Sweeping up

Deval Patrick’s late appointments show a surer hand at the wheel
By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  May 30, 2007

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Whether by design or dumb luck, Governor Deval Patrick has managed to depoliticize the news coming from Beacon Hill. After a rocky start, the recent lull in conflict has allowed Patrick to recharge his batteries and project a newfound image of quiet, controlled competence.

This is one conclusion some are drawing from the lack of fuss that followed last week’s announcement of 11 gubernatorial appointees. What could easily have drawn controversy and criticism instead came and went peacefully.

Those appointments were, politically speaking, relatively easy, but could foreshadow a good political outcome in the tougher ongoing budget negotiations, bill discussions, and personnel decisions yet to be made.

Perhaps most impressive, Patrick has found his equilibrium without giving in to temptation to back down or to bend his goals. Despite his administration’s well-documented missteps and lost momentum, and the reported political dominance of House Speaker Sal DiMasi, Patrick has kept alive underdog hopes for enacting a local-options bill for meal and hotel taxes, closing corporate tax loopholes, raising revenue through casino gambling, and defeating the upcoming anti-gay-marriage vote.

Any one of these initiatives easily could have been killed by now. That they are still under negotiation is testament to Patrick’s tenacity and swiftly acquired political deftness.

Both traits were apparent in this past week’s appointments, which conceded nothing to Beacon Hill insiders, yet received few complaints. Patrick fired officeholders Harry Spence and Gerald Morrissey, who both had strong advocates in the legislature; rejected legislators’ suggestions to fill posts, most notably at the Department of Conservation and Recreation; and appointed outsiders unknown on the Hill.

But, in a departure from his earliest days in the Corner Office, the governor controlled the news adroitly. He leaked the big story — the long-awaited decision about Spence — a day early, making sure not to demonize him. And he bundled the appointments to ensure a “sweeping change” story line. Rather than shun the press, Patrick met with local newspaper editorial boards to discuss the changes. His reward: big headlines and little criticism. Even his first nominee to the parole board — which should have received intense scrutiny, given campaign allegations of criminal-coddling — flew under the radar.

Patrick appears to have made political moves and received public credit without stepping on toes or straining ongoing negotiations elsewhere.

So far, the same calm seems to be holding true on other fronts. It’s been two months since the death of Supreme Judicial Court justice Martha Susman. Amazingly, Patrick has kept the speculation and public lobbying over her replacement muted — thanks largely to Lisa Goodheart, Patrick’s cohort from his Hill & Barlow days, whom he has entrusted to select candidates. Patrick’s other recent appointments, including his former rival Chris Gabrieli to chair the board handling Springfield’s finances, have raised no hackles. Neither DiMasi nor Senate president Therese Murray publicly belittled Patrick’s role in the budget-reconciliation process. Things are quiet. And that’s a good sign.

Still micromanaging
Much of the credit for Patrick’s recovery is given to Doug Rubin and David Morales, two Beacon Hill veterans brought in after the governor’s shaky start. “Is it a coincidence that David and Doug came in, and all this started happening?” asks one Democratic observer. “Now that you do have Morales and Rubin in place, [the Patrick administration] is going to work much more like a political organization.”

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To Be Named Later

In addition to the appointments that will be announced by the end of this week, Governor Deval Patrick is looking to fill several more key open positions.

SUPREME COURT JUSTICE. This will be one of Patrick’s most important and far-reaching early decisions as governor, and observers say he needs to leak his nominee’s name before others’ get bandied about in the press.

DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTION. Commissioner Kathleen Dennehy is gone, temporarily replaced by James Bender. Many observers believe an outsider should spearhead reforms, but it might take Patrick a while to find an experienced person willing to come to Massachusetts, where overcrowding and a belligerent union make the job unappealing.

COMMISSIONER, DEPARTMENT OF ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION. Since the department is currently run by acting commissioner Arlene O’Donnell, a Republican appointee, most observers expect to see a new face soon.

MASSPORT BOARD. “The real action, where it matters, is the authorities,” says Democratic consultant Dan Payne. MassPort, MBTA, MWRA, and others will have openings soon, beginning with one MassPort board member’s term ending in June.

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