In recent weeks, Governor Deval Patrick has been receiving some of his best press in a long time — which is to say, he’s gotten very little coverage at all. Previously, from a public-relations perspective, the administration was “going from disaster to disaster,” as one state legislator put it, faced with stories ranging from budget cuts at the Franklin Park Zoo to the forced departure of MBTA head Dan Grabauskas.
Thankfully for the governor, this week’s municipal elections and the upcoming special election for US Senate (on January 19) have given him a little welcome time out of the spotlight.
He could use it. When he re-emerges on center stage, Patrick needs to orchestrate some political victories, both for the good of the state — which is struggling through an economic crisis — and for his own political future. Polls consistently show that the Massachusetts electorate has soured badly on the governor, who faces a tough re-election campaign in 2010.
Unfortunately for Patrick, close observers say that they’re not seeing much to make them optimistic. Instead, the administration has been even further hampered by an exodus of top-level personnel. Meanwhile, with the end of this year’s legislative session rapidly approaching, much of Patrick’s agenda has gone nowhere.
The high-level turnover has been particularly striking. In just the past two months or so, the governor’s secretary of administration and finance, secretary of transportation, chief legal counsel, deputy legal counsel, health-care finance and policy commissioner, MassHealth director, insurance commissioner, and chief of legislative and intergovernmental relations have left.
That’s quite an exodus. Plus, in July, Patrick lost his chief of staff, Doug Rubin, who returned to his political-consulting practice (though he’ll run the governor’s re-election campaign).
“For a governor who’s entering the re-election fight of his life, it’s really surprising to see the number of people leaving the administration,” says Richard Tisei, the Republican State Senate minority leader. “Really important positions have all turned over — it doesn’t give you a sense that [those that remain] are a coherent group, and that they’re organized.”
It’s not just the opposition party saying that. People both inside and outside the State House say they have not seen Patrick making any serious effort to counter the negative views held of him — by the legislature, by the press, or by the electorate.
They also say they don’t get a sense of leadership coming from the governor, or an idea of what he intends to do.
To be fair, in this fiscal and political climate, there may not be a lot of victories to be had. But that excuse won’t win the governor any votes.
Patrick needs to make good use of this period — because when the Senate race ends in January, we’ll be starting the difficult budget process, and his gubernatorial rivals will be off and running, criticizing him regularly. If he doesn’t create some good news, they’ll be sure to create some bad news for him.
One pol who has seen focus groups conducted for a statewide candidate says that the Massachusetts public thinks that both Patrick and the legislature have been inactive — voters see no sense of urgency on Beacon Hill about the dire problems confronting the state. As a different political consultant puts it, criticizing Patrick: “It’s like you’re sailing around in circles, and the captain seems to be happy just going along like that.”