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Activism, soaring language, disputes mark Patrick's career

By Scott Helman
Globe Staff / September 6, 2006

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First in a series on the three Democrats in the Sept. 19 gubernatorial primary

In early 1994, after President Clinton's first two picks for the nation's top civil rights post came under heavy criticism, he turned to Deval L. Patrick, a 37-year-old Boston lawyer with an uplifting life story and deep portfolio of civil rights work.

Almost immediately, conservatives were wary.

As a lawyer with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Patrick had helped craft an appeal of the death sentence of Warren McCleskey, a black man on death row convicted of killing a white Atlanta policeman in 1978. The unsuccessful appeal to the US Supreme Court was based not on the case, but on statistics showing that Georgia executed murderers of whites at a far higher rate than murderers of blacks.

``The McCleskey case is the beacon of wrong headedness," an Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist wrote in questioning the choice of Patrick to head the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division.

Patrick's nomination and tenure were celebrated by the civil rights community, but his actions attracted intense scrutiny amid a roiling national debate over affirmative action and racial preferences. Many Republicans, and even some Democrats, considered his aggressive civil rights agenda outside the mainstream.

``His politics are very left, and maybe that's what Massachusetts voters will want and maybe they won't," Abigail Thernstrom, a conservative author and scholar, said in an interview last month .

Patrick and his defenders dispute that branding, arguing that he has steered a principled middle course throughout his varied career as a civil rights lawyer and corporate executive.

``I come to this as a pragmatist with very high ideals," Patrick said during his March 1994 confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee, urging the panel not to see him as a liberal or a conservative. ``I view the civil rights laws as among the most important laws on the books, and I believe they exist to help solve real problems in real people's lives."

Today, Patrick, 50, is selling his candidacy for governor on much the same premise: that his approach at the State House would blend pragmatism and idealism and not be governed by ideology. He's banking on that message, his mix of public- and private-sector experience, and his compelling rags-to-riches tale to catapult him to the Democratic nomination on Sept. 19.

Eloquence on the stump

Over the past year and a half, Patrick has distinguished himself as the most eloquent orator in the race. Critics charge that his rhetoric about hope and possibility is short on specifics, but it's undeniable that Patrick's soaring speeches have moved many voters.

``He's all positive, trying to make a change," said Aarron Small, a 46-year-old from Boston who was grilling beef hot dogs at last month's Caribbean Carnival parade in Boston, of which Patrick was grand marshal. ``Change is good."

That's precisely the sentiment Patrick brought to the Civil Rights Division during his tenure there from 1994 to 1997 -- three tumultuous years that, though not explored in depth by the media during this campaign, offer a window into Patrick's character and his philosophy on the role of government in people's lives.

Patrick sailed through Senate confirmation hearings after charting a cautious, moderate course in his testimony. But he aroused suspicion among some Republicans, who feared his policies would promote racial quotas in employment and other arenas. In conservatives' eyes, Patrick's years at the Justice Department proved them right. His actions on many high-profile cases -- involving voting, employment, lending, and other issues -- drew ire from conservatives, who accused him of putting the collective rights of minority groups over the rights of individuals.

Some of the fiercest criticism came in voting cases.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 gave the Justice Department power to force states to redraw congressional districts to redress discrimination against minority voters. The department, prior to Patrick's tenure, had used that authority to force states to create districts that contained a majority of minorities. But in 1993, the Supreme Court opened the door to challenges to such districts.

After Patrick took office, he angered the right by ardently defending majority-minority districts and vowing to resist any such challenges. Yet the courts later struck down many of the districts. In a 1995 decision outlawing a Georgia redistricting plan, the Supreme Court explicitly criticized the Justice Department approach that, though in place before he arrived, Patrick defended.

``In utilizing [the Voting Rights Act] to require states to create majority-minority districts wherever possible, the Department of Justice expanded its authority under the statute beyond what Congress intended and we have upheld," Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the majority.

Patrick's actions also drew controversy in a contentious employment case. The Justice Department, under President George H.W. Bush, sued the Piscataway, N.J., school board in 1991 after the board, facing a budget crunch, fired a white teacher instead of a black teacher because it wanted diversity in a department.

When Patrick arrived, in 1994, he reversed the administration's policy and effectively backed the board's decision to fire the white teacher. The case became a flashpoint. Patrick endured withering criticism for his position that race could determine who kept and lost a job. (The white teacher was later rehired at the school.)

``Deval Patrick has committed the Clinton administration to a vision of racial preference that fulfills the most extravagant fantasies of a conservative attack ad," legal scholar Jeffrey Rosen wrote at the time in The New Republic.

To many on the left and in the civil rights community, Patrick was a gutsy crusader who had to make waves in order to attack lingering discrimination.

``People look back to those days as being like . . . the good old days," said David A. Bositis, a scholar at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies and a leading specialist on race and politics.

Democratic critics
But Democrats were critical of Patrick at times, too.

At a September 1996 Senate oversight hearing, former Illinois senator Carol Moseley-Braun said she considered an ``embarrassment" the heavy-handed tactics the Justice Department was using to penalize people who challenged the siting of group homes in their community. The Civil Rights Division, in its enforcement of a housing discrimination law, aggressively sought penalties against those who fought such homes through lawsuits and zoning challenges.

Earlier that year, accused of squelching free speech by targeting group-home opponents, Patrick defended such tactics in a letter to The Washington Post, comparing organized resistance to group homes to baseball bats.

``Baseball bats are perfectly legal, too," he wrote. ``But if you wield one to keep people out of the neighborhood, we are going to use the bat as evidence of your intent to violate the civil rights laws."

Former colleagues of Patrick's say he brought a progressive spirit and sense of mission to the Civil Rights Division that had been lacking for years.

``I thought the division really needed someone like Deval who was out there really advocating for civil rights and raising the profile of the division," said Richard S. Ugelow, who worked on employment cases for the Civil Rights Division from 1973 to 2002.

Stuart J. Ishimaru, who was a top legal counsel to Patrick, said it was an exciting time for those who believed in civil rights. He rejected critics' arguments that Patrick went too far.

``You really needed to go poking around and find out what's going on in the various parts of the country -- whether people were truly getting equal opportunity or not," said Ishimaru, now a member of the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. ``It's easy for us to look back in retrospect and say it was overreaching. It was not clear-cut."

Today, Patrick makes no apologies for the division's aggressive pursuit of civil rights cases.

``When you are trying to effect change, action is key," Patrick said in an interview. ``It's how you begin to rebuild a culture."

To Patrick, highlights of his tenure in Washington include a $54 million settlement in 1994 of a racial bias suit against Denny's, landmark agreements with lenders forcing them to stop redlining minority neighborhoods, and a watershed speech defending affirmative action that President Clinton delivered at the National Archives in July 1995. Patrick helped craft the address.

Diverse appeal

The recent Caribbean Carnival parade, which wound from Martin Luther King Boulevard to Franklin Park, fell on a brilliant Saturday afternoon. Mary Withers and her friends were eating lunch when Patrick strode over to say hello.

``He wants what's good for all of us," said Withers, a 54-year-old from Roxbury.

Indeed, Patrick's work as a civil rights advocate has attracted voters from many quarters, including the gay and lesbian community, which lauds Patrick's strong support of same-sex marriage, and advocacy groups for working families, the disabled, and the poor.

Critics contend the state won't want a leader who, they say, has ardently defended racial preferences. Roger Clegg, who was a deputy in the Civil Rights Division under presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, said the issue of preferences is quite relevant in Massachusetts. Clegg, now president of the Center for Equal Opportunity, a conservative think tank in Virginia, said his organization is pushing a public higher education institution in the state -- he won't say which -- to end a racially exclusive academic program.

Patrick's civil rights career is very much born out of his own experiences. Raised poor by a single mother on the South Side of Chicago, he escaped overcrowded schools with the help of a scholarship program, landing at Milton Academy in ninth grade.

The transition from a tough inner-city neighborhood to an elite East Coast prep school severely tested the 14-year-old, but Patrick blossomed, eventually earning degrees from Harvard College and Harvard Law School.

Since then, Patrick, in addition to his work at the Legal Defense Fund and Justice Department, has clerked for a US Appeals Court judge, made partner at top Boston law firms, worked as general counsel at Texaco and Coca-Cola, and served on a range of corporate boards.

Patrick has long traded on his biography. Some personal stories he recounts on the campaign trail -- including one about having to share a set of bunk beds with his mother and sister -- he's told for more than a decade.

Patrick's background, top-shelf resume, and high-profile tenure at the Justice Department have also made him something of a national figure.

Indeed, of all the candidates running for governor, Patrick -- whose name was floated as an attorney general candidate when Senator John F. Kerry ran for president in 2004 -- is most likely to face questions about whether his ambitions extend beyond the State House.

``Any president on the Democratic side of the aisle would certainly look at Deval Patrick," said Robert B. Reich, US labor secretary under Clinton and a 2002 Massachusetts gubernatorial candidate.

``My plan is to serve two terms," Patrick said when asked about whether he would consider another position in Washington, adding that he is committed to ``long and lasting reform" that he can't implement overnight.

Problem-solving

The combination of pragmatism and idealism that Patrick cited in his confirmation hearings and sells on the campaign trail has helped him solve thorny problems for years, according to those who have known and worked with him.

In the early 1990s, Patrick, then a partner at Hill & Barlow, worked with the state attorney general, Scott Harshbarger, and legal services organizations to reach a novel agreement with BayBanks over home-improvement lending scams targeting minorities and seniors. BayBanks, after lengthy negotiations, agreed to offer refinancing to 11,000 affected Massachusetts homeowners and provide an additional $11 million to help revitalize inner-city neighborhoods.

``To be able to protect the interests of your clients and negotiate with the banks and have the attorney general be a party, that's some good lawyering, and I think it showed some real pragmatic advocacy on Deval's part," said Ozell Hudson Jr., a civil rights lawyer who worked on the case.

The BayBanks case in many ways telegraphed Patrick's career shift in 1999, when he accepted a job as Texaco's general counsel after chairing an independent commission that oversaw the company's $176 million discrimination settlement with black employees. Patrick later became general counsel at Coca-Cola and served on the board of sub-prime lender Ameriquest -- two companies that, like Texaco, were involved in multimillion-dollar discrimination settlements.

Patrick's move to the executive suite has created hiccups for him on the campaign trail. One of his primary opponents, Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly, has repeatedly raised questions about his tenure at the companies, forcing Patrick to e-mail supporters last month to defend his corporate record.

Patrick supporters say he simply applied civil rights principles from within corporations that badly needed the help.

``He left each of those jobs with his reputation intact, and his strength of reasoning was felt," the Rev. Jesse Jackson said of Patrick's tenure at Texaco and Coca-Cola. ``He made both of them better and more accountable.

``He has never settled for the frills," Jackson said.

Longtime civil rights activist Ralph G. Neas, now president of the liberal group People For the American Way, added: ``Everyone [in the civil rights community] would say that he's remained faithful to his beliefs -- that he's been the best person to bring people together, to bridge the divides, to work out the compromises that have to be worked out in the real world."

Now, voters must decide whether Patrick could apply those skills effectively on Beacon Hill over the next four years.

With less than two weeks to go before the primary, Patrick has built an unprecedented grass-roots network, thrust himself to the top of the polls, and channeled his charisma to win over thousands of voters.

Whether that's enough to win Sept. 19 will soon be clear, but Patrick exudes confidence.

As he walked in the Caribbean Carnival parade, Patrick was beaming. His trademark blue campaign signs lined the route, the air was thick with grill smoke, and soca music was blasting from flatbed trucks.

``There's a lot of hope out here," Patrick said, motioning to the throngs gathered along Warren Street.

``People think it's just rhetoric," he said. ``We are out here connecting with people. It's not just a strategy to win. It's a strategy to govern."

Scott Helman can be reached at shelman@globe.com.