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Scot Lehigh

Governor, it's time to find your groove

By Scot Lehigh
March 27, 2009
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IT WAS Governor Patrick the Penitent who invited reporters to his office for a Tuesday exercise in damage control.

Senator Marian Walsh, newly appointed to the plum patronage post of assistant executive director of the Health and Educational Facilities Authority, would take a $55,000 pay cut in her planned $175,000 salary, he announced.

What's more, Stephen Crosby, the well-regarded dean of UMass-Boston's John W. McCormack Graduate School of Policy Studies, would review pay and perks at the state's quasi-independent agencies.

Throughout, Patrick was even-tempered and affable. Once again, though, he was trying to climb out of a hole dug by his off-putting doppelganger, Deval the Dismissive. Just a few days before, that tin-eared pol had brushed off the public outcry over Walsh's appointment and other personnel controversies as "trivial."

Patrick the Penitent issued a mea culpa for that remark.

"Uncle. Uncle. Uncle," said he. "I wish I'd never uttered the word."

Of course, if wishes were horses, beggars would ride. Alas for the man from uncle, once done, political damage is not so easily undone. Further, as walk-backs go, Tuesday's left a lot to be desired. Wasting $120,000 a year is preferable to squandering $175,000, certainly. But given that the bonding agency's number two spot had been vacant for a dozen years, it strains credulity to think installing the lightly qualified Walsh at HEFA is in any way vital.

A new Suffolk University poll shows how tenuous Patrick's situation has become: Just 34 percent said he merits reelection, while 47 percent said it is time for someone else.

Other results are murkier. Although Treasurer Timothy Cahill, who is contemplating a gubernatorial run, was statistically tied with Patrick in a general election head-to-head, that match-up, which assumes that Cahill runs as an independent, did not include a GOP candidate. Thus it's not an accurate barometer of how voters would break if a credible Republican runs.

It's also worth noting that Patrick leads Cahill handily among Democrats - and that this poll was taken before the news broke that the State Ethics Commission is investigating Cahill's role in awarding a $21 million contract to a company that was secretly paying his close friend and fund-raiser Tom Kelly.

Finally, a poll is only a snapshot in time.

All that said, however, Suffolk's poll is not a snapshot any incumbent would want to blow up and hang on his wall.

In past surveys, voters have liked Patrick, even while giving him mediocre job-performance reviews. But in the Suffolk poll, only 44 percent viewed the governor favorably, while 43 percent rated him unfavorably.

"Usually his popularity has been above his job performance numbers, but now it is dropping, and that drop is driven by independents," says David Paleologos, director of the university's Political Research Center. "They were quite taken with him during the election, but I am seeing a very different opinion now."

In a state where independents are crucial, that's an ominous trend.

The administration attributes the lackluster results to the troubled economic times and the controversial positions Patrick has taken. Spokesman Joe Landolfi cites his reform of police details and auto insurance, as well as his support for a gas tax increase and his call for public pension reform.

"The governor feels very strongly that his reform agenda is going to position the state for a much stronger upturn in the future, but we realize that it comes with political costs," he said.

Certainly Patrick has done some difficult - and laudable - things. But administration spin aside, his problems go well beyond voters alienated by policy stands.

They even go beyond blunders like the Walsh appointment - and his verbal penchant for using his toes for target practice.

After two-plus years, he hasn't been able to find the right working distance from the Legislature, one that retains an aura of executive independence and authority. Nor has he seemed convincingly in charge since the state hit rough water.

Further, people still complain that he doesn't listen.

When times are tough, usually equable Massachusetts voters become far less forgiving. And times are only getting tougher. Which means Patrick's margin for error has grown exceedingly slim.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com.

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