In backing off three-strikes veto threat, Deval Patrick sees limit to own power
Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe
Governor Deval Patrick came to the State House in 2007 a political neophyte despite having served in the Clinton administration, a newbie so tone deaf to the realities of elective politics that he thought there wouldn’t be any fallout to switching his official vehicle from a Ford to a Cadillac.
A successful reelection campaign later, Patrick was the veteran in a State House where both the House speaker and Senate president ascended to their positions of power after him.
His clout was such that he signed a casino gambling law in 2011 that the Legislature had thwarted during his first term.
Today, though, Patrick butted up against the limits of his power - and perhaps got the first inkling of his lame-duck status.
He backed off on his implied threat to veto a habitual offender sentencing law - more commonly known as a “three-strikes” law - aimed at ensuring repeat criminals remain in jail.
He announced he will sign the bill into law.
Patrick changed sentiment after the Legislature, law enforcement community, victims groups, and the general public called his bluff.
“I asked for a balanced bill and, after many twists and turns, the Legislature has given me one,” the governor said today in a statement.
It was issued some 23 hours after he said the exact same bill could be made better with an amendment he proposed.
In the interim, both the House and Senate voted down that proposed amendment, leaving Patrick the option of signing the bill into law, vetoing it, or letting it die by not responding before the Legislature wraps up its term at midnight tonight.
In the end, the governor decided against exercising either an expressed or a pocket veto. Instead, he yielded to the will of the people and their representatives by signing it.
It was a dramatic turnabout given the governor’s statements a day earlier.
He faced reporters in the Governor’s Council Chamber right next to the Corner Office and pushed to have the bill altered to meet his last lingering demands.
Patrick, who once worked for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and also served as the top civil rights official in the US Justice Department, wanted to give judges leeway against mandatory sentences in certain cases.
Lawmakers protested that would undercut the whole concept of mandatory sentencing.
“I told you it’s a good bill. I’m not playing games,” Patrick said. “This will be a better bill if there is judicial discretion.”
Yet that plea was rejected by Les Gosule, who has fought for the bill since his daughter, Melissa, was raped and killed in 1999 by a man who had been convicted of 27 crimes.
“This bill is not for Melissa, per se,” Gosule told a gaggle of reporters who assembled outside the House chamber after the governor’s news conference. “This bill is to prevent any other family from living through a private holocaust and for the family members not to stay up at night wondering what could have been done.”
It was met with incredulity by Representative Brad Hill, an Ipswich Republican who had been leading the legislative charge.
“What remains abundantly clear is that the House of Representatives, the Senate, and the residents of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts want this bill to be signed into law as is - without any further amendments,” said Hill.
The law enforcement community, which intensified its support for the bill after the shooting of Woburn Police Officer John “Jack” Maguire two years ago by a repeat offender, also weighed in.
“The governor’s actions at the 11th hour are reprehensible and reckless,” said a statement issued by Jerry Flynn, executive director of the New England Police Benevolent Association. “It will be on his conscience ‘when’ - not if - the next innocent victim or public safety officer is killed in the line of duty by a career criminal, if he fails to sign this bill, which is designed to protect the most vulnerable from serial predators.”
In his statement today, Patrick urged the Legislature to return to the subject of mandatory minimum sentences - a related topic - when it reconvenes for formal sessions in January.
“I understand the concerns of those who worry we have taken judgment out of the justice system, and the pain and frustration of the families of victims of violent crime,” he wrote. “For all those interests, and those of the public at large, this bill is a good start.”
But on the matter at hand - signing or vetoing this year’s legislation - the governor showed that he has come to recognize political reality as he nears the second half of what he says is his last term in office.
“Because of the balance between strict sentences for the worst offenders and more common sense approaches for those who pose little threat to public safety, I have said that this is a good bill,” Patrick said. “I will sign this bill.”Glen Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.