Monday, March 12, 2007

New Democratic Mass. governor reels after blunders

New Democratic Mass. governor reels after blunders
By Jason Szep

BOSTON (Reuters) - Deval Patrick rode a populist wave to become Massachusetts' first Democratic governor in 16 years and the second African American elected governor in U.S. history.

But nine weeks into the job, he faces a possible ethics investigation after missteps that threaten his reforms and have added a whiff of scandal to his brief tenure.

The former top U.S. civil-rights enforcer in the Clinton administration has publicly apologized twice in recent weeks over separate errors of judgment in what some expected to be a honeymoon period marked by the return of a bold, liberal agenda to one of the nation's most socially progressive states.

The most recent mea culpa followed a February 20 telephone call he made to a senior executive at financial giant Citigroup, which has businesses regulated by the state, to personally vouch for a controversial lending firm where he was once a board member.

The call to Robert Rubin, a former U.S. treasury secretary, was made on behalf of the owners of Ameriquest Mortgage as they sought financial assistance from the financial services giant.

The call was seen as a conflict of interest and roundly criticized in part because Ameriquest has been accused of predatory lending, a practice that has led to a rise in property foreclosures in Massachusetts.

Republicans have called for an ethics investigation.

Patrick apologized on Wednesday. "I will make mistakes, but don't give up on me, because I don't intend to give up on Massachusetts," he told reporters.

That incident followed an outcry over decisions to upgrade his state car to an expensive Cadillac that cost taxpayers $1,166 a month and to spend $27,000 on drapes and other new office fittings while asking other departments to curb spending.

"Oh, we screwed up," he said of the Cadillac and office decorations. He also announced he would contribute $543 a month to its lease.

Liberal and conservative columnists alike are blasting Patrick, a 50-year-old Harvard-educated former corporate lawyer. Patrick, who has a rags-to-riches life story, campaigned as a grass-roots reformer to win 56 percent of the vote in November.

"His constituents have a right to expect that he's going to be governor, all the time, and not take some time out to help out old employers," Charley Blandy, a left-wing blogger who supported Patrick's campaign, wrote of the Citigroup call.

"The Caddy didn't matter. The drapes don't matter. This matters," he said.


The state, which preferred Republican governors to maintain a check on spending by the Democratic-controlled legislature, embraced Patrick after a slide in the popularity of his Republican predecessor, White House hopeful Mitt Romney.

Romney, elected as a moderate, was heavily criticized for tacking to the political right in his single term and carving out conservative stances on hot-button policy issues such as abortion to rally conservative Republicans ahead of his presidential bid -- stands that angered liberal Massachusetts.

"The expectations couldn't have been higher for governor Patrick," said Jeffrey Berry, a political science professor at Tufts University. "Democrats in this state wanted to see the return of some old-time liberal religion. Patrick promised that.

"But so far he's been awfully slow in setting his priorities."

Added Boston University U.S. history professor Julian Zelizer, "When anyone comes in with expectations so high it's almost inevitable that you will have a quick letdown."

Patrick told reporters last week he was concerned about his loss of momentum. "But it's a four-year term. We have a very ambitious agenda."

Last month, he unveiled his first big policy initiative, proposing changes that would close what he calls corporate "tax loopholes" and raise $500 million annually in new revenue that would help balance the state budget.

Businesses have objected and Patrick will need the state legislature's support for his reforms to succeed, but political analysts say that now could be difficult.