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Brian McGrory

A glimpse at the Patrick we’re missing

Deval Patrick has been an occasionally prickly governor, a consistently good governor, and often a very good governor. But he has rarely been the great and fearless leader that the nation saw last week.

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Deval Patrick has been an occasionally prickly governor, a consistently good governor, and often a very good governor. But he has rarely been the great and fearless leader that the nation saw last week.

So I was watching this vaguely familiar guy give one of the best political speeches I’ve ever heard last week, stringing pitch-perfect words into lyrical sentences, pounding the podium, constantly bringing the crowd at the Democratic National Convention to its feet, and I’m thinking, he’s got to run for office.

Then the words flashed on the bottom of the television screen, “Governor Deval Patrick, D-Massachusetts.”

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Oh.

But no, I’m sorry, that identity was a lie. That guy in Charlotte wasn’t our governor and never has been. That guy was passionate. That guy threw all caution to the political winds. That guy didn’t act like good manners were as important as good public policy.

All of which got me thinking yet again, twice in a day, a personal record: What if we got that guy as our governor for the last two years of Deval Patrick’s term, running rampant up and down Beacon Hill without the tiniest flicker of fear about offending anyone in his path?

Don’t get the wrong impression here. The Deval Patrick we know, the mild-mannered governor, has been very good for Massachusetts. He has deftly led the state through the toughest budgetary times since the Great Depression, and with none of the histrionics of California, New York, or Washington, D.C.

He has reformed public pensions, state education policy, and ethics laws, albeit not always in the most ambitious ways. He has overseen major health care cost-containment reforms that should finally curb the absurd financial appetites of the big teaching hospitals. He has signed off on sentencing reform. He pushed through a new community college funding plan to reward the most effective schools. He has saved cities and towns $175 million through municipal health care reform.

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He has also displayed sound judgment on the daily decisions that can often hijack a governorship. Even his occasional bursts of sanctimony somehow seem more tolerable with time, though not always.

Yet, amid so much accomplishment, there is the sense that Deval Patrick hasn’t yet lived up to the promise of his two elections — a sense that crystallized when he grabbed the national stage and exhorted Democrats to “grow a backbone.”

He has been an occasionally prickly governor, a consistently good governor, and often a very good governor. But he has rarely been the great and fearless leader that the nation saw last week.

Caution has been his trademark, often unnecessarily so. He should have, could have, gone further in pension reforms, further in ethics, further in education, but doing so requires crossing constituencies — teachers’ unions, for one — he doesn’t like to offend. Too often, a reluctant leader was pushed toward change.

But now is Patrick’s unique chance for durable greatness. He will have a year between the end of the presidential election and the beginning of the next gubernatorial race to shoot for the stars.

Think big, governor. Create a version of the Harlem Children’s Zone in Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan, drawing on Northeastern University and the hospitals of Longwood to flood the area with role models and innovation in an all-out attack on generational poverty.

Raise the gas tax 10 or 15 cents, hike fees, and cut the absurd benefits at the MBTA to create a billion dollars a year to repair and maintain our transportation infrastructure. As Bill Clinton said, it’s just arithmetic. Lift the cap on charter schools to give more city kids a chance.

Overhaul the way social services are delivered by too many agencies with too little efficiency. Make public colleges and universities prove their worth, and, when they do, reward them with more funding.

In just over two years, Patrick will relinquish the reins, very likely to a Republican, given the low wattage of the possible Democratic field.

Before then, he should unpack his suitcase and give us one true thing. Give us that fearless guy from Charlotte.

Brian McGrory is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at mcgrory@globe.com.

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