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Patrick flexes muscle, shows signs of tight grip in 2d term

Deval Patrick “is demonstrating that he can wield the power of the governor’s office. It sends a very direct message.” said John Sasso, former governor Michael Dukakis’s chief of staff. Deval Patrick “is demonstrating that he can wield the power of the governor’s office. It sends a very direct message.” said John Sasso, former governor Michael Dukakis’s chief of staff. (Pat Greenhouse/ Globe Staff)
By Frank Phillips
Globe Staff / December 13, 2010

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He stepped in to block a huge raise for a highly paid head of a state agency. He forced out a leading candidate for president of the University of Massachusetts. He pushed the state’s popular film czar out of his job.

Governor Deval Patrick, projecting a new, aggressive style, has returned to Beacon Hill after a year of hard campaigning and begun flexing his political muscle.

Fresh from a victory that few thought possible a year ago, the governor is heading into his second term with the confidence and sure-footedness that were missing for much of the past four years. Patrick’s early power plays — quashing the raise for Massport chief Thomas Kinton, pushing former US representative Martin Meehan off the list of finalists for the UMass presidency, and removing state film czar Nicholas Paleologos — signal that he intends to control his agenda tightly in what he has said will be his final term in office.

“He is demonstrating that he can wield the power of the governor’s office,’’ said John Sasso, former governor Michael Dukakis’s second-term chief of staff, who had a reputation for forcefully pushing the administration’s agenda. “It sends a very direct message throughout the bureaucracy, and I suspect you will see more of it.’’

Advisers say Patrick wants to take advantage of what he perceives as his political standing and send a clear message to Cabinet secretaries, agency heads, the state bureaucracy, and even lawmakers that he plans to push hard for the reforms he believes in.

“It’s not political power for power’s sake,’’ said Doug Rubin, Patrick’s former chief of staff and leading political strategist during the campaign. “The governor is focusing his efforts to deliver on the agenda he was elected on. The common theme of all these moves is that he is trying to bring real change to state government.’’

It has not all been smooth, however. One unintended consequence came last week, when Robert Manning, the Patrick-appointed chairman of the University of Massachusetts board of trustees and a highly respected Boston businessman, abruptly resigned. Colleagues said that Manning believed the governor, who had raised questions about the search for a new president, was meddling too much in the board’s decisions.

His resignation, which surprised the board and many in the university system, put Patrick on the defensive and created some political backlash.

Manning made his announcement about a week after Meehan, the chancellor of the UMass Lowell campus who had emerged as an early favorite for the university presidency, took himself out of contention because of the perception that Patrick opposed his appointment. As the story unfolded, the governor’s advisers expressed frustration that Patrick’s questions about the search process were seen as an attempt to block Meehan.

Patrick and his advisers have said they were concerned only that the search be fair and thorough and that they were not supporting or opposing any particular candidate. But Rubin acknowledged that Patrick’s involvement in this and other personnel decisions will inevitably make waves.

“There are always consequences when people try to change the status quo,’’ Rubin said. “The governor was clearly elected to make those sort of changes, regardless of the political consequences.’’

Patrick’s aggressive posture became evident within days of his reelection, when he moved to halt a $22,000 raise for Kinton, who makes nearly $300,000 a year as executive director of the Massachusetts Port Authority. Patrick’s transportation secretary called it “ill-advised and untimely.’’

More recently, the governor squeezed out Paleologos, a theater entrepreneur and award-winning film producer, as head of the state’s film bureau, despite the strong support he has within the state’s film industry.

Some in the administration felt that Paleologos, a former state representative with strong legislative ties, had not always been a team player, particularly when Patrick attempted this year to cap the Massachusetts film tax credit.

But the view from the industry is different.

“He has clearly done the job well,’’ said Jim McIsaac, a local actor and union activist.

McIsaac said what confounds the state film industry is that Paleologos had actively urged the industry to back Patrick’s reelection and had not worked against him on the tax credit issue.

“The concern now is who is coming in,’’ McIsaac said. “This is a needless fight at a time the industry is struggling.’’

Underscoring his self-assurance, Patrick has chosen a less seasoned chief of staff to succeed Arthur Bernard, an experienced State House operator who deftly guided Patrick administration through the critical 18 months leading up to the election.

The governor has turned to his legal counsel, William “Mo’’ Cowan, who cut his teeth professionally as a high-powered lawyer in Boston legal circles, but has little experience with or relationships in the tribal politics of Beacon Hill.

Patrick advisers say the move was made because Bernard felt burned out by the grueling work schedule. But it is also a sign that Patrick, who made some clumsy political moves after taking office in 2007, has gained enough political confidence to lead a less experienced team. Rubin also said that he and Bernard will still be available to consult.

“We, and others, are always ready to help when we can,’’ he said.

Frank Phillips can be reached at phillips@globe.com.