After Donald Trump won the presidency, Deval Patrick promised to “stay woke.”
Yet in the run-up to Election Day — when he could have helped Hillary Clinton — he instead chose political hibernation.
Now, after Clinton’s loss, Patrick is speaking out against Senator Jeff Sessions, Trump’s choice for attorney general. In a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee, the former governor of Massachusetts — and the first African-American to win election to that position in this state — called Sessions “the wrong person to place in charge of our justice system.”
Patrick has the passion and experience to back up his opposition to Sessions. In 1985, the then-young Harvard Law School graduate was part of a team of NAACP lawyers who defended three black civil rights leaders against voter fraud charges brought by a white federal prosecutor named Jefferson Beauregard Sessions. Improbably, the NAACP lawyers prevailed. Describing the case as “a cautionary tale,’’ Patrick writes, “I believe it demonstrates what can happen when prosecutorial discretion is unchecked, when regard for facts is secondary to political objectives. What can happen is that the rule of law is imperiled. In a republic based on law, this is not the kind of risk any of us should accept in our attorney general.”
His letter opposing Sessions as attorney general showcases the classic eloquence that made him such a potent political force in Massachusetts. It also reflects the classic limits of his attention: “I apologize to the committee and to the nominee that I cannot be there to offer my comments in person,” writes Patrick, “but long-planned travel overseas will keep me from attending the upcoming hearings.”
After leaving office, Patrick fled the public stage to take a job as a managing director at Bain Capital, the corporate launchpad for Mitt Romney. His legacy suffered when Democrat Martha Coakley lost the 2014 governor’s race to Republican Charlie Baker. It suffered more as Baker dealt with fallout from mismanagement that occurred on Patrick’s watch as governor.
After basically staying away from the political arena during the 2016 presidential campaign, Patrick is re-inserting his voice — at least via letter — into the national debate over race relations and how they could be affected by a Trump presidency.
Of course, speaking up during a presidential campaign is a personal choice. In 2008, Patrick supported Barack Obama, his Chicago friend and political soulmate. They shared a consultant named David Axelrod and a common theme of hope and change. Since then, Patrick has expressed mostly ambivalence about a Clinton candidacy. When Clinton started gearing up for her 2016 run, Patrick told TV interviewers her “inevitability” was “off-putting” to voters. When he was mentioned as a possible candidate for vice president on a Clinton ticket, he seemed uninterested. According to Politico, he did host a fund-raiser for Clinton in September.
Then, after Clinton lost, he sent out a 1,000 word e-mail, first reported by Politico, in which he said he plans to “stay woke” during the Trump administration. Of Trump’s victory, he said, “I am sad, disturbed, embarrassed — but not surprised. . . . As odious as Trump’s behavior and many of his positions may be, he spoke to voters and not at them or over them.” Patrick urged people to speak up publicly and privately, to organize and “to stay connected to each other and to build community.”
He also pledged not to oppose Trump’s policies in knee-jerk fashion, writing that it was “repugnant and unpatriotic for Mitch McConnell to do that to President-elect Obama, especially in an hour of national crisis and I will not repeat the transgression.”
Now comes his entry into a campaign to deny Sessions the attorney general’s job — and perhaps the testing of the waters for a cause for which he can remain energized. Himself?