LAME GAME A series of recent political gaffes has Beacon Hill insiders wondering what’s wrong with Deval Patrick.
March has not been kind to Deval Patrick. He has been thoroughly ravaged this month for a variety of acts, including the appointment of solon Marian Walsh to a long-vacant post at a state authority; for putting former Big Dig insider Jim Aloisi in charge of transportation reform; for his tax and toll proposals; for a plan to eliminate an auto-insurance review process; and for proposing huge raises for two small-town sheriffs.
Bad news good news
Patrick is even managing to hurt himself with good news. His announcement of a $168 million infusion for schools from the federal stimulus package was seen by many in the legislature as a blatant attempt to change the headlines — with figures that he had already accounted for in his budget proposal nearly two months ago. Worse, Patrick advertised the specific dollar amounts going to specific communities, making them seem like extra funds, when they are actually just bringing those towns up to foundation-level funding. As a result, residents of cities and towns already funded at their foundation level in Patrick’s budget don’t understand why, for example, Belmont and Wellesley are getting money while Boston and Medford are not.
The Phoenix editorial: Shape up, governor.
Many are even saying that this has been the roughest, most politically damaging stretch of the governor's term since the early days of expensive drapes and an inappropriate phone call on behalf of Ameriquest.
His poll numbers have plummeted, and on cue his most likely challengers for re-election — Treasurer Tim Cahill, Harvard Pilgrim honcho Charles Baker, and businessman Christie Mihos — have gone public with their criticisms and thoughts of campaigning.
State legislators, political observers, and even Patrick's supporters and allies are wondering what's gone wrong with the governor's game.
"I don't know what's going on with the guy," says one legislator's chief of staff.
"Everybody's scratching their heads," says one close Beacon Hill observer. "Who's running the show?"
Inside Patrick's office, however, they claim to see things very differently. Administration officials believe that the perception of a battered governor is an illusion of the Beacon Hill echo chamber — that outside the State House, people aren't obsessing about the Boston-media headline items.
Patrick himself seems to share that view: in a recent press conference, he dismissed the litany of his criticized actions as "trivial."
Perhaps — to put the kindest spin on it — the administration is taking a longer view of things. Patrick's political fortunes will ultimately depend on what people think much later, after his policies have a chance to work (or not). But his plans have a much lower chance of success if legislators and the public are against him — and right now, they are.
"Among the membership," says one lawmaker, "there is great unhappiness with the governor."
A string of troubles
The appointment of State Senator Walsh, to a high-salaried position at the Health and Educational Facilities Authority (HEFA) not filled since the previous decade, has been a public-relations disaster. Walsh, a strong supporter of Patrick's campaign, has been long-rumored to be in line for one plum opening or another — even after Patrick gave her husband a job — so it's hard for people to see this as anything other than a spoils reward.
Presumably, the administration believes it has some legitimate reason for the move. But it has been strikingly unwilling to articulate one. It has not, for instance, publicly argued that there are serious problems with HEFA — which by several accounts there are — that have developed in part because its number-two position has been vacant so long. Instead, the appointment was announced by HEFA while Patrick was vacationing in Jamaica, with no comment from the governor's office. As the predictable criticisms came, the administration remained silent.
The same pattern held with the Group Insurance Commission's plan to eliminate the appeal board. Some people argue that the board is a wasteful anachronism, made obsolete by the change to an openly competitive auto-insurance market — but few have heard the Patrick administration make that case.
"Of course we try to counter the bad news," responds Patrick's chief of staff, Doug Rubin, in an e-mail. "The people who are saying we aren't are the same people who have been criticizing how we do things from day one."
Patrick recently conducted a string of town-hall meetings around the state. Rubin argues that getting Patrick "out on the road talking to real people" in response to bad news "is the most effective way to counter these stories."
Rubin also has courted the blogosphere, occasionally posting policy explanations on Blue Mass Group (bluemassgroup.com), for example. But that mentality blew up in his face last week, when Transportation Secretary Aloisi vented on the Web.