Politics

Restoration Governor

It's been 16 years since a Democrat ruled Massachusetts. That won't make Deval Patrick's job any easier.
by | December 2006

To much of the outside world, it seemed newsworthy last month when Deval Patrick won a landslide victory to become the first African- American governor of Massachusetts. But inside the state, the real news wasn't Patrick's race--it was his party. Massachusetts, bluest of America's blue states, will have a Democrat in power on Beacon Hill for the first time since Michael Dukakis left office in 1991.

For the past 16 years, a succession of Republican governors--William Weld, Paul Cellucci, Jane Swift and, most recently, Mitt Romney-- have served to balance the Democratic stranglehold on other elected offices. An entire generation of Democratic legislators has come of age learning to work with or trying to do an end-run around a governor who came from the other side. Now, they'll have to figure out how to deal with one of their own.

To some extent, Patrick's victory signals nothing more than the voters' preference for a magnetic candidate who ran a persuasive campaign. Patrick, who is 50, made a point of highlighting his climb from a hardscrabble childhood on Chicago's South Side to a legal career that included three years at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, a stint as the head of the U.S. Justice Department's Civil Rights Division during Bill Clinton's presidency, and work as a corporate lawyer for Texaco and Coca-Cola.

Although he was short on specific plans and long on vague talk of "hope" and "community," Patrick proved electrifying on the stump. "In a crowd, he has people eating out of his hands," says Robert Keogh, editor of CommonWealth, a public policy magazine focused on Bay State issues. Indeed, Keogh says, when Clinton came to Boston to campaign for Patrick, "it was like watching Luke Skywalker perform for Yoda, the two of them trying to one-up each other in their presentation skills."

But Patrick's victory also reflected the fact that the GOP had run out its skein in Massachusetts. Weld and Romney, in particular, were elected at times of economic and budgetary crisis, when voters seemed to be looking for a fiscal conservative to rein in the liberal spending habits of the legislature. The dynamics this year were different, in part because one GOP governor after another had essentially chosen to abandon the state. Weld moved to New York, Cellucci quit to become ambassador to Canada and Romney launched a presidential drive that consisted in large part of bashing the state that elected him. In the legislature, GOP forces have withered to the point where Democrats enjoy 7-to-1 margins in each chamber.

The question now is how Patrick will get along with a pair of legislative leaders--House Speaker Sal DiMasi and Senate President Robert Travaglini--who have grown accustomed to shaping the Democrats' agenda. With their party in control of the entire state for the first time in a decade and a half, all three will face immense pressure to boost spending, especially on education and aid to localities. "It will be interesting to see who, if anybody, decides it's his job to play the grownup and provide a check on spending," says Keogh. "It's not clear who can constrain very high expectations about what a Patrick governorship can do for Democratic interests."

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Rob Gurwitt  |  Former Correspondent
robg@valley.net

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