During more than four years at Bain Capital, Deval Patrick insisted that it’s possible to “do well and do good.” Following his second term as Massachusetts governor, Patrick was hired by the Boston private equity firm to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in companies that could create social benefits as well as deliver solid financial returns.
Now, as the latest candidate to jump into the crowded Democratic primary field, he may have to convince voters that his work at Bain Capital was more than a feel-good effort in an industry that, to many in the party, epitomizes capitalism at its most ruthless.
“There’s a right way and a wrong way to do everything,” Patrick told reporters Thursday in New Hampshire. “I do think that capitalism — and I am a capitalist — has a lot to answer for. There are . . . justifiable reasons why people feel like our economy and our government has been tilted too much in the direction of monied interests.”
But casting himself as a capitalist with a social conscience might be challenging. Democrats made Bain Capital a centerpiece of their attacks on Republican Mitt Romney — who founded the firm in 1984 — when he took on Barack Obama in 2012. Patrick, in fact, cochaired Obama’s campaign.
Patrick — who resigned as a managing director at Bain Capital on Wednesday but still has investments with the firm — joins a race where the anti-Wall Street and anti-billionaire messages of Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders are resonating with many progressive voters.
“There isn’t time for the kind of nuance that he’s going to have to raise with these voters,” said Peter Ubertaccio, a political science professor at Stonehill College in Easton. To some people, he noted, Bain Capital stands for “all the things that worry them about the influence of Wall Street on American politics.”
Patrick also risks being seen as representing Democratic CEOs and elite donors, who have recently aired skepticism that any of the top Democrats can defeat President Trump.
Reports of Patrick’s candidacy sparked a flurry of social media criticism of his Bain Capital connections from liberal commentators and activists. He also faced attacks from more conservative quarters — in a news release, the Republican National Committee referred to Patrick as “Mr. Bain,” highlighting his ties to big business.
Bain Capital declined to comment for this story.
Some observers believe Patrick might be able to make a case as a moderate who was trying to remedy the economic system’s inequities from within through what is known as impact investing.
Tracy Palandjian, chief executive of Social Finance, a nonprofit Boston impact investor, said that if anyone can rewrite the narrative about how to create a capitalist system that benefits everybody, it’s Patrick.
“He has lived it,” said Palandjian, whom Patrick has credited with motivating him to get into the investment field. Patrick sits on her organization’s advisory board. “Business has a lot of flaws,” she said, “and it can be a force for good if you can harness it in the right way.”
Patrick joined the company in 2015 as a managing partner of Bain Capital Double Impact. In 2017, the group closed a $390 million fund co-managed by Patrick to invest in companies by “maximizing their financial potential, and scaling their social and environmental impact.”
The fund has invested in 11 companies, including HealthDrive, which provides on-site services such as dentistry and optometry at long-term care facilities and other locations; Rural Sourcing, a supplier of technology outsourcing services in small and midsize cities across America; and by CHLOE, a chain of vegan restaurants.
Double Impact’s first fund is relatively small in comparison with Bain Capital’s $105 billion in assets under management. But it represents a foray by Bain Capital into a relatively new area that originated with small and nonprofit firms. The sector has been growing rapidly as larger investors and institutions seek places to park their money without helping to fund enterprises that don’t align with their beliefs.
The Global Impact Investing Network, an industry group, estimated this year that the impact investing market has grown to $502 billion worldwide.
Patrick and his colleagues, however, aren’t running a charity. They evaluate companies to ensure their investments bring about demonstrable social, environmental, or health-related benefits, but they are also seeking to increase profitability to generate better returns for investors.
It’s likely that Patrick’s rivals will scour those companies’ records to determine whether Bain Capital’s involvement has resulted in something negative, such as job cuts.
But investors who emphasize societal impact over profit say big firms like Bain Capital are helping shift the conversation toward more thoughtful investing. They are “pulling conventional investors — private equity, in particular — to think about purpose,” said Deborah Frieze, cofounder of the Boston Impact Initiative Fund, which provides investments, loans, and grants to organizations fighting poverty and injustice in Eastern Massachusetts.
Patrick also ran a team that is notable for its diversity in an industry that is often lacking it. In its annual report this spring, the Double Impact group said 56 percent of its investment professionals were women, minorities, or LGBTQ people.
Though Patrick was once a leading civil rights lawyer, his resume is heavy on corporate positions. He was an executive at Texaco and Coca-Cola, and he served on the board of subprime mortgage lender Ameriquest.
But the latest entry on his resume is likely to come up frequently on the campaign trail. Romney’s experience as the Republican nominee in 2012 speaks to the challenges that might present.
For every attempt Romney made to highlight the business acumen it took to build an investment firm that helped grow companies such as Dunkin’ Brands and the Weather Channel, he had to contend with stories about layoffs, closures, and cost reductions carried out by his former firm in the interest of efficiencies and profits.
This week, Patrick said he never supported such attacks on Romney. He said some deals “are going to go sideways with or without . . . private equity.”
Chris Witkowsky, editor of the industry publication
PE HUB, said other private equity companies have found it similarly hard to market themselves as doing work whose benefits extend beyond investors.
“Rich people going out and buying companies, is that ever going to be a positive story?” he said. “This private equity story, and even the broader Wall Street story, is hard to translate to the general public unless there’s some negative going on.”
On the primary trail, top-tier Democrats — including Warren and Sanders — have already been targeting private equity. Warren, in particular, has sought to take on private equity with a bill she calls the “Stop Wall Street Looting Act.”
Still, if Patrick finds himself fending off Bain-related barbs, that might mean he’s become relevant despite his late start, according to Boston College political scientist David Hopkins.
“He’s not going to be attacked by another candidate unless he really starts to gain momentum,” Hopkins said. His Bain Capital background is “a potential vulnerability,” he said, “but voters won’t even necessarily know about it unless somebody makes the case.”
Victoria McGrane, Shirley Leung, and Matt Stout of the Globe staff contributed to this article. Andy Rosen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.