Deval Patrick: Massachusetts' Idealist-in-Chief

Neilson Barnard/Getty Images
Neilson Barnard/Getty Images

When Barack Obama invoked the inspiring words of famous leaders during his 2008 presidential campaign, followed by the refrain "just words," he was striking back at his opponents' claims that he lacked the experience to back up his soaring rhetoric, as well as at the cynicism that he believed was infecting the American political process. "Don't tell me words don't matter," he would tell audiences. " 'I have a dream' — just words? … 'We have nothing to fear but fear itself' — just words?"

When it was discovered that a similar stump speech had been used by Deval Patrick in his own 2006 campaign for Massachusetts governor, Obama's critics accused him of plagiarism. "Lifting whole passages is not change you can believe in; it's change you can Xerox," quipped opponent Hillary Clinton during a primary-campaign debate.

Not so, says Patrick, who in a new memoir says that he battled a similar kind of cynicism in the gubernatorial battle he went on to win. "Detractors will dismiss what you have to say as empty rhetoric just because it's inspirational," Patrick says in A Reason to Believe: Lessons From an Improbable Life, which was released last week by Random House's Broadway Books imprint. "I shared with [Obama] the riff I had developed in my own campaign — "just words" — and invited him to use it if he ever found it helpful."


Generosity of spirit and idealism are constant themes throughout A Reason to Believe, which relates Patrick's journey from the South Side of Chicago, where he grew up in poverty during the civil rights era, to the Massachusetts governor's office, where he made history as the first black person installed there. "Idealism is vital. It sustains the human soul … It is the essential ingredient in human progress," Patrick says.

That outlook appears to have sustained the 56-year-old Chicago native through various experiences in his "improbable" life:  a game-changing opportunity from the A Better Chance program for a prep-school education (a portion of the book's proceeds will go toward the nonprofit); attending college and law school at Harvard University; traveling and working in Africa as a young man; working as an attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and then later under President Bill Clinton as assistant attorney general for civil rights; advising corporate giants Texaco and Coca-Cola as general counsel; and finally, winning two terms as Massachusetts' governor. 

It certainly took faith in a better life to take him through occasionally violent childhood bullying; a rocky and sometimes estranged relationship with his father, jazz musician Laurdine Kenneth "Pat" Patrick; as well as his wife Diane's public bout with depression during his first term in office.

Patrick's sunny disposition was evident during an interview this week with The Root, during which he shared his insights about the current budget battles, education reform, gay marriage and whether he'll run in 2016.


The Root: How has the book been received so far?

Deval Patrick: It's very new and unfamiliar — writing and then talking about a book, especially as a sitting governor. Everyone seems to expect that it's either the groundwork for a new campaign or I'm settling political scores. This is not that book.


It's really a book of lessons and a tribute to those who taught me those lessons, people who have left me with a sense of hopefulness and idealism: teachers who gave me a reason to believe in a brighter future, or a family that gave me a reason to believe in the power of kindness, or voters, for that matter, who gave me a reason to believe in the power of conviction.

TR: In your book you warn about the dangers of cynicism and say that idealism is vital for our nation's progress. Standard & Poor's just downgraded the U.S.'s outlook to negative. Can we still afford our values?


DP: We've been dealing with this global economic collapse here in Massachusetts just like everybody else, and yet we've invested in education, health care and job creation. Everybody knows that educating our kids, securing our health care and assuring people a way to work and provide for themselves and their families is the way to move forward. I'm proud that our students are number one in the nation in student achievement, that we are number one in the nation for health care coverage for our residents — with over 98 percent of our residents covered, 99 percent-plus of our children.

We're growing jobs faster than 45 other states, and our bond rating has remained high. In fact, we're the only state whose bond rating has improved since 2007. So it's possible to be fiscally prudent and also invest in the things that we know are about better and stronger values.


TR: When it comes to education, Massachusetts stands out. Is there a link between your experience in the A Better Chance program and those results?

DP: A Better Chance was an extraordinary opportunity to come from growing up in poverty on the South Side of Chicago — where I was going to big, broken, under-resourced and sometimes violent public schools — to Milton Academy for high school, which was, for me, like landing on a different planet.


As I write in the book, they had a dress code there for boys to wear jackets and ties to classes, but a jacket on the South Side of Chicago was a windbreaker. The first day of class, all the other boys were putting on their blue blazers and their tweed coats, and I had my windbreaker, so I had a whole lot to learn.

But I think what I learned in those experiences, both on the South Side and at Milton, are that resources are only part of the equation. It's a teacher who is excited about those kids, who conveys his or her love for those children and high expectations for them — above all, that is the most important. So we [in Massachusetts] have supported teachers, we have created environments where teachers can try new things, to meet the kids where they are.


Yet for all the five years we've had these extraordinary achievement results, we have had at the same time a persistent achievement gap. Stuck in that gap are poor kids and kids who have special needs or speak English as a second language. A disproportionate number are kids of color. It's an economic and educational issue to have an achievement gap at all, but to let it go for the years and years, decades or more that we had here [in Massachusetts], that's a moral question. Now we have some tools to reach that part of our family as well.

DP: I really worry about that. We've done some amazing things with our own education reform here, but every time I pick up the paper, it is portrayed as doing battle with the teachers unions. We've had the teachers and their unions at the table, and they have been responsible for the extraordinary results [here in Massachusetts]. Teachers are not the problem. Poverty is the problem. We ought to start talking about that.


TR: You share in your memoir that one of your daughters came out to you and revealed that she's a lesbian. You've also supported same-sex marriage. What do you think it will it will take for more African Americans, who tend to be conservative on this issue because of religious reasons, to accept equal rights for gay Americans?

DP: There's nothing about a change in the law that compromises anybody's own religious practices. I think we [African Americans] ought to bring some special sensitivity, given the fact that it was in my lifetime that it was against the law for whites and blacks to marry. Some of the folks who were advocating for that also quoted the Bible.


There's a chapter in the book where I write about how I was taught that faith is not just what you say you believe; it's how you live. The notion that we should treat others the way we wish to be treated is a fundamental premise, not just among we Christians, but among most of the faith traditions on the planet. If we bring a little bit more of that to the way we actually live, a whole lot of the challenges facing our communities and our country would get solved.

TR: Will you run for president in 2016?

DP: [Laughs.] No, no, no, no, no. I'm looking forward to finishing this term and then returning to private life.


Sheryl Huggins Salomon is The Root's deputy editor.

An earlier version of this article misstated that A Better Chance is a scholarship program. It is program that helps to facilitate college preparatory education.


Sheryl Huggins Salomon is senior editor-at-large of The Root and a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based editorial consultant. Follow her on Twitter.

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