Amos’s Sermon: Black HLS Standout’s Election to Massachusetts Governorship Would Make History

BY AMOS JONES

BOSTON, January 17, 2006 – Political circles in Massachusetts are abuzz about the possibility of a Black former civil rights lawyer’s run for governor this year. Deval Patrick, 49, an attorney who lives in Milton and served as the chief civil rights enforcer for President Clinton’s Justice Department, is running in the Democratic primary for the chance to defeat Republican incumbent Mitt Romney.

Patrick arrived in Massachusetts 35 years ago. According to his campaign Web site, www.devalpatrick.com, he grew up in one of Chicago’s toughest neighborhoods, living on welfare and sharing a single bedroom with his mother and sister. Public leadership and the power of possibility captured his imagination early on when his mother brought him to hear Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speak in a South Side Chicago park, the site reported, quoting Patrick: “I remember feeling connected to all these people who were like me – of limited means, but limitless hope. People build whole lives on hope.”

Patrick was aided by A Better Chance, a Boston-based organization that awarded him a scholarship to Milton Academy. After graduating from Milton in 1974, Deval attended Harvard College, the first in his family to be formally educated beyond high school, and graduated with honors in 1978. He then lived and worked in Africa for a year, most of that time on a United Nations youth training project in the Darfur region of Sudan. At Harvard Law School, he was elected president of the Legal Aid Bureau and gained his first trial experience defending poor families in the Middlesex County Courts. He also won the Ames Moot Court Competition and was named best oralist. After serving as a law clerk for a year on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in Los Angeles, Deval joined the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF) in 1983, where he devoted most of his time to death penalty and voting rights cases.

Last year, Patrick explained his interest in the job in an e-mail message preceding his decision to run, arguing that Massachusetts for years “has suffered from unexceptional leadership.” He went on: “Massachusetts is a center of educational excellence, but lacks consistent excellence in our public education system. We are a center of high technology at a time when technological breakthroughs are escalating, but we have been losing jobs and even population. We are a center of medical renown, but health care is still beyond the reach of too many. Of course we can do better.” Patrick eventually asked for advice, volunteers, and contributions, inviting recipients to mail their input to a committee in Milton.

Patrick, who has never sought elective office, joins Reilly in a political culture known for fractious interest groups and contentious media scrutiny. Secretary of State William F. Galvin announced last month that he will not run for governor and instead will seek re-election to a fourth term, setting up a two-person battle for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination between Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly and Patrick. The Boston Globe reported: “Barring an unexpected entry in the race, Galvin’s decision means that Democrats will have a choice in next September’s party primary between Reilly, who is aiming his candidacy at moderates and independents, and Patrick, who seems to appeal strongly to the party’s liberal activists wing.”

Patrick reportedly has been encouraged to run by Former President Bill Clinton and is being introduced to monied circles tied to Washington through Donna Brazile, Vice President Gore’s Campaign Manager in 2000.

The only Black elected governor in American history was Virginia’s L. Douglas Wilder, who was elected in 1989 and served his full one-term limit over four years.

The first Black governor in American history appeared in 1872, when Pinckney Benton Stewart Pinchback took office as acting governor of Louisiana. A Republican, he served for six weeks amid the impeachment of Governor Henry C. Warmouth. Pinchback won election to the United States House of Representatives in 1872 and to the United States Senate in 1873, but his opponents charged that laws had been violated in both of the elections. Even though white Louisiana officials who were chosen by the same procedures were declared legally elected, the House and the Senate denied Pinchback membership. From 1870 to 1881, he published The (New Orleans) Louisianian, a weekly newspaper.

But if Patrick were to win this year, it would not be the first time Massachusetts led in elevating a Black through a statewide election. Less than 6 percent Black but more than 80 percent Democratic, the liberal commonwealth in 1966 elected Edward Brooke, a Republican, to the U.S. Senate, becoming the first state since Reconstruction to send a Black to that body.

The third Black U.S. Senator in American history, Brooke served two terms before being defeated by Paul Tsongas in 1978. He retired to a farm in Virginia and in 2003 announced he had been treated for breast cancer. Awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom on June 23, 2004, Brooke now lives in Miami. Since Brooke’s defeat in 1978, only two other Blacks have served in the U.S. Senate: Carole Moseley-Braun (1993-1999) and Barack Obama (elected last year), both Illinois Democrats.

But there were two Black Senators prior to Obama, Braun, and Brooke. Hiram Revels of Mississippi became the first Black Senator in 1870 and served for one year. Elected to the Senate in 1874 like Revels, by the Mississippi state legislature, Blanche Bruce served from 1875 to 1881. These Reconstruction-era feats are hardly relevant to today’s cases, however, since Senators in the 1800s were not popularly elected and the Mississippi legislature was provided more powerful Black representation then than it is today.

Winning statewide office remains unusually difficult for modern Black candidates because they must appeal to large white majorities who historically have viewed Black Americans in a negative light. In 1990 and 1996 Harvey Gantt lost to Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina in elections that often featured attack ads with racial overtones against the architect who became Charlotte’s first Black mayor in 1982. In 2002, Carl McCall fell far short of unseating Gov. George Pataki in New York, a state widely perceived as more hospitable to Blacks than is Massachusetts.

The Rev. Al Sharpton has criticized state Democratic parties for not offering adequate support for Blacks seeking statewide office in various regions of the country, despite Black Americans’ overwhelming loyalty to the party, which has included 90 percent of Black voters supporting Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and John Kerry. In 1994, for instance, Wilder ran unsuccessfully as an independent for the United States Senate after fighting for months with top brass in the state’s Democratic establishment.

Some Massachusetts political observers have argued that a primary victory by Patrick would immediately turn the race into a national event and therefore challenge Romney more prominently than if he were to face another candidate. Patrick is praised for his high profile in the worlds of both public interest legal practice and corporate law. His career began in 1982 when he joined the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, and since leaving his post as U.S. Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights in 1997, he has served as top counsel at Texaco and Coca-Cola. Between his positions with the NAACP and the Clinton administration, he worked at the highly regarded Boston firm of Hill & Barlow, where he was elevated to partner.

Patrick also offers a personal story of uplift and transformation. Born into poverty, he is a native of Chicago, where he was reared by his mother and grandparents on the South Side. He received a scholarship for underprivileged youths to attend prep school, leaving the Midwest to enter ultra-elite Milton Academy near Boston, later entering Harvard. Since then he has served significantly at the highest levels of public work and performed important corporate tasks, incl
uding helping Texaco to monitor its progress after a major racial discrimination scandal in the 1990s.

Patrick’s wife, Diane, is a partner at the Boston law firm of Ropes & Gray, where she works in labor and employment matters. They have two daughters.

Amos Jones is a 3L from Lexington, Ky. Reach him at amosjonescomment@aol.com.

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