Former Gov. Deval Patrick on the midterms, money and politics, Baker, Healey and what he misses about Beacon Hill
We don’t know what the results will be yet, but Massachusetts voters will definitely elect a new governor on Nov. 8, with Republican Charlie Baker stepping aside after two terms. That is among the closely-watched state races in this midterm cycle. Nationally, Republicans are hoping to make inroads in key House and Senate races as they bid to regain control in Washington.
For perspective, we spoke with former two-term Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick, a Democrat who is now teaching at Harvard.
How is your class going?
Well, I actually start in my regular course in the spring. I've been teaching in classes and other of my colleagues’ courses. It's been fun. It's fascinating.
What kinds of questions do you get from the students?
You know, there are a lot of questions, you know, from ambitious folks about how to get from here to there, the kinds of positions they'd like to be able to hold and the kinds of things they'd like to do with them. And I always try to get them to focus on what they want to do with the job rather than just had to get it. Particularly when it comes to positions in public leadership, because I think if you look around, Ian, the big challenges that face us all, from the climate crisis, to sectarian, religious, racial division to failing or slipping confidence in democracy itself. They all are affected by and in some cases have their roots in failures of leadership. So, I’m trying to cultivate and encourage principled, effective leadership from a practice point of view, as well, alongside these terrific researchers on the faculty has been incredibly exciting.
I know policy and politics are different but do you find that there's still room for that type of approach in public life today?
Well, I think if it was always true, Ian, that jobs like the one I used to have, and that to which some of these students aspire, was some blend of substance and performance art. I do worry that nowadays, it's almost all performance art. We get just a lot more activity than we do outcomes and I worry about that. I think it contributes to the rising cynicism about politics, and that cycles into less and less participation and, you know, in a successful democracy, you get the government you deserve. But I think so many people have been stepping away and feeling discouraged, if not outright disgusted by what passes today for public leadership, that they're not participating at the levels we need to get better policies, right? It starts with better politics.
You know, you have to win the races to have the chance to effect policy in the direction you'd like. We've covered so many races here, even local races where, beyond maybe someone's natural talent, it seems to me that it takes a lot of luck to win a political race, whether it's for the common council or the statehouse or even governor. So, what advice do you give them about how to actually win a race?
Well, I suppose luck is a part of it, but also doing the work. I think you know I'm a little bit of a of an outlier in terms of how I think about politics. I think it has to be much, much closer to people, much more at the level of the grassroots. I don't think that this idea of raising as much money as possible, so that you can form a relationship with voters through 30-second ads in the last few weeks of a campaign is very compelling. I think that being out and with people and listening to people, letting them, you know, listening for the consensus points so you begin to understand whether the agenda you think is important is in fact, the agenda that's going to matter to people. Learning from them, understanding exactly how people live their lives, what they're worried about what they need from leadership and from their government, because most people I meet, both when I was, you know, trying to become governor and serving and since they don't want government to solve every problem in their life, they just want government to do its part to help them help themselves. And there's some specific things that folks look for, I think across a whole state or whole community, and if you're listening for those points, you'll begin to understand how to hone in.
People will remember perhaps that you launched a PAC after your time as governor, Together Fund. Are you active in this cycle?
I am but not through Together Fund. I will tell you that one of my hopes one day is to make PACs of that kind obsolete. There's so much money sloshing around in politics and so much of an emphasis placed on how much money as an indicator of you know how well you are doing. It's distorting if you know what I mean, in terms of the perception of how people are doing and the purposefulness of their campaigns and the meaningfulness of it to the people they're trying to serve.
I've been active through something called American Bridge 21st Century Foundation, which is a national PAC, and in particular through an initiative there that we launched called Bridge Together, which is investing in local, existing grassroots groups, community building groups in four key states, where, you know, we're trying to enable them to have year-round staff, and to do community building all the time instead of just in time for the next election. And it's been really, really, really motivating and frankly, reassuring. You get a different take on how things are going on the ground when you talk to these folks than you do sometimes from, due respect, listening to the national news.
Well, in a post-Citizens United country, how do you get toward your goal of seeing PACs and superPACs become obsolete? It seems very far from where we are right now.
It is far from where we are. I think that we can do some things in the short run, like requiring that all contributions to PACs be disclosed and the amounts of them. That's a step in the right direction. I think there are proposals of that kind that have been stalled in Congress, like any number of really good ideas that have been stalled in Congress. We need to get the right people in the right seats in the House and the Senate at the federal level and frankly, in our in our statehouses as well, to draw attention to this and the other burdens that we have placed, the other encumbrances we have placed on participatory democracy.
In addition to too much money in our policymaking and our politics, we have hyper-gerrymandered voting districts, Congressional and statehouse districts in many places. I think, frankly, Massachusetts is better than some. But it's a challenge all around the country. We have all these bills that have been passed in a number of states to make it harder to register, to stay registered to vote and to have that vote counted. It seems to me, the least we can do is those reforms, many of which were captured in the John Lewis voting reform bill, which came out of the House and is stuck in the Senate. Another reason why we have to pay attention and be active and do what we can to help win the seats to get those kinds of measures passed.
What are your midterm expectations? We know traditionally, Democrats, because they have the president, are likely to lose ground. There was some thought that maybe things were turning the other way. How do you see things right now?
You know what, it's not over till it's over, and I will say, and I say this very respectfully, Ian, it's not a dig. But I think the media, having told us for months, what the outcome was going to be before anybody voted has been a tremendous disservice to the democracy. I just think about the impact on voters, on donors, on campaign staff, on candidates being made to feel like none of it matters because we already know what the outcome is going to be. The outcome is what the voters say it's going to be. And so, I think people need to show up. They need to be sure they are registered. They need to bring five others along to vote and make sure you have a plan for Election Day, if you're going to vote on Election Day because people get busy. If you're not going to be able to vote on Election Day, then get an absentee ballot and file it because as I say, you know, if we participate, we get better government and there's some real choices out there. I'm a Democrat, as you know. I'm not the sort of Democrat who thinks you have to hate Republicans to be a good Democrat and frankly, I don't think most people are buying 100% of what either party is selling. But there are some pretty stark differences between the Democratic candidates and the Republican candidates up and down the ballot in many parts of the of the country right now and I think that bears some paying attention to.
Do you mean, specifically in Massachusetts, where you know, Geoff Diehl and Maura Healy are at the top of the ballot?
Well, I mean in Massachusetts and beyond. I think that some of the anti-democratic attacks that we are hearing from some Republican candidates, today, here and elsewhere, is deeply troubling. The cultivating of hate and division, we aren't even talking about policy most of the time. And there's a lot to talk about in terms of policy. I think, the Biden administration with the help of mostly Democrats, not exclusively Democrats, when it comes to the really important infrastructure bill that passed. But almost everything else, the the work around the CHIPS Act that enables us to start reshoring our chip manufacturing, the growth in manufacturing and the industrial policy that has led to that in this country, the rescuing of families and businesses all around the country coming out of the of the pandemic, the efforts to reduce prescription drug costs, and to eliminate the burden of student debt for so many, these are really profoundly important things that enable people, that help people help themselves and in many of those cases, not all, but in many of those cases, Democrats have moved those without the help of Republicans. And I'm sad to say that and sadder still to see it.
People might remember that you worked for a time for one of the major companies in Georgia. What's your expectation for the Senate race, Raphael Warnock and Herschel Walker, and also the race for governor between Stacey Abrams and Governor Kemp?
I think I'm feeling good about those races. I take zero for granted. I'm going to be down there, I think, next weekend stumping in rural Georgia and southwestern Georgia, down by Albany. The Atlanta area gets all the attention because that's where the big media markets are, and certainly a lot of the population, but folks sometimes in southwestern Georgia don't feel like they get attention. So, like, the way we feel sometimes in the Berkshires, you know what I mean? All the focus is in the cities. So, I'll be down supporting one of the grassroots groups that we've been supporting, a group called 1,000 Women Strong, and they go door to door and do all year round. They go to churches and synagogues and other places of worship. They go to community centers, you know, they're worrying in off years about whether their neighbors have a turkey on Thanksgiving. They're building relationships is what I'm saying. So that when it comes time for an election, it's a friend saying to a friend, here's what we're thinking about in terms of this election. Here's what we know. Here's the information that we know to be true and let us help you cast your vote. I think that's how you rebuild a democracy and I think a lot of that good work is happening in in Georgia. And I think it will redound to the benefit of Raphael Warnock for the Senate and Stacey Abrams for governor.
A few more things. Maura Healey, according to polls, has a pretty commanding lead. Have you talked to her at all about potentially getting ready to be governor, a job you once had? Have you had conversations about what she should expect? And how do you get ready for a job like that?
Well, she's got a really good team around her, some of whom I know are trying to think about that and plan for that without being presumptuous. When I speak with her, my point is, as it is to all my friends who are running, polls don't vote. People do. The most important thing is to, as they say, run through the tape. Keep at it, assume nothing. Don't get complacent. Don't let yourself think it's in the bag because it isn't in the bag until the voters say it's in the bag. I think she personally and I think her campaign leadership have been following that kind of advice.
Were you surprised to see Geoff Diehl, who is fairly conservative and backed by former President Trump, and so on, nominated after the two terms of Governor Charlie Baker, a more moderate Republican who is leaving office very popular?
I don't know how to explain that, really. You know, there are forces at work in our larger body politic and within the Republican Party nationally and here in Massachusetts. I don't know why Governor Baker isn't seeking a third term, although I often make the point that we don't have term limits. I had a term limit named Diane, I have a term limit named Diane, and I think he may have a term limit named Lauren. It’s very interesting to me that his lieutenant governor didn't decide to run because I think she's had ambitions for the top job as well and I use that term, you know, without disparagement. And she is, I think, or has been more conservative than he, and so would really tell you something if she didn't feel that she could secure the nomination. But, you know, I still believe that the people of Massachusetts are thoughtful and balanced, that they will consider not just the party, but the person and, and in this case, in the matchup between Maura Healy and Geoff Diehl, the character, the issues of character, of reliability, of service leadership, instead of performance leadership, all of those weigh so heavily in favor of Maura.
Have you decided how you'll vote on the four ballot questions?
I have and that is a secret ballot, thank you very much.
Oh, I mean, you have the chance to tell everybody, though. Doesn't have to be a secret.
Everybody will make their own make their own decisions, you know, I have to tell you that I look at the ballot measure around raising additional funds for transportation and education with some sense of deja vu because we tried this a couple of times myself through legislation, and we had if, again, if the polls are to be believed, we had the support of the people. But we couldn't get the legislature to move or at least move in ways that really created meaningful and lasting change. So, I'm hopeful. I've never seen a referendum that was perfect and this one has imperfections. But in this case, I think that trying to draw real attention and lasting resources to creating a 21st century transportation system that is equitable statewide, and not just about the T in Boston, as important as that is, and really investing in the future of our young learners is incredibly important and it's the best kind of public dollar we spend for our collective goodwill over time.
OK, I'm going to translate that into a ‘Yes on 1.’
And that's all I'm going say.
Governor Patrick, do you miss it?
You know, not really. I mean, I loved it. Not every day, obviously. But I loved the job but there are things about it that that I miss. I would say probably the convening power was the thing I missed the most, which is to say you could get anybody to come and sit at your conference table, often alongside people they wouldn't normally sit with, and problem solve together. You know, that's how we got the Achievement Gap Act and the Life Sciences Initiative and any number of the really most important pieces of legislation and other kinds of problem solving that we were able to do. I miss that part. And I decided to go over and accept this offer to co-direct the Center for Public Leadership at the Kennedy School at Harvard in part because I thought that might be a place where we could do that, that kind of convening and collective problem solving. I miss that part.
One of my friends covered one of your appearances in Berkshire County years ago and a child asked you what was the best part of being governor and you said you get to drive really fast.
I remember that and I remember my answer was that…I think he asked me, what do I enjoy the most? And I said, I really enjoy driving fast on the pike with the lights on. We didn't do that often, but it was kind of cool.
I assume you're doing the speed limit nowadays?
I am trying to be better today. Yes.