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Patrick’s charisma hides real issues

Governor Patrick delivered his eighth State of the Commonwealth speech Tuesday.
Governor Patrick delivered his eighth State of the Commonwealth speech Tuesday. Barry Chin/Globe staff/Globe Staff

In his last State of the State speech this week, Governor Deval Patrick addressed the need to fix the Department of Children and Families and the state health care website — two big but unrelated management failings — in two sentences and possibly one breath.

“It’s inexcusable to lose any child we are charged with protecting. And it’s frustrating to offer a public convenience that is anything but convenient,” said Patrick.

That odd pairing of problems — an agency still trying to determine the fate of a missing little boy and a health insurance website in need of upgrading — drew negative media attention. But in the final lap of his second term, Patrick isn’t too worried about critics who think like that.

And with an approval rating over 50 percent, why should he?

The famous Patrick Teflon may show a few minor nicks, but overall, it survives. It’s a testament to a supreme political talent, which on Tuesday night was once again on prominent display.


The speech was classic Deval — long on optimism and short on details that undercut his preferred narrative. As sketched by Patrick, the big picture of his legacy encompasses a commitment to infrastructure, innovation, and education. He mentioned direct flights to Dublin, Madrid, Tokyo, and Dubai that took off on his watch, but ignored casinos, which will be a larger part of his legacy, if they are ever built.

And he continued to build on a favorite theme, casting critics as shallow, short-term thinkers, incapable of grasping his deeper, broader vision.

“I am determined to keep our focus on the next generation instead of the next news cycle,” he said echoing sentiments he has expressed since his election as governor. As he told the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association right after victory in 2006, “Put your cynicism down. Don’t trivialize optimism and hope. It built this country. It built my life.”

This governor definitely has a way with words. He can blithely pair the breakdown of a child welfare office with the breakdown of a website — yet that’s not what sticks with the audience, to the frustration of Beacon Hill’s tiny band of Republicans.


Afterwards, House Minority Leader Brad Jones of North Reading grumpily called Patrick’s speech “underwhelming.” But Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr acknowledged the obvious. “He’s a very charismatic, inspirational speaker,” said the Gloucester Republican. “But there are real issues that have to be addressed.”

What’s happening at DCF surely counts as a real issue, and Patrick will no doubt argue that he addressed it on Monday, ahead of his State of the State finale. That’s when he announced that he asked the Child Welfare League of America to do a sweeping review of state policies, following the disappearance of Jeremiah Oliver, the Fitchburg boy who has not been seen since September and is feared dead. At the same time he announced the review, Patrick also said the problems facing DCF are “not systemic.”

Another governor might face harsher criticism for reaching a conclusion before an investigation even begins, or for imposing his own definition on what is systemic or not. But Tarr, who was among the first to call for an independent investigation, was somewhat lulled by the fact that Patrick called him over the weekend to let him know about his Monday announcement. It was another smart move by Patrick, a very smart politician.

Patrick excels at politics, at the same time as he decries politics. That’s his strength, and it sets him apart from other, lesser politicians, Republican and Democrat. From a purely political perspective, he set a bar that will be difficult for the current crop of would-be successors to meet. When it comes to ability to disarm with eloquence, there is no obvious heir or heiress apparent.


But in politics, the pendulum always swings. Not to trivialize optimism and hope, but after Patrick, Massachusetts may be ready for plainer talk, spoken by a leader who enjoys getting down in the weeds of government.

That health-care connector website does need fixing; so does an agency whose job it is to protect the youngest, most vulnerable citizens of the Commonwealth. To the next governor, issues like that may be more than throwaway lines in a speech.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.