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Steering into economic headwinds

From change agent to 'comforter in chief'

It's a new deal for the governor, as the slump into recession makes budget cuts, not campaign dreams, his focus

By Matt Viser and Frank Phillips
Globe Staff / January 11, 2009
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His oft-repeated campaign mantra of "Together we can" meant that the people of Massachusetts could unite and accomplish great things. But when Governor Deval Patrick picked up his cellphone last week and braced a Springfield official for more bad economic news, he applied similar sentiments to a starkly different situation.

"These are big challenges ahead," Patrick told the official. "But we'll get through them. We have to lean on each other."

In fact, Patrick is recasting himself, halfway through his term, from inspirational visionary to crisis manager, what he described in an interview last week as "comforter in chief."

He finds himself mired in a national financial crisis that is forcing him to cut deeply into the state budget, including social programs for the mentally retarded and the blind. As the state continues to lose revenue by the billions, Patrick is contemplating cuts in state aid to cash-strapped, hard-luck cities such as Worcester, New Bedford, and Springfield.

This is not what Patrick signed up for when he campaigned on a progressive agenda in 2006, and promised, in consistently soaring rhetoric, to give the state's residents better educations, make their neighborhoods safer, and reduce their property taxes.

In 2009, rescuing a Turnpike Authority on the brink of insolvency - not enriching education for kindergarteners - promises to dominate the agenda. He is pushing for higher tolls and is reluctantly contemplating a higher gasoline tax. Meanwhile, he has been shuttling to Washington to seek a desperately needed infusion of federal funds, a piece of President-elect Barack Obama's economic stimulus proposal, that could help keep the state's rising unemployment rates from spiking even further.

During the fall's budget cuts, he often sat alone in his State House office, sometimes late into Saturday night, going through the budget, line by line. "This stuff is personal," he said last week. In a series of interviews, Patrick made clear that the economic crisis has not caused him to abandon his agenda, though he acknowledges that the goals he set will take longer to realize - and he is already talking about seeking a second term.

Yet he also said his job during the past two years has at times seemed like a "daily slog," and lately he's had to adjust his mindset and take on new roles.

"I am finding myself in the role of sort of comforter in chief or reassurer in chief. There is so much anxiety out there. People are really worried," Patrick said as he prepared for his annual State of the State speech, which he will deliver before the Legislature and a live statewide TV audience on Thursday.

"There's not going to be enough money. All right? Just to be clear," he said. But he remains committed, he said, to using the levers of government to help people through rough times.

"And at a time like this, frankly, more people than usual are looking to government at all levels," he said. "We have to do everything we can - I'm trying to do everything I can - to step up."

Voters have so far responded positively to Patrick's approach to crisis management. A Globe poll last month found that he has a 64 percent favorable rating among Massachusetts adults, an unusually high mark for a governor in the midst of financial crunch. But that will be tough for him to keep.

Those who have seen governors' careers defined by fiscal crises say Patrick has escaped political backlash so far because the brunt of the financial woes have yet to hit. Michael Widmer, the president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, said Patrick has moved forcefully to deal with the pending fiscal crisis, but without ruffling many feathers.

"It's a thankless and unwelcome task," he said. "But he's stepped in in an aggressive way, in a way he needed to."

Still, the coming months will pose incredible challenges that will test the governor, and continue to lead him down a path he did not envision, at least not publicly, when he assumed office in 2007 as a liberal, the state's first black governor, and with a strong belief in the power of government to improve people's lives.

"This is not what this was supposed to be all about," said Stephen Crosby, dean of the McCormack Graduate School of Policy Studies at the University of Massachusetts at Boston and a member of Patrick's transition team.

Patrick, whose significant rhetorical skills and relentlessly upbeat tone helped him win a long-shot bid for governor, is now looking to set the right tone for changed times.

In his midterm State of the State address this week, the governor said, he will stress joining together to fight adversity - while not losing sight of the important, but sometimes unrealized, goals that were the hallmarks of his first two years.

"I for one don't feel like the mood of the Commonwealth is for a soaring address," Patrick said. "I feel like the mood of the Commonwealth is to have us level with them, to really talk about just how hard this is going to be. And what I'd like to do is to rally people to keep going, and to hang in, and to hang onto each other."

Still, despite the dark clouds looming as he enters his third year as governor, the governor seems to genuinely be enjoying the job. In contrast to his first year and half in office - when House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi strode the State House as the dominant player - Patrick is emerging as a stronger presence.

His friend Barack Obama is about to move into the White House, a political development that is giving Patrick a broader national profile.

As he traveled to Washington for the president-elect's speech on the economy last week, Patrick got his shoes shined at the airport and took a commercial flight, riding in coach both ways and declining an offer to upgrade to first class. He was never far from his Blackberry. At one point, he pulled out his Vaio laptop and found an e-mail from Yo-Yo Ma asking if they could hang out during the inauguration.

In interviews during his trip Wednesday and Thursday and in his State House office with powder blue walls and soaring ceilings on Friday, Patrick seemed more assured and confident as he fielded questions from Globe reporters. Patrick seems to have grown into the job; in particular, he has found a more effective approach to dealing with the Legislature, which is controlled by his fellow Democrats but has steadfastly refused to let him direct the agenda.

"There are days it drives me crazy, I mean don't get me wrong," he said, discussing the tensions between his office and the Legislature. "And I love the job, even on bad days I love the job. But I have bad days."

By the end of the legislative session, Patrick had a series of accomplishments to tout, including a $1 billion package to bolster the state's life sciences industry, several new laws promoting environmental policies, and tighter corporate tax codes.

But the governor was also criticized for floating proposals that initially seemed short of specifics, and he was unsuccessful in winning approval for several items on his agenda, including licensing three resort casinos, allowing communities to raise local meals and hotel taxes, and reforming the state's Criminal Offender Record Information system.

A turning point for Patrick appeared to occur after his casino proposal went down in dramatic defeat. His critics said he was trying to manage the state like a chief executive, without effectively engaging the Legislature. But out of the political rubble left by the casino battle, Patrick and DiMasi, who opposed the plan, forged a tighter relationship.

This year, Patrick said, he hasn't decided whether to file casino legislation. But he clearly has a more pragmatic approach to the contentious issue. "I'm not going to file something that isn't going anywhere," Patrick said. "There's a conversation there we have to have."

Patrick's ties to Obama are paying dividends. On his trip to Washington last week, he joined five other governors to meet with the president-elect and continue their lobbying for states to share a big piece of the federal stimulus package. He was front and center in the audience at Obama's speech Thursday. Later, when the five governors met with the media, Patrick was a key voice at the press conference.

In an interview after Obama's speech, he declined to discuss missteps he believes he has made. And, back on Beacon Hill the next day, he remained philosophical about what he must do to handle the political and economic troubles ahead.

"These are the circumstances we've been dealt," he said.

Matt Viser can be reached at maviser@globe.com. Frank Phillips can be reached at phillips@globe.com.

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