By Sharon Longo, Contributing Writer
REGION – When Deval Patrick became governor of Massachusetts in 2007, he spoke of hope and change, leading with the insight derived from one lesson: Strive to leave things better for others.
Scholarship brought him to Boston area
Patrick came to the Commonwealth by earning a scholarship to Milton Academy through a Boston program called A Better Chance. He had grown up in Chicago up until the eighth grade, raised mostly by his mother and grandparents. His time at Milton Academy led to his attendance at Harvard College and, after a year living and working in Africa, Harvard Law School. Before politics, he was an attorney and business executive. “Many of the assignments I had taken were difficult but meaningful, and where I had something to contribute,” he explained. “In the companies, for example, I came initially because the hiring and promotion systems were broken and needed fixing.”
After clerking for a year in Los Angeles, California, he was headed to work at a law firm in San Francisco. “But you know what they say: life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans,” he noted wryly. He met his wife, Diane, in L.A., she was from New York, and instead they moved there, where they married, and he began a civil rights practice. “We loved New York, but I began to think of the city differently once we became parents, so we moved to Massachusetts,” Patrick said.
Except for three years in Washington, D.C. as Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights in the Clinton administration and commuting to New York or Atlanta for his corporate jobs, he has lived in Massachusetts ever since. “This state has been good to me. In many ways, it has enabled my own American Dream,” he noted.
Election to governor
Patrick was elected at age 50 in 2006, offering to campaign and govern differently from what was typical in politics, with an emphasis on grassroots organizing, restoring a sense of community, and what he calls “generational responsibility,” leaving things better for those who come behind. He was the first African-American to hold this position in the state, as well as the first Democrat since Michael Dukakis.
“Young people are hungry for that kind of leadership,” he emphasized. “You can’t solve the climate crisis or income equality unless you think past the next political cycle. The old way of doing politics, with an overemphasis on quick, short-term political wins and on raising money, had to change.” He wants to pass on to others the opening of doors that others had passed on to him.
As governor, he worked on expanding health care, reaching over 98% of residents. He also changed how the state’s transportation would operate, creating the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, raised the minimum wage, reduced greenhouse gas emissions through the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) as well as numerous other accomplishments. He also led the state’s successful response to and recovery from the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013.
Working for change
Today Patrick continues to work hard for change. He was recently named professor and co-director of the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School. He founded and for several years was managing partner of Bain Capital’s impact investment fund. He stays active in politics, mainly through the Together Fund, a nonprofit that invests in local grassroots organizing and community building among marginalized or unengaged voters. He said he chooses his activities for what he can do to help and encourage others.
Patrick also serves on several business and charitable boards. He is the recipient of 20 honorary degrees, is a Crown Fellow of the Aspen Institute, a Rockefeller Fellow, and the author of two books, “A Reason to Believe: Lessons from an Improbable Life” and “Faith in the Dream: A Call to the Nation to Reclaim American Values.”
An active retirement
As someone approaching retirement age, he stated, “I see myself as always working and being active, not retiring. I am also trying to get better at having balance.” He built a house on land he had purchased in the Berkshires in western Massachusetts, as a retreat for family and friends. “The land is surrounded by fruit trees, vegetable gardens and other farms. It’s a place where I can raise bees, think and write, and entertain others,” he said. “If I do retire, I’ll want to do more of those things in particular in that place.”
When asked what advice he has for people over age 50, he said, “I want to serve, and there are lots of ways to serve. That hyper-self-involved narrative a lot of my generation was raised on proves this has not served our generational responsibilities,” he explained. “The notion of doing what we can to leave things better for others is a value we need to lift up again.”
His grandmother’s influence remains with him. “She always told me to stay humble,” he recalled. “Whenever I answered her questions by saying, ‘I don’t know,’ she would tell me what I didn’t know would fill a book! She was right, of course. So, I’m constantly learning, open to new people, new ideas and new ways of gaining perspective. This is what makes me purposeful,” he affirmed. “It’s what made me a better governor one day than I was the day before. It’s one thing to self-reflect, but it’s another to turn that self-reflection into action. That’s the next and best way to contribute.”