Governor Deval Patrick, having crowned the Boston Marathon winners, was heading to his home in Milton, Massachusetts, for an afternoon of gardening when his mobile phone rang.
“‘Dad, what is going on? I heard two booms,’” said his daughter Katherine, 23. “I don’t know,” he said.
During the next two hours, Patrick was briefed on what little was then known about the two bombs that killed three people, injured more than 175 others, and thrust him into the national spotlight. At 5 p.m. local time on April 15, Patrick, 56, wearing a button-down shirt and sweater, stood in front of a wall of cameras answering questions in a cool, crisp style that has become his hallmark in the state Capitol.
“You can’t be fiery,” said Richard Livingston, 59, who attended a candlelight vigil for the youngest who died in the blast, 8-year-old Martin Richard. “If your rhetoric is over the top it can create more problems.” Livingston, a Republican, said his Democratic governor “is balancing a tough situation.”
Managing tragedies or natural disasters are some of the toughest, most complex jobs that confront governors, who must reassure the public while coordinating and executing a response effort in an unforgiving media glare. It’s a moment that can make or break a career.
New York City’s Rudy Giuliani became a symbol of resilience after the World Trade Center terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001 and a Republican presidential contender. Democratic Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco decided not to seek re-election after mismanaging the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Patrick has said he won’t seek a third term as governor, and that he wants to return to practicing law. Yet a well- received speech at the 2012 Democratic National Convention and a roster of influential friends -- he is close to President Barack Obama and was appointed to head the Justice Department’s civil rights division by President Bill Clinton -- prompt political players in Boston to speculate on higher ambitions.
The governor fanned those flames with his handling of appointments to two open U.S. Senate seats. In each case, he avoided angering intra-party factions by naming low-profile Democrats who promised not to seek full terms.
In January, he appointed his former chief of staff William “Mo” Cowan to replace Senator John Kerry, who is now Obama’s secretary of state. A special election for that seat will be held on June 25. In 2009, he named Paul G. Kirk, a family friend of Senator Edward M. Kennedy, whose death created the vacancy. That position is now held by Senator Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat elected last year.
“For most of the country they have a lightly sketched picture of Deval Patrick,” said Mary Anne Marsh, a Democratic strategist with the Dewey Square Group, a Boston-based political consulting firm. “Now they are seeing the Deval Patrick that Massachusetts knows well -- cool, calm, collected and in control.”
That demeanor has been on display in nationally televised bomb briefings. The sessions are similar to ones covered by the local media during other recent times of crisis -- tornadoes that ripped through western Massachusetts killing three in June 2011, flooding from Hurricane Sandy in October 2012, and the snowstorm in February where Patrick was the first governor in 35 years to shut the state’s roads.
“When will the troops be gone from the city?” one reporter shouted the day after the bombing, referring to the men in fatigues with machine guns who’ve become omnipresent since the bombings.
“You mean the National Guard?” Patrick said. “When they are not needed any more.”
At another session, an attendee demanded to know if the bombings would be used to push tougher gun laws. An irritated Patrick replied with a single word, “no,” and moved on.
“My job is to keep my head,” said Patrick in a telephone interview. “I hope I’ve always been this way.” He said that at his first briefing he was so focused on the investigation he didn’t have the time to “suit up” and put on a tie. “That was how I was dressed when I went to the marathon,” he said.
Patrick’s path to leadership in Massachusetts started in the Midwest. He was born in a housing project on Chicago’s South Side, and his mother went on welfare to make ends meet after his father, Pat Patrick, a prominent jazz musician, left when Deval was 4 years old. He came to Massachusetts at age 14 on a scholarship to attend Milton Academy, a boarding school known to educate the country’s elite. He went on to Harvard University, graduating in 1978, and earned a diploma from its law school in 1982.
In April 2005, as a political newcomer, he entered the governor’s race and won a three-way Democratic primary the following year against two better known candidates. He defeated former Lieutenant Governor Kerry Healey, a Republican, to became the state’s first black governor in 2007.
Patrick said his closest experience to handling the current crisis came from investigating a different act of terror: a series of arsons that broke out across the South during his term at the Justice Department, from 1994 to 1997.
“We had a rash of attacks on synagogues and churches in the South,” Patrick said. “There was tremendous concern and hysteria outside of Washington and in Washington. Arsons are very difficult crimes to solve,” he said.
At the time the investigation was the largest in American history, he said. Agencies not accustomed to cooperating worked together became part of the probe.
“The only way to do it was methodically,” Patrick said. “And by trying to communicate facts.” More than 100 arrests were made and roughly a third were African-American, dispelling the initial belief that white supremacists were completely to blame.
Patrick is following that same careful path as he coordinates the bombing response.
The briefing stages in Boston are full of officials from the local police, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the National Guard. The governor speaks briefly. He lets law enforcement do the talking about the case.
In one he warned that residents shouldn’t jump to conclusions. “These are times when all kinds of forces conspire to make people think of categories of people in perhaps uncharitable ways,” he said. “This community will recover and heal if we turn to each other rather than on each other.”
The governor’s tone is so understated that some haven’t noticed him at all. Two Washington-based Republican strategists declined to comment because they felt they hadn’t seen enough of the governor to form an opinion.
Another, Terry Holt, the former campaign press secretary to President George W. Bush, said the Massachusetts governor comes across as “sincere and human” yet hasn’t grabbed the public in the way Giuliani did. “Most people want to hear about who did it and why,” Holt said.
Patrick’s cool performances belie a personal connection with the Boston murders. He is close friends with the Richards, Martin’s family. In a recent conversation, the boy’s father, Bill Richard, reminded the governor that he has a photo of Martin holding a Patrick campaign sign, the governor said.
When asked about the family, Patrick was philosophical.
“There is a face and a life behind these incidents,” he said. “It is not numbers of casualties. It is not a news story. It is not a symbol. It is somebody’s life. It is a human being.”
Call for Healing
Before introducing Obama yesterday at an interfaith service at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston, Patrick offered a call for healing.
“We will have accountability, without vengeance. Vigilance, without fear,” Patrick said. “And we will remember, I hope and pray, long after the buzz of Boylston Street is back and the media has turned its attention elsewhere, that the grace this tragedy exposed is the best of who we are.”
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