say, ‘We need somebody who really believes that the most vulnerable are vulnerable through some fault of their own, and the collective We — which includes the government, and which the government ought to reflect — has absolutely no responsibility for and ought to take no responsibility for the most vulnerable citizens,’ then I’m not the guy. That’s not who I am.

"I take the point about the five-year-olds," Patrick added. "Okay, don’t talk to your five-year-old. Fine. But I bet your 14-year-old has a point of view. Your 14-year-old is at a point where they’re trying to choose between the sort of feigned insouciance that they think sophistication is, and whether they’re going to hold on to some of the idealism which is a part of youth. And it’s up to adults to invite and challenge young people to think about more than themselves — to see their stake not just in their own dreams, but in their neighbor’s dreams. You can trivialize any gesture that people make to try to offer a way for people to be heard, and there are a lot of examples of that in public life. I think it’s time to turn that around."

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Issue Date: January 28 - February 3, 2005
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