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Road may get rocky for Patrick

A chief problem for Deval Patrick is the state budget gap.
A chief problem for Deval Patrick is the state budget gap.Credit: Bill Greene/Globe Staff

Private dinners at the White House. Rousing speeches to far-flung Democratic Party conclaves. A prime-time, nationally televised appearance at the party’s convention.

All that is now in Deval Patrick’s rearview mirror. Now the governor has returned to Massachusetts and is forced to give his full attention to the less glamorous world of the State House, where he faces a host of potentially explosive issues that will sorely challenge his ability to shape his legacy during the last two years of his governorship.

With scandals engulfing two state agencies, shuffling of key staff, severe fiscal problems, and the potential for a tax increase, Patrick will have to draw on his leadership skills to navigate what could be a hazardous political landscape.

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“The blood is in the water, particularly with the budget gap,’’ said Thomas J. Whalen, a political historian and associate professor at Boston University. “Republicans and even people in his own party are going to pounce and go after him with charges he was neglecting his duties by being out of state so much during the campaign. That’s one of the easiest narratives for the public to understand and very effective in politics.’’

When the Legislature returns at the beginning of the year for its session, Patrick will have to confront lawmakers on political battles over spending cuts and a possible tax hike.

“It is piling up,’’ said Charles D. Chieppo, a fiscally conservative public policy analyst and former policy director in the Romney administration’s budget division. “The governor is not one to underestimate his own abilities. It will be interesting, now that the campaign is over, how he exerts his authority.’’

Patrick aides acknowledge that serious problems have suddenly hit the administration. But, with some bravado, they insist Patrick has always understood that his first responsibility is to face up to any crisis, scandal, or serious challenge and correct it.

“Some of these problems started before we took office or are a result of global economic forces, but that’s neither here nor there,’’ said Brendan Ryan, Patrick’s director of communications, who will soon take over as his chief of staff. “It’s on us to fix it. That’s the approach the governor brings every day. Our job is to deal with whatever challenges arise and get it right. That’s what we do.’’

Patrick, despite his increasing lame duck status, comes at the challenges from a strong political position. Polls this fall showed him to be one of the most popular elected officials in the state. That popularity is backed up by on-the-ground political muscle that showed its effectiveness in the elections earlier this month.

Meanwhile, the other power players on Beacon Hill return potentially weakened. Federal prosecutors continue to investigate the Probation Department scandal, an inquiry that is rattling nerves in the House leadership. Therese Murray, a powerful force on Beacon Hill for the past decade, will see her influence wane as she enters her term-limited final two years as Senate president.

But as he heads into his own last two years, the governor also faces major changes in his staff and the possible loss of several key Cabinet members. On Tuesday, Patrick announced that William “Mo” Cowan, who left a high-paying job at a top Boston law firm to run Patrick’s legal office four years ago and then took over as chief of staff in 2010, is leaving to rejoin the private sector.

Patrick’s most trusted fiscal aide, Administration and Finance Secretary Jay Gonzales, is also said to be pondering a return to private legal practice. Others in the Cabinet are considering leaving, as well, after the governor asked all his top officials either to commit to work with him during his final two years as governor or to depart.

Since late summer and the fall, Patrick has had to deal with shocking breakdowns at two state agencies under his control. One resulted in 34 deaths from fungal meningitis; the other threatens to release hundreds of convicted felons to the street. So far, Patrick has been able to project the image that he is working to fix the crises, but the extent of the damage is still unfolding.

A sudden plunge in tax collections and a flat economy have meant that tax revenues for the first four months of the fiscal year are now off by $250 million, forcing the administration to prepare for potentially serious cuts in spending. The governor has also talked of pushing for a hike in the state’s gasoline tax to fund the transportation deficit, a move that could set off a political firestorm and rouse the state’s antitax lobby, which has successfully battled Democratic tax plans over the years.

Even the politics of the job — in particular, a patronage appointment gone wrong and a politically wounded lieutenant governor — has the potential to bog down Patrick.

The recent resignation of his highway safety director from her $87,000-a-year job has offered a glimpse of the patronage practices in which the governor, who rode into office six years ago on a promise to crack down on politics as usual, has indulged. Lieutenant Governor Timothy P. Murray, a Patrick favorite, is still struggling to regain his footing following an early-morning car accident a year ago, and reports of his ties to a controversial figure, Michael E. McLaughlin, former head of the Chelsea Housing Authority.

With all of those problems swirling, however, Republicans seem to be holding their fire.

One GOP lawmaker, Daniel B. Winslow of Norfolk, said the considerable challenges facing Patrick offer the governor a chance to show that his hands-on management and leadership skills are as good as the political aptitude he has shown over the years on the campaign trail.

“It’s not only a test, but an opportunity to show what he is made of,’’ Winslow said.

“I would put up Governor Patrick against anyone in making speeches,” he said. “Now we will find out if he can make progress.’’

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