As jittery Boston-area residents remain locked in their homes and a massive manhunt unfolds, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick has stepped into the national spotlight.
The two-term Democratic governor has been a ubiquitous presence as the Bay State grapples with the aftermath of Monday’s marathon bombing, urging vigilance and calm in law-enforcement briefings, offering reassuring updates in more than a dozen television interviews and providing a morale boost at Thursday’s memorial service.
For any elected official, a tragedy is a test of leadership. The stakes multiply when terrorists target a local landmark on a state holiday and gruesome images of the carnage are splashed across the national news.
On Friday morning, as investigators tracked the suspects to the Boston suburb of Watertown, Patrick and Mayor Thomas Menino effectively shut down the metropolitan area, directing more than 1 million residents to stay in their homes as tactical teams cleared suburban neighborhoods and Black Hawk helicopters hovered overhead. “This is a serious situation. We’re taking it seriously,” he said. “We’ve got every asset we can possibly muster on the ground right now.”
In confronting the crisis, Patrick took a different path from the defiance of former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former President George W. Bush after the Sept. 11 attacks or the thundering presence of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Patrick has been less combative and more understated.
So far, he’s getting positive reviews. “The governor is very good at crisis response. We’ve seen him in emergency situations before, and he always seems to rise to the occasion,” says Eric Fehrnstrom, a Republican political strategist in Massachusetts and former senior adviser to Mitt Romney‘s presidential campaign. “All the officials have done a good job in responding to the bombings. But in a case like this, once the dust settles, the focus will change very quickly from how officials responded to what, if anything, could have been done to prevent it.”
Patrick first stepped onto the national stage at a press conference Monday evening, just hours after a pair of bombs exploded near the finish of the marathon on Boylston Street in Boston’s Back Bay. When a conspiracy theorist postulated that the bombings were a “false flag staged attack to take our civil liberties,” Patrick’s response was terse: “No. Next question.”
Patrick had finished his gubernatorial marathon duties by around 1 p.m. on Monday afternoon and was headed back to his home in suburban Milton, Mass., when his 23-year-old daughter Katherine called his cell phone to inquire about “two loud booms” downtown. “I said, ‘I don’t know. But let me find out,’ ” he recalled in an interview with MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell on Wednesday.
Patrick has split the difference between keeping residents and the news media informed and withholding developments to protect the integrity of the investigation. “Everybody recognizes how hungry folks are for information,” he said. “But I think people should also be prepared for lots of those briefings where they can’t answer all the questions people have yet because either they don’t have them or it’s not the right time to reveal information that might compromise the investigation.”
The first black governor in the Bay State’s history and the second elected nationwide, Patrick, 56, first won the office in 2006, riding a Democratic wave to a landslide victory that snapped a streak of four straight Republican chief executives. The first member of his family to attend college, he graduated from Harvard before embarking on a career as a lawyer for the NAACP and for a Boston firm. In 1994, President Clinton tapped him for a top civil-rights post at the Justice Department. In that role, he oversaw one of the largest federal investigations in the era before the Sept. 11 attacks, tracking arsonists who were targeting churches and synagogues across the South.
As governor, he spent much of his first term focused on implementation of Mitt Romney’s signature health-care-reform law. He was re-elected in 2010 by a 6-point margin in crowded field, earning just 48% of the vote. In the months before the bombing, he had been pushing for tighter gun laws in the wake of the Newtown massacre in December, as well as wrangling with state lawmakers over his proposed budget, which sought to raise $1.9 billion in new revenue by hiking the state income tax and lowering its sales tax. Patrick said he planned to use the money to boost funding for transportation and education but has faced opposition from lawmakers.
An early supporter of Barack Obama who reportedly turned down an offer to join the President’s Administration, Patrick has been floated a potential presidential candidate. If he does, in fact, harbor such aspirations, steering a major city through the crucible of a terrorist attack is a fine way to introduce himself to voters outside the Bay State. A poll conducted earlier this month about potential 2016 contenders found that three-quarters of voters were unfamiliar with Patrick. As Giuliani can attest, a steady hand during a major tragedy can vault a local leader to national prominence. Bungling the aftermath can be devastating, as Bush learned after the federal government’s widely panned response to Hurricane Katrina.
It is too soon to tell how Patrick will be judged. So far, the governor — and the state — are weathering the attacks. “We will recover and repair. We will grieve our losses and heal. We will rise, and we will endure,” Patrick told mourners. “We will have accountability without vengeance. Vigilance without fear. And we will remember, I hope and pray, long after the buzz of Boylston Street is back and the media has turned its attention elsewhere, that the grace this tragedy exposed is the best of who we are.”