Deval Patrick won the governor’s office by raising expectations that he could quickly make a difference on Beacon Hill. That’s a tall order. Governors may reign in the Commonwealth, but the legislature rules. Even more important, the legislature makes the rules. That reality has become painfully clear to Governor Patrick in the first 15 months of his 48-month term.
Only the wildly idealistic optimists — and there were many who rallied to the governor’s campaign rhetoric — could have expected Patrick to revolutionize Massachusetts in this short a span of time. Idealism, of course, is in relatively short supply up on Beacon Hill. And optimism is a similarly precious commodity.
Patrick’s problem — and anyone who doubts he has a problem should look at his deeply declining approval ratings — is that, having cornered the limited market for idealistic opportunism, and then expanded it, he is now being judged by its cruel utopian standards. (Barack Obama, take note.)
If Patrick were ever to drop his guard for a moment — and charming though Patrick is, he appears to be increasingly guarded — he might admit something like this: politics is a lot tougher than government (which is tough enough), and running a state is a lot trickier than being a corporate executive and a board member.
So how’s Patrick doing? The assessment, not surprisingly, is mixed.
Patrick has genuinely improved many facets of state government, and has laid the groundwork for more important changes.
He has also misspent much effort by introducing overly ambitious and wide-ranging proposals that he and his staff were ill-equipped to usher through the dense political thickets.
Patrick and his team came out of the gate in January 2007 with an aggressive first budget, seeking in one stroke not only to fulfill a variety of campaign promises (new cops, property-tax relief, expanded early education, increased immunization programs), but also to overhaul state government (earmark elimination, restructured departments, consolidated budget items). The former were unrealistic given the huge budget shortfall; the latter sought to emasculate the very legislature whose votes were needed to pass that budget.
This budget, far more than the drapes, the Cadillac, and even his inexplicable call to Citigroup executive and former US Treasury secretary Robert Rubin on behalf of mortgage lender Ameriquest (on whose board Patrick had served) revealed a tin-eared political neophyte with much to learn. (The flap over his recent book deal, too, calls into question how much he’s learned — or at least retained.) And it was followed, even as the legislature was still working on that first budget, by a seemingly endless series of grand proposals, including a corporate-tax package, local-options taxes, life-sciences investment, a package of environmental and energy initiatives, commuter-rail extension, post-release public-safety reform, and, of course, the casino plan.
Many, if not all, are admirable ideas, but very few of them have come to fruition.
And while Patrick has retooled some of his staff and his strategies, he has not stepped back on any of these proposals. He continues to expend energy and political capital on them, making it hard for him to respond to the needs of the changing landscape.
And that landscape has changed dramatically. We have entered, as Patrick recently described it in understated terms, “anxious economic times.” Residents and businesses have serious and immediate worries on their minds: layoffs, rising prices, foreclosures, falling property values, and unknowable impacts of a national recession.
Patrick has now made serious and worthy proposals in response, including those for a bond bill that could jump-start construction projects this summer, expedited workforce-training grants, a revolving acquisition pool to turn around foreclosed properties, and energy assistance for companies.
But these come late to the table, and we can’t help thinking that they would have come sooner had the governor not been banging heads with the legislature over so many of his previous proposals.
Nevertheless, Patrick has unquestionably succeeded in reframing the very nature of the public discussion. As Steve Crosby, former finance and administration secretary under Jane Swift, noted at a recent public forum (as reported by State House News Service), the last time Massachusetts has seriously discussed big, new programs and revenues was during the education-reform debate of 1993. Today, the discussion is about which new revenues we will have, and which big programs we will undertake.
In this and other ways, Patrick has provided a refreshing departure from 16 years of Republican rule. More important, he has brought bright, talented people into the administration, and set them to the task of finding ways to improve the state government, and through it, the people of the Commonwealth.
Perhaps this would have been true of any Democratic governor. But we do know that Patrick appears to have found winners in, among others, economic-development secretary Daniel O’Connell, health and human-services secretary JudyAnn Bigby, environment and energy secretary Ian Bowles, administration and finance secretary Leslie Kirwan, transportation secretary Bernard Cohen, labor secretary Suzanne Bump, and newly named education secretary Paul Reville. Long-neglected agencies — the Department of Social Services and Department of Correction being just two obvious examples — have vigorous new leadership in Angelo McClain and Harold Clarke.