POST-ELECTION SERIES: A 2020 Presidential Candidate of Color Reflects on the New President-Elect - An Interview with Governor Deval Patrick

November 19, 2020

By Mary Jo Meisner

Originally from the South Side of Chicago, Deval Patrick came to Massachusetts at 14, when he was awarded a scholarship to attend Milton Academy. After Harvard College & Law School, he clerked for a federal appellate judge and then launched a career as an attorney and business executive, becoming a staff attorney at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, a partner at two Boston law firms and a senior executive at two Fortune 50 companies. In 1994, President Clinton appointed Patrick to the nation's top civil rights post, Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights.

In 2006, in his first bid for public office, he was elected as the first African-American governor of Massachusetts. As governor, Patrick expanded access to health care to over 98 percent of residents, launched initiatives for clean energy, steered the state to a 25-year high in employment, and made unprecedented investments in public schools.

He was a candidate for the 2020 Democratic nomination for President. His platform included opportunity and economic growth, reforming our healthcare and criminal justice system, an accessible and functioning democracy, and collaborative global leadership for the 21st century.

His next step in public life is TogetherFUND, a political action committee to support progressive politics and grassroots groups working to drive turnout and engagement among disenfranchised and marginalized voters.


Mary Jo Meisner: What does the election of Joe Biden as the 46th President of the United States mean to our country right now and to you as a fellow Democrat, but also to you as an African American citizen of the United States?

Gov. Deval Patrick: Well, first thanks for inviting me to be part of this, Mary Jo, for so generously believing I have something to contribute. I think Joe Biden may be just the right candidate for the moment we are in. He has a big heart, he listens carefully both to the mighty and to the meek, he can be a bridge between the insiders and the outsiders, and I know he wants to be. And I think you know, Mary Jo, from conversations that we've had, that I think that it may be the biggest or most overriding dynamic in American politics: He knows we need a healing and I think he understands that a lasting healing will come not from papering over our challenges, but by dealing with them. And those challenges include hyper-partisanship and structural racism. So I am hopeful. I am clear-eyed about how hard this will be, how uncomfortable it will be. But I'm also clear-eyed about how Joe Biden’s attention is on this.

Meisner: As you just noted, you know the President-elect well and you've worked with him on a wide range of issues and policies over the years and in a minute I want to delve into that even more, although you certainly started us down the road of talking about the divide facing our country. But first I’d love to talk about how well you know the Vice President-elect, and your views on the election of Kamala Harris. You and I both know you have an incredibly strong and accomplished, wonderful wife, Diane, and two wonderful daughters. So what does Kamala Harris’s election mean to you and particularly to them as women of color?

Patrick: I think Kamala Harris -- whom I don't know as well as Joe Biden but I know a little bit and I respect enormously -- I think she was an inspired choice for the ticket. She's a great campaigner. She brings to this victory many firsts which you know I like: The first woman Vice President-elect, the first African American, the first Indian American, the first graduate of an HBCU (Historically Black College and University), just on and on. It paints for folks a very different picture of how to imagine a future for our daughters and for our new granddaughter now, four weeks old! I think it paints a new picture for girls everywhere. You know, I remember when Doug Rubin -- who you know was the chief strategist on my campaigns and a very dear friend and has three daughters -- told me at some point, maybe six or seven years ago, that his three young daughters came to consciousness at a time when the only Governor and the only President they knew were black and the senior U.S. Senator they knew was a woman. You know, that affects you. You notice as a parent and one notices it as a citizen. It affects your outlook about what's possible and that's affirming for what it means to be American.

Meisner: It is so true and I think I might have even heard Doug talking about that before. I think many of us in Massachusetts had that experience or our children did, with President Obama and with Governor Patrick in office simultaneously. It has been quite a bit different over the last four years; how far we've come on that. With that I'd like to ask you to talk a bit more about these last several months of the campaign and the election itself. My gosh, you know it so well. Many of us had great hopes (for you as a presidential candidate) in February and would continue to have great hopes, but now that we've all had a little time to analyze the results, the turnout, the demographics of the voting -- and, of course, that's still going on -- but we've got a pretty good chunk of it under our belts. How do you view it both up and down?

Patrick: I think you're right -- it's early days. We have a lot more analysis to do but, first and foremost, more people voted in this presidential election than ever before in the history of America and in a democracy, that's important to celebrate no matter who wins. So that's the first. More people cast their vote for Joe Biden than any other presidential candidate in our history ,which I hope helps him claim the mandate he needs to govern boldly. Democrats won Arizona, Nevada and, it appears, Georgia, and won back Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. I think with a little bit more effort and focus in time, we could have won Alabama and Mississippi, at least the Senate races there. But in the cases of Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, I'm really pleased about those three in particular since American Bridge, which I co-chair, did a ton of work in those three states. I'm especially excited about Georgia because it vindicates the importance of sustained building of the grassroots in general and Stacey Abrams’ work in particular. I'll also say to the extent -- and I think it was real -- that American democracy was on the brink, it was Black and Brown people and young people that pulled it back and that needs to be acknowledged. And it needs to be paid attention to and cultivated. On the other hand, nearly half the country voted for the incumbent even after four years of his racist, anti-democratic and chaotic leadership which shows, as one commentator put it, “We may have defeated Trump but not yet Trumpism” or rid ourselves of this incumbent but not of his ways, as the old folks used to say. And that work has to continue no matter what because of the threat to union and to justice that I believe Trump imposes.

Meisner: I want to get to that in more detail in just a second, but you brought up America Bridge and frankly, Governor, I don't know quite as much about that. Will you tell us about that a little bit more?

Patrick: Yes. American Bridge is an initiative; it's a super PAC. It’s the sort of thing I hope goes away if we ever are able to reverse Citizens United, but in the meanwhile it is an initiative started many years ago, but I got involved in it over the course of the last year after my own brief presidential campaign because they were focusing on three states: Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, and on the so-called Obama-Trump voters. Many folks voted once or twice for President Obama and then in 2016 for President Trump and as I scanned the field to really satisfy myself that everyone was talking to somebody, because I think it's important in any election, but especially in this one where the character of the country -- not just of the candidates -- was on the ballot. I wanted to satisfy myself that somebody was talking to everybody -- that everybody was covered. The campaign was doing its thing, other groups were focused on young people, other folks on disaffected voters, others on Black and Brown voters, depending on where you were. But there's this really fascinating group of folks in some 70 counties in these three states who don't follow politics as closely as you and I do or even then most people do. I think the data is they may pay attention to politics for five minutes a week. They have really long commutes. They have really long hours if they are working. They're not getting their news from cable TV. They often feel left out and left back and they saw a reason to hope in Barack Obama and another reason to hope in Donald Trump. Rather than shaming them for their 2016 vote, which I think is a losing strategy every time, this was about understanding them and engaging them on their own terms and in their own time over the course of the year. It first (was to get them) to be open to an appeal from the Democratic nominee and then once we got a Democratic nominee, to be willing to vote for Joe Biden. It contributed meaningfully to our winning back those three states.

Meisner: I don't know if you remember this but my job right before I moved to Boston to help run Fidelity's newspaper company and then as Vice President of the Boston Foundation, I was editor of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Patrick: Yes, that's right.

Meisner: I am well aware of the interesting kind of makeup of that state and the political dynamics of it. It has a progressive streak, but then also has a very deeply rooted kind of conservatism. So many people in Wisconsin were born there and never lived anywhere else, which lends itself to that kind of dynamic.

Patrick: In some ways that language we use, you know the labels we use, they are far less conservative or progressive. I think of them as traditionalists.

Meisner: Such a good word.

Patrick: I think it describes a way of being, that they thought was the American way. So when you make that (way of life) feel threatened, as Trump so brilliantly did in 2016 and tried to do again this time, they do react. Or talking about them as if you know them without getting to know them -- which, by the way, I think something most people feel -- they react badly and it's a lesson for Democrats.

Meisner: I think I could segue from that word to the next question I had, which is about how Americans feel about voting and democracy. I'm thinking that in that word “traditionalist” there's also something there. As you just noted, voters came out (in large numbers) this time and what does that say about us as a country? Does it give you optimism?

Patrick: Well, it does. I do feel that when voters feel like something's at stake, something meaningful is at stake, then they do turn up. I wish it hadn't felt so much like the democracy itself was at stake. I guess I would say that our shaky democratic infrastructure held up pretty well under the circumstances of all the fear mongering and the disunion that the was sown by the President. I have never understood why we tolerate such a haphazard, old-fashioned system of counting votes, let alone the gradual but increasingly material and always intentional vote suppression that we tolerate. I mean from gerrymandering legislative districts, to burdening registration, to purging voter lists, to moving or closing polling places, to the poll taxes in Florida that arose after the midterms, you begin to see the Republicans know they couldn't win a fair fight. It makes me proud that so many Americans showed up and waited in lines or cast ballots by absentee ballot or by mail so that they could shape their own democratic future. I think that's important. But it saddens me, frankly Mary Jo, that we make it so hard to do.

Meisner: I was just going to bring up those suppression attempts, particularly in communities of color. It's been part of our American landscape, unfortunately, for a very long time. But with what you just said and what we saw, particularly in Georgia with Stacey Abrams and her Fair Fight voter participation efforts, do you feel like maybe we've started to turn a corner on this?

Patrick: No. With due respect, you know, voter suppression hasn't come into focus just in this cycle or in the last couple. Many people work on this everyday and have for years, unfortunately. They've had to. I spent a good part of my own working life litigating these issues whether as a civil rights lawyer at the legal defense fund or as head of the civil rights division at the Department of Justice. I think the gutting of the Voting Rights Act by the Supreme Court, in a decision where the majority effectively concluded that “things have changed enough” so that suppression is not an issue anymore. That to me was the zenith of a strategy that has been systematic and disciplined among the hard right in Republican circles for decades and if you combine that with the Citizens United ruling, there's a lot less of our democracy left and reversing all this stuff, in my view, is job number one in the next Congress. Now, having said that, I do believe and you said earlier that Stacey Abrams’ work in Georgia proves the truth, that Mary Jo, you know I fundamentally believe, which is that nothing beats the grassroots. Nothing beats the direct personal contact with another about the merits of a campaign, of a candidate or a cause and how it connects or ought to connect to your own life. What I so hope Democrats learn is the importance of building these contacts into relationships that are sustained in between elections, instead of just building it “in time” for the election all over again.

Meisner: You were quite right to call me on the fact that voter suppression and all its forms have not just been recent. I think maybe what is recent is that so many more people, at least that I have come in contact with, and certainly in the press and otherwise, are now talking about it.

Patrick: Yes, I think that is true. It frustrates me because it's been going on and it has been so systematic and disciplined for so long. It is a part of the national Republican strategy and this has been written on, reported on, but not a lot. Even in the reporting today, Mary Jo, it's not connected to a national strategy which is fundamentally undemocratic and driven by national Republican leadership. So that's my concern. We haven't taken this as seriously as we should have for a long time. We need to take it deadly seriously.

Meisner: You referred just a while ago to Trump and his racist tactics, his dog whistles, his failure to denounce white supremacy. Do you see this election at all as a repudiation of some of that in terms of the numbers that Joe Biden got -- although we have to put that against the other numbers?

Patrick: Like I said, I think we should be careful not to sum up this election's meaning just yet. It is true that we have rid ourselves of President Trump, but we have not rid ourselves of Trumpism. I believe, as I did in 2016, that all the racists voted for Trump. But I'll bet it's still true, as I believed then, that not all the folks who voted for Trump are racists. Some people still like low taxes for their own sake, or hate regulation, or just like Trump's version of so-called “strength.” And what that means, of course, and has always meant, is that some people will accept the demeaning and dehumanizing of other people -- for low taxes or less regulation or Trump's version of strength. And that troubles me; it always has.

I do think Democrats have to strengthen our economic message. Republicans are about power. Democrats are about justice -- which is why I'm a Democrat. But Democrats believe in an expanding economy and capitalism itself. As uncomfortable or unpopular I guess I would say that it is to be out in front about that, the Green New Deal, whether you love or hate the details, is fundamentally a prosperity agenda. Infrastructure investment is still about jobs and opportunity. It's just that the Democrats want everyone to have a fair shot, not just the well connected. I think you know that serious analysis and experience shows that there is a more sustained way to grow the economy than the sugar highs the Republicans go for. That is what we're talking about: investing in each other and investing in our public stuff so that people are able to help themselves. What I'm saying is that until we sharpen our argument on the economy on why we push the policies we do, we will leave some supporters and some votes on the table and I don't think we have to do that. I think we may have done that in this cycle.

Meisner: Although perhaps the way that a President-elect Biden was able to speak about it during the campaign -- which I thought sometimes was quite similar to the way you speak about it and have spoken about it during your campaign -- was more approachable to more people perhaps.

Patrick: Right. It's for a longer conversation, but I think we (Democrats) should be making our case to Chambers of Commerce and Rotary Clubs. We should show up at those places. Don't get me wrong. I guess I would put it this way -- there is a view that sometimes the debate in Democratic politics today is between “we should grow our base” versus “we should talk to the mushy middle and the so called swing voters.” The fact of the matter is I think almost everybody is a swing voter. Nobody buys 100% of what either party is selling. Look at the numbers of Black and Brown people who voted for Trump after he called us all kinds of names or celebrated others who did. You know, it's not going to be all about “vote for us because you shouldn't vote for them.” It has to be about what we are committed to doing to rebuild the American Dream, to make it possible for people to imagine a different path for themselves and their families, and then we're moving toward them. We have economic stagnation notwithstanding what the cheery economic indicators say. Right? Unemployment is low, but look around at how many people are working two and three low-wage jobs just to survive. Inflation is not low to anybody who pays rent or a mortgage or a health care premium or tuition. The indicators that we refer to don't actually capture the lived experience of a lot of Americans whose towns and cities have been hollowed out, whose jobs have moved elsewhere or changed. We celebrate in the economy the suppression of wages and the dead-end jobs. We dress it up by calling it a gig economy. I don't get that. But Democrats can't just rail about wealth. I grew up poor and everybody wanted to be wealthy. The question is how do you make it possible not for just one person to be plucked out and get a chance to go to Milton Academy and Harvard, but how do you make it possible for people to build their own future. And that to me means schools that function for everybody, housing that's affordable, health care that's accessible and affordable, opportunities to build community as well as build a skill set to move forward. An education that is also affordable and to have a place in an economy that's growing out so it makes a place for you and not just up to the well-connected and to investors. We stopped doing that systematically as a nation when we decided that trickle-down economics was worth the time we've given it and the investment we've given it. So I just think we've, as Democrats, gotten to a point where we talk about what's wrong with the outcomes the other side is talking about and not enough about what's right with the outcomes we're trying to push.

Meisner: A perfect entry point into my question about your work right now which is focused on finding ways to cross that divide and build conversation and convene around new common ground and find those message points. Will you talk about your Being American podcast and your Together Fund, because I see them as part of the same overall platform.

Patrick: I'd be happy to. Thank you for the opportunity to talk a little bit about that work. I believe, as you know Mary Jo, that we are a values-based country, at least aspirationally. And I believe that the civic values of equality, opportunity and fair play are what make freedom possible; that the framers knew that and that faith in those values is the source of our greatness and our strength. I know very clearly that we were flawed from the start and I think the framers or many of them knew we were flawed from the start. But I also think like so much else we’ve managed, that we are at our strongest and at our greatest when we are consciously and intentionally trying to close the gap between our reality and those civic ideals. Like so much else nowadays, we've managed to make values a partisan issue, right? It's always struck me that Republicans are the only ones talking about values and values voters. They say they believe in limited government and fiscal restraint and personal responsibility, never mind for the moment that they don't actually mean what they say. That's a whole other conversation. My point is that they have made partisan what ought to be a civic narrative. If we re-engage that conversation on what values underlie what it means to be an American, we might in time find a way back to each other and start to build a national community. These aren't new things for me, but I think our politics makes it hard to have those kinds of conversations in a campaign so I'm trying to do it through a podcast and by drawing in a range of different people -- some famous, some not yet so -- to see what their take is on what it means or ought to mean to be American. And Together Fund is a way politically to advance those same kinds of conversations, that same kind of advocacy and campaigns, and through supported grassroots groups.

Meisner: I think your American Bridge kind of falls in that same suite of initiatives. So, I assume you have spoken with President-elect Biden since he won the election and I assume you're going to be talking to him quite a bit more. How would you advise him on these crucial issues of rebuilding our economy and beginning to recover, particularly from years of Trump's race-baiting and racist behavior and policies?

Patrick: I have not spoken to the President-elect actually. I've sent congratulatory messages, but, you know, I'm not a part of his inner circle. I've known him for decades, since he chaired the Judiciary Committee when I was nominated to head the civil rights division. And, of course, I worked closely with him when he was Vice President and I was Governor, especially during the implementation of the stimulus bill. But he has a lot of others he'd be calling and talking with before me. Having said that, I have to say his public remarks on race and otherwise since the election have been pitch perfect, in my view. He's calm, steady, respectful -- all of it genuine. His four priorities -- beating COVID, rebuilding the economy and creating jobs, addressing climate change and racial reconciliation -- are exactly right it seems to me. And he does not make them seem oversimplified, but he does make them seem critical. He is drawing superb talent close to him as he builds out his team, so that gives me a lot of confidence. Urgency, I think, is what the moment demands. Every one of these issues has suffered from inaction and neglect, let alone the active divisiveness, of the Trump Administration. I think that the President-elect needs to move with a sense of urgency and to make that felt by the general public, not just the members of Congress, and he should be bold. Lord, I hope he won't do that business of self-negotiating that Washington Democrats so often do before he puts his own markers down! You know, there's a reason why there was so much energy in this election and not all of it was anti Trump. Not all of it was pro-Biden. A lot of it was pro possibility -- possibility of racial recognition, reconciliation. The possibility -- and I mean fundamentally, not just smoothing it over -- of really dealing with the differences in attitude today and the differences in attitude decades ago, that led to decisions, that led to today. That we just have come to accept it's just the way things are. I think there's real energy about saving the planet before it melts. There’s real energy around inequality, which I think is mostly about economic mobility as I was referring to earlier. I hope that he conveys in his own actions and in his words that he understands that urgency and that the pace in Washington is going to have to pick up in response to it.

Meisner: I think perhaps if you had stayed in the race and been elected last week we might have just heard some of the first things that you would be doing right now! If there was something else, but you haven't mentioned it, what would it have been?

Patrick: I think Joe Biden is doing what I would do. I hope after the count is certified and President Trump accepts the outcome or even if he doesn't, that President-elect Biden will use the moment to teach us about how fragile democracy turns out to be and how important it will be to implement a range of reforms around gerrymandering, voter suppression, money in politics, an Electoral College so that Americans can have the government a great democracy deserves. I guess alongside his four agenda priorities, I'd say that would be item number five.

Meisner: I'm going to end with something that I read in your “Patriotism in Black” piece which you wrote for your blog. You always have such great turns of phrase and a way of communicating. It was about “how tricky it is to love a country that does not always love you back.” And yet you are one of the most loyal citizens and public servants that I know. So how do we build a renewed understanding of patriotism after the kind of toxic years of sloganism on “Making America Great Again.”

Patrick: So, I find I'm often telling people to keep the faith. I tried to explain what I mean by that, in remarks I gave at the interfaith service after the Boston Marathon bombing. I think the faith we need, the faith we're lacking, is in those civic values I talked about of equality, opportunity and fair play. They are transcendent. And I think we need to be reminded of those as our North Star and to be evangelists about those because every one of us -- and frankly the whole world of strivers and strugglers -- has a stake in those values that really are the source of our greatness. I could spend my time in my life brooding about and being bitter about the gap between our reality in our ideals and how much we have dwelled in that gap, how much work and effort has gone into widening that gap, and how much of the cost of that has been borne by Black people and Brown people and other people who are marginalized and despised. Those realities are real and that legacy lingers. But I really do believe that our strength comes from the work of closing that gap. I spent a lot of my life in various sectors trying to be about that work and I see more and more people showing not just an interest in that work, but an insistence on results. It's as if there's a whole bunch of folks who, thanks to a combination of trying circumstances and tragedies in the last several months at least but accumulated over a long time, have put their collective foot down and said -- “You know what? We are going to be who we say we are and we're going to have that now!” And so that gives me not just comfort but a tremendous amount of hope.

Meisner: Well, that's a great way to end. Governor, thank you so much for your time.

Patrick: Thank you, Mary Jo.


About the Author:


Mary Jo Meisner is a senior business executive specializing in communications, media, government relations, and public policy. Over the course of a 30-year career, Mary Jo has been a journalist, a newspaper and business executive, and was the architect of a groundbreaking civic leadership arm of the Boston Foundation. After spending a year as a 2017 Advanced Leadership Initiative fellow at Harvard University, Mary Jo formed MJM Advisory Services, a bespoke consulting firm that advises senior leaders in the private sector on their social impact initiatives.


This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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