Patrick finds his footing in his second year on the Hill

INTRO TEXT Assessments of Gov. Deval Patrick’s first year in office were all pretty similar: He was, by his own admission, a political “amateur,” and one taking his bumps and bruises as he learned to navigate Beacon Hill. House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi reminded everyone of that fact in January, when he suggested Patrick’s first months in office offered a preview of what would happen if Barack Obama were elected president.

“I really don’t want my president to be in there in a learning process for the first six months to a year,” said DiMasi, a Hillary Clinton supporter. “It’s too important.”

But as the spring of his second year unfolds, Patrick has begun to show he has learned some lessons. The governor gained traction in the Legislature on new corporate tax revenues, his $1 billion life science package, and his long-term plans to borrow money for parks and beaches, housing, transportation infrastructure, and higher education facilities. Obama, Patrick’s pick for president, didn’t carry Massachusetts, but he’s leading in the race for the Democratic nomination.

Even with his controversial three-casino proposal, which was handily defeated in the House, Patrick largely succeeded in framing the debate his way: A choice between casino revenues or new taxes.

“We take the lumps when we’ve got to,” says Patrick chief of staff Doug Rubin. “But I would argue that the last four or five months have been pretty good. Whatever happens with casinos, quite honestly, you look at the full length of this year, this has been a very successful start for the governor.”

With a $1.3 billion budget gap hanging over policymakers as they head toward fiscal 2009, the tough choice Patrick threw at the Legislature last year — new taxes, eviscerated spending, casinos, or revenue plans of their own — is coming due. To some extent, Patrick’s strategy has banked on the worm turning as the calendar pages did.

But his recent successes aren’t just due to good timing. On Beacon Hill, where the governor, the House speaker, and the Senate president form a political oligarchy, Patrick has aligned himself with popular priorities — education, transportation, property tax relief — and made clear that those initiatives will carry price tags.

Signs of a Patrick momentum shift turned up in the speaker’s budget edict on February 12. DiMasi made two proposals of his own: an eventually revenue-neutral corporate tax package, combined with the cancellation of a scheduled hike in unemployment insurance rates paid by employers. But to get there DiMasi had to cede miles of rhetorical territory on the corporate tax issue, go along with $253 million in the governor’s “loophole-closing” bill, and produce his own revenue plan in the form of a $1-per-pack bump to the cigarette tax.

The tax package, along with $435 million in draw-downs from reserves current and future, allowed DiMasi to obviate — or outright reject — Patrick’s casino proposal, which Patrick had hoped would contribute $300 million through licensing fees to fiscal 2009 spending. Nonetheless, Patrick aides trumpeted a major numbers-based win for the governor, his first. DiMasi himself suggested Patrick should claim a victory.

The revenue solution allowed DiMasi some maneuverability on the question over casinos. And with the recent policy belt-notches behind him, Patrick embarked on a much more aggressive tack of in-building persuasion, met tensely at every turn by DiMasi during a weeklong toe-to-toe fight in early March.

The increasingly bitter and personal fight over casinos between DiMasi and Patrick, fought largely on DiMasi’s home field of House nose counts, left many wondering whether the bad feelings might spill over into future negotiations. Both men claim friendship and shared goals, but evidence of cooperation on difficult problems is scant.

Joyce Ferriabough, a longtime political strategist and early champion of Patrick’s campaign for governor, says part of the governor’s difficulty his first year was a communication problem with the Legislature, accentuated by a reluctance among top aides to solicit lawmaker input on issues. “I think that sometimes the message coming from him through some of his secretariats gets a little lost in the translation,” Ferriabough says.

Rubin calls Ferriabough’s criticism inaccurate. “It takes time for the governor to assume control of the entire administration, and I think this governor is in a situation now where he does control the administration, and we’re better able to execute his agenda,” he says.

Meet the Author
After a rookie year without a red-letter signature policy achievement, Patrick’s apparent momentum in the opening months of 2008 tracked tightly with firmer message control and an increasingly savvy approach to allying with interested parties on contentious issues. Even casino opponents conceded that a win in the historically gambling-averse House would have constituted an extraordinary legislative feat. “He’s getting the hang of it,” Ferriabough says.

Jim O’Sullivan is a reporter for State House News Service.