Governor Patrick heaped praise, some of it undeserved, upon his four departing secretaries last week. He also bristled at questioners wanting to know if Secretary of Health and Human Services JudyAnn Bigby was steered out of the administration following high-profile failures in her department.
“There’s going to be, in large organizations, things that go wrong,’’ said Patrick. That’s true enough. But there is a gulf separating the usual bureaucratic bumps from the deadly fungal meningitis outbreak traced to the New England Compounding Center or the tainting of thousands of criminal cases at a state drug lab. Both breakdowns occurred under Bigby’s watch. Beacon Hill Republicans had demanded her ouster. Meanwhile, outgoing Public Safety Secretary Mary Beth Heffernan had been involved, when she was assistant secretary, in the hiring of Sheila Burgess, a woman with a long list of driving citations, as the state highway-safety director.
Patrick has a tendency to glower at reporters who probe him on the shortcomings of his top staffers. He is quick to take ultimate responsibility, almost in a pro forma way, but can be dismissive of efforts to push beyond the administration’s storyline. Since taking office as a Beacon Hill outsider in 2007, Patrick has developed the political skills to match any recent governor. It’s difficult to envision any of his recent predecessors weathering scandals of the significance of the compounding pharmacy and the state drug lab with less political damage. And he has handled them competently. But where once he seemed to lack confidence in his ability to navigate the political shoals, now he can come off as overconfident.
There’s a danger in becoming too adept at deflecting criticism, and it may be evident in some of Patrick’s statements about the recent challenges facing his administration. When the hiring of the politically connected Burgess came to light, Patrick declared in a prepared statement that “the breakdown in protocol is extremely frustrating. My administration, like previous administrations, has brought in people who support our policies and agenda. But given her driving record, there’s no way Ms. Burgess should have been hired for this position.” Rather deftly, Patrick’s statement separated Burgess from other political appointees (“the breakdown in protocol”). If he seized on the lapse to check into whether other appointments may have gone awry, he didn’t say so explicitly. “We have taken corrective action and will move forward accordingly,” he declared.
The sound of washing of hands can be heard at the end of that statement. But as political damage control, it only works if there are no other Burgesses lurking on the payroll. Patrick’s confidence is backed up by excellent political instincts. But sometimes, it’s best to aggressively clean house, and admit to doing so when asked about it.