Past Imperfect

It has been a long time since downtown Springfield, Massachusetts pulsed with any kind of civic energy. For years, jobs and wealth left the city as crime rose. Springfield endured such political ineptitude and corruption that a state board now controls its finances. The city's boosters are reduced to excitement over a Basketball Hall of Fame they refurbish every decade. In a desperate bid for cash, they turned the city's largest park into a Christmas-time drive-thru exhibition called “Bright Nights.” Once a year, they attempt to transform a depleted downtown into the world's biggest pancake breakfast. But when I visited my hometown earlier this month, one day after it hosted a debate among Massachusetts's gubernatorial candidates, Springfield seemed strangely alive.

In fact, Democratic candidate Deval Patrick has injected new vitality into political life across Massachusetts -- from struggling cities like Springfield to Berkshire hamlets, coastal towns, and Boston-area suburbs. For sixteen years, Republicans have controlled the governor's office in this famously Democratic state. Every election, it seems, the Democrats roll out the next party hack in line for their nomination, and fatten up an easy target for the inevitably smoother and more appealing Republican candidate. William Weld first won in 1990, and Mitt Romney now bears the GOP's standard -- all in a state where twelve percent of voters are registered Republicans.

Deval Patrick may turn this Bay State tradition on its head. Boasting a classic up-by-the-bootstraps tale that took him from the South Side of Chicago to Harvard, the boardroom of Coca-Cola, and Bill Clinton's Justice Department, Patrick has electrified the electorate in his first bid for political office. He won the September Democratic primary in staggering fashion, running against two better-known and better-funded candidates, Attorney General Tom Reilly and financial mogul Chris Gabrieli, and taking the election in a rout. He garnered over half the vote, won 321 out of 351 communities, and claimed victory in every last county. Patrick now holds a commanding lead in the polls against Republican Lt. Governor Kerry Healey.

Their campaign battle guarantees one “first” or another -- Healey will either become the state's first female elected governor, or Patrick its first African-American. Moreover, Patrick would become only the second black elected governor -- in any state -- since Reconstruction. Patrick exudes charisma, offers an insistently optimistic message about the “politics of hope,” and relies on a formidable network of grass-roots organizers. He may rise high in national politics. But first, Patrick must survive a campaign that grows more poisonous with each passing hour -- and unfolds within the larger arena of Massachusetts's racial history, one comprised of equal parts black progress and white backlash.

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Observers miss the mark in identifying Patrick as just another “Massachusetts liberal.” Indeed, during the Democratic primary race, Reilly hammered Patrick for his experience at prominent corporations -- Texaco, Coca-Cola, and Ameriquest. Patrick's business background now becomes a strength in the general election. (He holds mostly reliably liberal views, but challenges political orthodoxy on certain issues, as in his support for the "Cape Wind" energy project.) And if politicians like John Kerry and Ted Kennedy might sound disingenuous in discussing poverty, race, or crime, Patrick speaks about these issues with authenticity borne of growing up in the shadows of Chicago's infamous Robert Taylor Homes. He does not look like the fabled “limousine liberal,” and that is an abiding source of his appeal.

But Patrick's skin color also presents complex obstacles. If the Bay State prides itself as a bastion of tolerance, the last half-century suggests a far more muddled portrait. In 1966, Massachusetts voters sent Edward Brooke to the U.S. Senate, where he became the first African-American elected since Reconstruction. Yet Brooke ran as a Republican after Democrats in Boston's 11th Ward drove him out of their party. Brooke's election occurred one year after Massachusetts passed its Racial Imbalance Act -- the law that required de facto school integration in Boston and Springfield. When court-ordered busing came to Boston in 1974, whites in “Southie” and Charlestown resisted it with violence. Boston, once the “cradle of liberty,” announced itself as the epicenter of northern racism.

Three decades later, Massachusetts appears on the cusp of electing a black governor. Only six percent of Massachusetts residents are African-American; 87 percent are white. In contrast, Douglas Wilder of Virginia, who in 1989 became the first African American elected governor since Reconstruction, triumphed in a state that was 20 percent black. If Patrick wins in November, he will do so with the white majority's blessing. This fact sets the context for a brutal race that will only intensify in its final weeks.

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In Kerry Healey's recent attacks on Deval Patrick, the ghosts of America's -- and Massachusetts's -- racial history still lingers. Shortly after the primaries, the Healey campaign began to dig through Patrick's past, eventually producing a series of ads that Ted Kennedy has characterized as "swiftboating" and that Barack Obama has termed "new lows." In an incredulous response to the ads, USA Today asked: “How sick is this?”

The ads focused on Patrick's actions in two cases. As an NAACP attorney in the 1980s, Patrick helped reduce the sentence of a man who murdered a Florida police officer. Carl Ray Songer avoided the death penalty, and is now serving life in prison. Healey's ad included a rhetorical question with a subtly ambiguous syntax: "While lawyers have a right to defend admitted cop-killers, do we really want one as our governor?"

More recently, Patrick urged Massachusetts to conduct a DNA test on convicted rapist Benjamin LaGuer, whose guilt seemed in doubt. When the DNA evidence re-affirmed LaGuer's guilt, Patrick dropped his support. In a major misstep, however, Patrick initially claimed that he wrote only one letter on LaGuer's behalf. More letters have been discovered. Healey lambasted Patrick's defense of felons, questioned his honesty, and alleged he was “soft on crime.” In an NPR interview, Michael Dukakis reflected, “It's Willie Horton all over again.”

Healey's most unseemly ad depicts Patrick as a friend of rapists. The camera films from the potential attacker's point of view, and follows a woman walking through an empty parking garage. The ad then replays an interview in which Patrick described LaGuer as “thoughtful” and “eloquent.” The voice-over asks, “Have you ever heard a woman compliment a rapist?” The Healey campaign thus transported the darkest racial fear of the white American mind -- the interracial rape nightmare -- onto Massachusetts television screens. The ad was also Healey's attempt to diminish Patrick's popularity with female voters. While Healey enjoyed a two-point lead among males in an October 13 poll, Patrick led by 20 points among women. Overall, the latest local poll gives Patrick a 13-point edge; a Zogby poll shows him ahead, 56 percent to 34 percent.

Healey, who initially projected the air of a relatively benign moderate Northeastern Republican, has made this campaign Massachusetts's most vicious in recent memory. The conservative Boston Herald also pitched in. Acting on an anonymous tip, the Herald revealed that Patrick's sister was once raped by her husband. The newspaper publicized this 1993 incident, about which their children were unaware. In a televised statement, Patrick lashed back at Healey, characterizing her politics as “pathetic” and “wrong.” Despite his obvious anger, he concluded this speech on the note he often does -- with references to the power of hope. He denounced Healey's “politics of fear,” and offered his own hopeful alternative. “If anybody … thinks I am unwilling to fight for that, you have badly underestimated me.”

On October 15, over 5,000 people gathered on Boston Common to hear Patrick's greatest speech to date. The candidate listed his positions on taxes, education, crime, the economy, and the environment before a rhetorical flourish lifted the crowd. He stressed the need to “reinvent” American political life. He faulted Healey for creating a “toxic” atmosphere, and -- after quoting from the pantheon of famous political speeches -- affirmed the power of oratory itself. “The right words, spoken from the heart with conviction, with a vision of a better place and a faith in the unseen, are a call to action.” Patrick urged his supporters to view their own words in such a light, and legions have responded.

Healey maintains a decided financial advantage, and saturates the airwaves with ads. Patrick's strength emanates from the grass-roots network that he has inspired. The proof of his appeal lies in this precinct-by-precinct organization that counts over 6,000 volunteers statewide. From his campaign's inception, Patrick traveled the state and listened to any voters willing to talk. In the primary, he carried the virtually all-white western counties of Berkshire, Franklin, and Hampshire by almost 70 percent. Last month, Patrick headed toward the Vermont border and into the hamlet of Heath. He met with voters at the local elementary school. On primary Tuesday, 178 Heath residents voted for Deval Patrick. Only six cast ballots against him. In their preferred choice for governor, these citizens saw more than a black leader or a Massachusetts liberal. They caught a glimpse of the political future.

Jason Sokol is a professor of history at Cornell University and author of the new book There Goes My Everything: White Southerners in the Age of Civil Rights, 1945-1975. Visit his website here.

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