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Bruised but emboldened, Patrick maps road ahead

Jobs, health care in his plans, but not casinos

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By Frank Phillips and Michael Levenson
Globe Staff / November 7, 2010

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At the start of Governor Deval Patrick’s first term in 2007, he had grand plans for keeping his grass-roots network as engaged in governing as it had been in his winning campaign. Then legislative leaders balked.

They didn’t like Patrick supporters trying to lobby them on his agenda, and they told the governor to knock it off. Patrick, a State House rookie among legislative graybeards, did, and the organization atrophied. But that was then.

Newly elected to a second term, Patrick is brimming with seasoned confidence, determined to avoid the mistakes he made last time and expressly unwilling to be cowed again by House and Senate leaders if they object to his backers’ activism.

“I’m not going to listen to that. That’s democracy,’’ Patrick said. “And if that’s a problem for people, get over it.’’

In a wide-ranging interview with the Globe late last week, Patrick, exhausted but energized by his triumph on Tuesday, was clearly savoring a victory that just a few months ago looked out of reach. He exuded a self-assurance that took a full term in office to bloom, reflecting on his more mature political skills and his ability to forge alliances in a Beacon Hill culture that he once vowed to turn upside down.

With nearly four often-bruising years under his belt, Patrick’s idealism is now tempered with pragmatism and realism. He says he knows how the building works. He has learned, sometimes the hard way, that being governor is much more than just fulfilling his constitutional obligations. He says his skin has thickened, although it was clear he was still fuming at attacks by his Republican rival, Charles D. Baker.

Having already declared that this is his final term, Patrick plans to govern through 2014 unencumbered by worries about his reelection prospects, which could liberate him from political constraints but also risks giving him lame-duck status on Beacon Hill.

The last time Patrick took office, he was the junior leader of the three State House power centers, outranked in years by House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi and Senate President Robert Travaglini. Today, it is Patrick who has served the longest in his role, with Robert A. DeLeo now House speaker and Therese Murray the president of the Senate.

In the interview, Patrick spoke warmly of the House and Senate leaders, calling DeLeo a “mensch’’ and saying he is “totally invested in the Senate president’s success, as well, and I think she understands that now.’’ He said he is confident he can maintain a comfortable working relationship them while flexing the political muscle of his organization.

“We’re in a different place in the relationship with leadership,’’ Patrick said, alluding to his rocky relations with lawmakers in the past.

“We trust each other differently and better now,’’ he said. “It’s like the experience anybody has when they’ve gone through crisis with somebody together. We’ve had to make some really hard decisions together. I’ve asked them to take some very tough votes, and they did, and we’ve done that together. And I think that’s created a bond.’’

But whatever bond he once had with Baker has clearly frayed. Patrick — who has known Baker since their days at Harvard in the late 1970s and had even asked Baker to be his running mate in 2005 — said he has no plans to meet with Baker personally. Nor was he eager to invite Baker to advise his administration, as Patrick had done several times before Baker became a political opponent.

“Charlie’s a prominent, engaged business person,’’ he said. “I’m sure our paths will cross.’’

Pressed to elaborate on the tensions that developed during the campaign, he said: “I have the whole range of human feelings. I just don’t need to comment on all of them publicly.’’

But Patrick allowed some anger at how Baker had tried to blame him for a long-established system that gives some welfare recipients access to cash for unrestricted purchases. Patrick, who grew up on welfare, did not say the issue offended him personally. Instead, he said he was appalled that Republicans were trying to use the issue against him, when it was Republicans in the Legislature who were blocking legislation that he introduced to ban the use of welfare cards for liquor or cigarettes.

“I think that’s despicable,’’ Patrick said, his voice rising. “Those are gimmicks, now to the dustbin of political tactics. There’s a shamelessness in this notion that you can call out an issue, and try to turn it into a campaign issue against Tim Murray and me, when we are the ones who are trying to fix this, and they are the ones who are preventing it from being fixed.’’

The governor plans to vacation this week in California, where he intends to plow through a briefcase full of memos, reminders of the tough decisions he faces with a potential $2 billion budget shortfall looming next year.

Patrick outlined few specifics about his agenda for a second term, saying generally that he wanted to continue focusing on creating jobs through stimulating the alternative-energy industry; expanding education opportunities, including aligning the missions of community colleges with workforce needs in their regions; and bringing down health care costs by moving toward a “global payment’’ system.

But the governor, who has tried but failed to expand gambling in the state, suggested he was not inclined to push the issue again in his second term, because “all the air goes out’’ of Beacon Hill when gambling is being considered. “Nothing else happens,’’ he said.

“I still think a limited expansion of gaming, in the destination-resort setting, is good for Massachusetts,’’ Patrick said. “But I’ve got some other stuff I want to move on.’’

Patrick said he plans no overhaul of his cabinet or senior staff but expects some turnover.

“I’m having a heart-to-heart with everybody, because I want people to re-up and I want them to think about what’s involved in re-upping,’’ he said. “I acknowledge the wear and tear on them and their families, and I want them to think about it hard now.

“Everybody right now is tired,’’ said the governor. “I want to give them a chance to catch their breath, and I want to give myself a chance to catch my breath.’’

After Patrick’s 2006 win, his campaign was used as a template for Barack Obama’s presidential bid two years later, and Patrick’s successful reelection is now seen by some Democrats as a model for the president’s run in 2012. Patrick, one of the few bright spots last week for the Democratic Party nationally, said he would consider helping Democrats around the country over the next few years. His counsel, he said, would be this: Run on your convictions.

“If there’s a role I can play in encouraging other candidates to run like they’re willing to lose, and to lead like they’re willing to lose reelection, then I’m glad to do that,’’ Patrick said. “But, again, consistent with my day job.’’

What was most striking in the interview, though, was the degree to which Patrick seems to have grown into that “day job,’’ one that did not come so naturally the last time.

“I’m more comfortable in the role than I was before,’’ Patrick said. “I understand that a certain amount of the role has nothing to do with your constitutional powers. It’s where you show up and when. It’s stuff you do with the phone calls you make, and the notes you send that are outside of policy. It has a quality or weight in public life that is different.’’

Frank Phillips can be reached at phillips@globe.com; Michael Levenson at mlevenson@globe.com.