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Facing host of troubles, Governor Patrick is unruffled

Not disengagement but calm leadership, Mass. governor says

Governor Deval Patrick said he meets with his Cabinet members weekly, and now daily with the heads of the health connector website and the Department of Children and Families.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

The website for the state’s once-celebrated health insurance program has encountered so many problems, its director broke down in tears at a public meeting last week.

Politicians, some of them Democrats, have called for the resignation of Governor Deval Patrick’s embattled commissioner of the Department of Children and Families after the disappearance of a 5-year-old boy in its care.

And just weeks after the state got into the business of licensing medical marijuana dispensaries, some of the winners acknowledged they had misrepresented the support of local officials that could easily have been verified.

This run of trouble has some observers questioning: How closely are the governor and his administration minding the store?


“This all reflects badly on the Patrick administration,” said Jeffrey M. Berry, a professor of political science at Tufts University. “Most of government is management and not inspiration and soaring ideals. There’s simply too many problems in too many places for us not to wonder if the governor has been spending the time he should have on management of the state bureaucracy.”

But one person who seems unruffled by the flood of problems is Patrick himself.

In an interview Friday, the governor pushed back at the suggestion that, in the final year of his second term, he has become disengaged from the details of governing. People have been accusing him of that since he was elected, he noted.

Patrick stood by his leadership style and that of his top lieutenants,saying someone has to keep his head in a crisis.

“It’s a big organization,” he said. “Things are going to come up.”

In contrast to some political scandals that ensnare elected officials — patronage controversies or campaign finance discrepancies, for example — the challenges confronting the Patrick administration in recent years have had a tangible impact on people far beyond Beacon Hill.


In 2012, for example, contaminated steroid injections from a Massachusetts compounding pharmacy licensed by the state killed 64 people and infected more than 750 nationwide. Also that year, tens of thousands of criminal convictions were thrown into jeopardy after it was discovered that a state crime lab chemist tampered with evidence; State Police said her supervisors dismissed coworkers’ suspicions.

More recently, people trying to file for unemployment benefits have been stymied by an expensive but problematic new website contracted for the state. And those trying to meet the new federal deadline for health insurance coverage found the Massachusetts Health Connector’s site stopped working after a vendor tried to overhaul it to accommodate the federal health law.

At a meeting of the Health Connector last week, executive director Jean Yang’s tears fell as she described the Sisyphean task that her staff faces — trying to process a backlog of 50,000 paper applications.

Though Yang made clear in her remarks that she was not expecting sympathy, the governor made clear in an interview that he was offering his.

“I think what you saw from Jean is an example of what I see from the leaders who are helping to deal with solving problems. They are very deeply invested,” Patrick said. “And when things go wrong and the mob forms, it’s really hard for them and for everybody to stay focused on solutions.”

DCF, which oversees the care of 34,000 neglected or abused children, has been under fire since December, when it was revealed that Jeremiah Oliver, a 5-year-old in the agency’s care, had gone missing. Officials later acknowledged that his case worker had not visited his home for seven months, though a supervisor had entered false reports, saying the home was clean though no one had been there.


The governor said he is “heartsick” over the loss of Jeremiah Oliver and “outraged” that the case workers charged with protecting him were not doing so. He noted, however, that he has fired the three workers directly involved in the case. He has also called for more resources, better technology, and an independent review of the agency’s policies, social worker caseloads, and licensing rules.

He said he would rather be involved in problem-solving than in firings — a move he considers “more about the theater of public life.”

“Let’s hold accountable the people who are accountable,” Patrick said. “Let’s not trash everybody because they work in an agency, frankly, where hundreds of miracles are performed every week.”

Patrick said he meets with his Cabinet members weekly, speaks with many of them more regularly than that, and since the crises erupted with the health connector website and with DCF, he has been speaking with those agency heads every day.

But he is not a micromanager, he makes clear.

“I’ve got 351 cities and towns and 35,000 people who work in the executive branch — a whole lot of things to cover,” Patrick said. “I get a good team. I delegate a lot.”


Several political observers described the governor’s trademark loyalty and optimism as a double-edged sword.

“I think one of the jobs of the government is to reassure us when our state is having problems and he’s very good at that,” said Berry. “He’s not looking for scapegoats. All of those are appealing things. But you have to couple that with keeping your nose to the grindstone.”

Gregory W. Sullivan, research director at the Pioneer Institute, a conservative think tank, and a former state inspector general, said the governor has been loyal to his people “to a fault.” He also described the governor as “overly protective of his reputation.”

“His intuitive reaction when the criticism is raised is to say that it’s either unsubstantiated or that it’s not as significant as is being claimed,” said Sullivan. “When criticisms came up, they should have rushed in earlier to take action on each one of these things.”

Even when the Patrick administration gets one problem under control, however, it seems another crops up. Troubles have also erupted over state oversight of companies venturing into two potentially lucrative areas newly permitted in Massachusetts — casino gambling and the sale of medical marijuana.

In December, a commission that had ostensibly vetted would-be casino operators had to reconsider one land deal after the Globe reported that a convicted felon had been a silent partner. The board’s chairman, meanwhile, had to recuse himself from the discussions after the Globe reported another landowner was a former business partner.


And almost immediately after the state Department of Public Health awarded 20 provisional licenses to applicants who want to sell medical marijuana, complaints erupted that some of the winning applicants did not have the support of the local politicians they had cited.

Last week, the state took the unusual step of asking the companies to submit statements swearing that their applications were truthful.

The governor acknowledged that allegations of false claims in the applications is discomfiting. But he said the process is not yet final. The licenses are not yet technically issued.

“I would rather people wouldn’t lie under pains and penalties of perjury,” he said.

Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at Stephanie.Ebbert@ Follow her on Twitter @StephanieEbbert