Appointment by appointment, face by face, Governor Deval Patrick is giving Massachusetts a more modern and diverse look.
His choice of William “Mo” Cowan, his former chief of staff, to serve as the state’s interim US senator drives home the trend. Bay State government is starting to look a bit more like Patrick, the first black governor of the state.
Earlier in January, Patrick picked Steve Tompkins, a career public relations professional and longtime spokesman for outgoing Suffolk Sheriff Andrea Cabral, to be her replacement. That move made Cabral — a black woman — Patrick’s new head of public safety, and meant a black man would take over the sheriff’s department.
In December, Beverly Scott became the first black woman to head the MBTA. Two years ago, Patrick also nominated Roderick L. Ireland as the first black chief justice of the SJC, the state’s highest court.
When he announced Cowan as his choice, Patrick said it reflected a changing Commonwealth. During the decision-making process, he freely said gender and ethnicity were considerations — and why shouldn’t they be?
Massachusetts has a progressive image. But for the longest time, power was vested almost exclusively in a white, male political establishment. That network traditionally helped Irish-Americans and Italian-Americans. They weren’t all geniuses. But they were smart enough to work connections that led to good-paying, resume-boosting, public-sector jobs. Some ran for political office; others won appointment to cushy government slots.
For women in the political world, cracks in the glass ceiling have been slow in coming. Elizabeth Warren just went to Washington as the Bay State’s first female senator. There are two women state officeholders — Attorney General Martha Coakley and state Auditor Suzanne Bump. Therese Murray became the first female Senate president in 2007. Meanwhile, the road to the governor’s office is littered with female candidates who didn’t make the cut. Most women get cabinet positions in the area of health and human services.
Until Patrick came along, African Americans stood even lower on the rungs of Massachusetts politics. It has taken him awhile, but now that he’s in his second and final term, Patrick is acting on the same instinct that drives most people in power — to surround themselves with others who look and think like they do. Of course, when you embrace that cause as candidly as Patrick you must be ready for criticism that you are not choosing “the best.”
Such sniping dogged each of the last three gubernatorial appointments of people who happen to be black.
Before Scott took over at the MBTA, negative stories about her management style followed her from Atlanta to Boston. After meeting her, it’s clear she takes a different management approach. Maybe that’s not a bad thing for a broken transit system that needs fixing.
Tompkins, the new sheriff, was criticized for a lack of law enforcement experience. It’s true, he has none, and questions about it drew a frosty acknowledgement from Patrick that he was guilty as charged of a “political” appointment.
Cowan is also being criticized for a lack of legislative experience and unfamiliarity with federal issues. If that’s the measurement, he falls short, especially up against former Congressman Barney Frank. But maybe it shouldn’t be the measurement that matters; maybe Washington needs more people with fresh eyes, even if they’re only there for a short time. Why an accomplished lawyer like Cowan is considered less qualified than Victoria Reggie Kennedy, who achieved her star power through marriage, is another mystery.
It’s up to these Patrick appointees to prove themselves. It’s up to the rest of us to do some thinking about why their credentials are so swiftly challenged and whether we would do the same if Patrick drew from the pool of usual white, male suspects. Did Massachusetts really think it would elect the first black governor and not see some transfer of power to people who look like him? That’s called progress.
“It’s important to do symbolic things. Symbols mean things,” said the Rev. Eugene Rivers, a black community activist. But even as he congratulates Cowan, Rivers said Patrick’s overall legacy when it comes to the black community remains an open question.
When you make history like Patrick did in Massachusetts, you pick your symbols and live with the consequences.Joan Vennochi can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.