SPRING LAKE, New Jersey — Standing in a church hall this month, Deval Patrick scanned the faces at the get-out-the-vote rally and took them back to his childhood in Chicago’s South Side and the private school experience that changed him.
What he had in Chicago was a real community, he said. When you had a stake in your neighbors’ dreams and struggles, and they had one in yours. When each adult was responsible for each child, and people were wholly devoted to common interests. When you were intent on leaving things better for the next generation. Those values were why he was there for Josh Welle, a young Navy vet and Democrat running in his first race to try and knock off a 38-year congressional incumbent. Patrick also had a message of urgency: “If you think that a given campaign is about just the candidate, just about that moment, I’m asking you to think again. Every campaign, especially now, has to be about how we renew that sense of community.”
Patrick was hopeful, inclusive, optimistic about America, and silent on Donald Trump. And if some of the top alumni of Barack Obama’s campaigns and administration had their way, Patrick would be the candidate taking that Obamaesque message into the 2020 presidential campaign.
The brain trust that created the roadmap for Obama’s election has long seen Patrick, the former governor of Massachusetts and longtime friend of the former president, as a transcendent political talent. Several former senior Obama administration and campaign officials would be ready to support a Patrick presidential campaign on Day 1, people familiar with the matter told BuzzFeed News.
“I think everyone’s excited,” said one former senior Obama administration official.
David Axelrod, architect of Patrick’s 2006 governor’s race and Obama’s 2008 campaign, is intrigued by a potential Patrick 2020 campaign, said two former Obama administration sources. So is David Simas, CEO of the Obama Foundation and former aide to both Obama and Patrick, one source added. Valerie Jarrett, the close Obama ally, is barely containing her own excitement about Patrick’s possible candidacy at small events with friends. Eric Holder, the former attorney general and close Obama friend, told reporters on a recent visit to New Hampshire that Patrick fits the kind of profile and leadership style he’s looking for in a candidate, if he doesn’t run himself.
Patrick’s supporters and friends this summer started the Reason to Believe PAC, set up in a way that seems designed to help root Patrick on as he works through his decision, and to give people excited about the chance that he might run a place to channel their energy. The PAC has already pulled in hundreds of thousands of dollars, more than similar committees for other possible 2020 candidates.
“There’s not some secret plan that some people know about,” a Patrick aide said.
But a half dozen people involved with Patrick’s informal discussions were loath to prognosticate about what Patrick will ultimately decide, when the word from on high is to be patient. They said Patrick’s decision felt like a toss-up.
Patrick is enjoying life as a husband, patriarch of his immediate and extended family. That is to say that, while he does not yet know if he wants the presidency, people who know him well say he does not need it. People who need the presidency, the ones who have been thinking about it their whole lives, don’t behave as Patrick has over the last several years. He ruled out a 2016 campaign in 2013, and showed no signs of reconsidering. He said no repeatedly to questions about whether he was interested in the vice presidency in the years leading up to 2016.
Aides say that while he is working through ideas, taking meetings, and homing in on a message, Patrick still wants to be assured that a campaign consistent with his character can be successful in 2020. That would mean an idealistic campaign, with a national dialogue about the direction of the country. It would be focused on regular people at the bedrock of a large grassroots organization. “If you can get it right, you can move people,” said one top Patrick aide.
A constellation of Democrats is patiently waiting on Patrick to make up his mind — others not so patiently.
In August, when he was vacationing in Martha’s Vineyard, Patrick was asked to give the opening remarks at “A Conversation With the Honorable Valerie Jarrett,” by the guest of honor. According to a source in the room, Jarrett, a close Obama ally, repaid the favor by making repeated verbal nods to The Decision. “I have said to Deval Patrick I have a very good eye for talent,” Jarrett told them to laughter, according to the source. (Jarrett’s office confirmed the exchange through a spokesperson, who emphasized Jarrett has not yet endorsed him or anyone else.)
Politico reported just this month that Jarrett said a Patrick candidacy is what “her heart desires.” Also this month, it was reported that Jarrett and former first lady Michelle Obama have had more than one conversation with Patrick’s wife, Diane, about what would be expected from her in a national campaign. The only thing more jarring than the scoop was its home: a New York Times report about Joe Biden’s 2020 vulnerability.
Patrick and Obama have lots of similarities, and a singular ability to understand and internalize stories to create tableaus that reflect the urgings, hopes, and motivations at the grassroots.
Patrick met with Rev. Al Sharpton in New York City two weeks ago, and Sharpton told BuzzFeed News Patrick did not ask for his support. Patrick, Sharpton said, was still undecided and more interested in Sharpton’s thoughts on the issues that could define the presidential race, and in hearing how Sharpton broke down the likely field.
“My guess is that he’s leaning towards it,” said Sharpton. “He’d be formidable.”
Patrick also has strong potential support inside the Black Economic Alliance, a new political group founded by wealthy black political donors. Patrick attended a launch event last year in the Hamptons and donated $15,000 to the group this year. Recently, it held an event in Los Angeles attended by Mayor Eric Garcetti, Sen. Cory Booker, and Reps. Karen Bass and Maxine Waters. “Money,” said one top Democrat who would support Patrick if he runs, “would not be an issue.”
Patrick doesn’t have staff in place like other top-tier candidates, though some staffers in campaigns in congressional races have been surprised at his connections in the states. And while a political team could conceivably be ready to go by the end of the year, and there’s already a PAC courting donors, there isn’t yet the kind of infrastructure it takes to launch a national campaign for president.
The electoral primary map sets up Patrick to do well. The earliest states like, Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina are heavy retail states. “The person who can make that one-one connection is who’s going to emerge,” said Jarrod Loadholt, a Democratic strategist. “Voters need to see an ability to connect.”
Patrick is building those connections. He’s working through his decision in small groups and on lower-profile midterm campaigns, places where people of his stature don’t typically go. He’s already been to Georgia to help the Sally Harrell and Lucy McBath congressional campaigns. He’s been to Texas twice to help Colin Allred in his race against incumbent Rep. Pete Sessions. He’s a big fan of Mike Espy, a peer of his whom he saw in September, who’s running in the Mississippi special election for US Senate. He’ll also soon campaign for Joe Cunningham, a young congressional candidate in South Carolina. And no, not even Deval Laurdine Patrick could resist Beto-mania. “We were sitting down with Beto O’Rourke before he became Beto O’Rourke,” Patrick proudly told BuzzFeed News.
Patrick introduces himself to new people he meets as “Gov. Deval Patrick,” a title he last held in 2015. He is buoyant on the campaign trail. There are no short conversations with Patrick when he wants to engage. And he always wants to engage.
At one stop in New Jersey, Patrick caught up with an old mentee. At another, he got into an animated conversation with a gregarious young black pastor from New Orleans.
“Do you know how to cook?” Patrick asked the pastor, inside a tight corridor.
“So what — so what do you do?”
“So when I go down, when I go home, I’ll buy a whooooole...”
“...bunch of sausage…”
“I know, I know...”
“I’ll, like, freeze it…”
Now, Patrick is in heaven. Or New Orleans.
“I love to ask this question to people from New Orleans because they ALL PACK FOOD! They all pack food! If they had one of those sniffing dogs at the airport, they would all get confused! With all the spices! The crayfish!” Laughter filled the entire floor, but the pastor forgot how he got to talking about sausage.
Patrick is looking fitter and in some ways younger than he did when he was last in office. Multiple people who have known Patrick for at least the last decade say, even for a guy immune to pessimism, that Patrick now seems almost peculiarly happy and observant. A devout Christian, Patrick, who once choked up defending his decision to allow child refugees to be housed in Massachusetts using the teachings of Jesus, describes himself as a work in progress, as the clay in the prayer Isaiah 64. (“We are the clay, and thou our potter; and we all are the work of thy hand.”) When he’s spoken about shortcomings, he’s said, “Lord knows, I am still working on that in my own life.” If someone said, “The governor always shows up for regular people,” he’d reply saying something like, “I try to be that way.” And when he’s given a flattering introduction before a big speech: “I hope to become the man you describe.” Sometimes he gets a laugh, but he doesn’t mean it as a joke.
His worldview is shaped by the knowledge that complete strangers have shaped his destiny and character, compelled him into action, and strengthened his convictions. But Patrick can’t easily explain how that knowledge is informing the biggest decision he’ll probably ever make in his life without tears welling in his eyes. “It’s a hard question and I don’t have a pithy answer,” Patrick said after the GOTV rally was over, in a room in the back of the Campus at Macedonia. “It has an impact. I’m really, really trying to stay focused on the here and now.”
Patrick has said repeatedly that he’ll make a decision on 2020 at the end of the year. And yet, part of him seems awed by the number of people who come up to him asking him to run. He knows people want hope, but not in some abstract way. They want him, and he takes them seriously. “He remembers what it has been like in his life to know that you’re smart enough and have something to offer but to not have been taken seriously,” said Brendan Ryan, a close Patrick friend who served as his driver in 2005 and also has been his chief of staff. “I don’t think he interprets people’s questions like that or their sentiments as necessarily [being] about him so much as they see somebody who is willing to speak and be a voice for hope and the possibility of it.”
Like Donald Trump’s in 2016, Patrick’s path to potentially joining the nominating contest has been circuitous. He’s shuffled between the private and public sectors throughout his career — from the Clinton administration to work at Texaco and Coca-Cola. He decided to run for governor in 2005, unhappy with how John Kerry carried his unsuccessful presidential campaign. Considered an outsider during the 2006 governor’s primary, Patrick ignored the naysayers and hit the pavement to build and ultimately lay claim to a grassroots movement people said was doomed to fail. He slipped into living rooms and union halls to talk to nurses, construction workers, and teachers, listening to everyday people more than he spoke.
“From March 2005 through that whole year I can remember three days that we had no events. That was Christmas, Thanksgiving, and one snow day at a time when no one knew what we were running for,” said Ryan, who added that 14-hour days were routine. In that campaign, Patrick won young people, white progressives, black people, Latinos, and Asian Americans. He won the Democratic primary with a commanding 50% of the vote.
His Republican opponent in the general, Kerry Healey, had been lieutenant governor and ran a mostly negative race. Patrick repelled that with bigger crowds, and a speech that made Obama jealous. He won suburbs, urban areas, and places in between with a vision for the state that focused on what people had in common.
His time in office got off to a rough start: Getting a state legislature to do anything isn’t easy. And then the recession hit in 2008, jeopardizing his entire agenda. But Patrick was able to turn things around, making gains in transportation, education, and health care, and reshaping the state’s judiciary, despite some scrutiny over his management, particularly at the state’s Department of Children and Families.
Patrick rarely stayed in the governor’s building while in office. He was always out in public, engaging. “You could tell when the governor had had the chance to be out of the office connecting with people,” said Jesse Mermell, a former Patrick aide who has picked up some shifts with her former boss lately. “Those were the moments that allowed him not to lose sight that it was what was happening outside of the State House that really mattered.”
He left office in 2015 after eight years with a 56% favorability rating. “Deval, you’ve done good, man,” then-president Obama told him after calling in to a farewell local radio interview.
Patrick has spent the last four years away from politics, much of that time as managing director at Bain Capital. That could wind up being a problem for him in a Democratic primary if he does run: Democrats attacked Mitt Romney endlessly in 2012 over his attachment to the firm, which Romney cofounded, and more recently, a Democratic House candidate in New Hampshire lost her primary after her opponent brought attention to the amount of money she’d raised from Bain executives. But Patrick is again experiencing firsthand the potency of grassroots political campaigning, heading back to Boston each time with his Clintonian appetite for personal stories and interactions temporarily sated, his aides say.
Patrick wants to show that seemingly out-of-nowhere campaigns can be successful. “I think that there are people on these campaigns who are working really, really hard but who are wondering whether it’s possible,” he said. “And so being able to go and tell people our story from Massachusetts, where some of the same people who were saying it wasn’t possible, I think can be helpful.”
Patrick said the of mood of the country feels similar to the space Massachusetts was in when he first ran for governor.
“If you listen, as I try to, for consensus points, there are two things that I’m hearing a lot, in not exactly these terms,” he said. “One is that folks are feeling more than discouraged. They’re feeling unseen and unheard. But folks in different populaces don’t think folks in the neighboring community are feeling that way, too. It is really on my mind and heart that there is a common sensibility but no leadership to connect them to each other.”
“Everybody’s mad, and I’m mad, too,” he added. “We cannot just be chief critic. We have a positive alternative.”
Patrick is already tracing the broad contours of a national vision through speeches and interviews. He divides a proposed agenda into three buckets: democracy, opportunity, and reform. He thinks democratic systems can be strengthened by making it easier for Americans to participate through ideas like automatic voter registration, and finding solutions to big problems like campaign finance and gerrymandering. The opportunity bucket includes a vision for expanding the economy that focuses on preparing Americans to adapt to the future of. He thinks any Democratic agenda needs pushes for bold advances to the health care, immigration, and criminal justice systems.
He just doesn’t want it to be his message. He told BuzzFeed News he wanted Democrats to go back to being the party of hopefulness. “I don’t want us to have our justifiable and even righteous anger to be our sole or even chief [motivation]. I want us to have something to say after that. Because we’re going to win the House. I hope we win the Senate. And I hope in 2020, we’ll win the White House. And then what? We have to have a plan for what it is we’re going to do when we win these institutions to restore faith in democracy and a path forward for the people…” He said the words “unseen” and “unheard” again, then added: “and stuck.”
Part of that, for Patrick, is moving beyond 2016. In August, Patrick bristled at a question at the Texas Tribune Festival about what he felt Hillary Clinton did wrong in 2016. “Aren’t we done with that?” Patrick said he worried the “main thing we will do as a party is figure out how not to make the mistake that was made the last time and try to do everything else the same. I don’t think that everything is the same. If there were any rules, those rules have all been blown up.” A few minutes later, Patrick was flustered by a question by Kimberly E. Atkins, the Boston Herald’s Washington bureau chief. She stood to ask Patrick two questions: Does he think he’s the type of person Democrats who say they want a fighter are talking about, and if not, who is? At first, Patrick answered, “I don’t know and I don’t know.”
He then turned to an alliterative line he frequently uses to fend off 2020, saying he isn’t sure there is a place for him in the next presidential primary contest and that it’s hard to see how you fit in a big Democratic field if one is not “shrill, sensational, or a celebrity.” When he said it, the reporter interviewing snickered. Then Patrick turned the forum into a one-on-one talk with Atkins, a clear indication the question touched something off inside of him.
I can solve problems and I have...I can build bridges...and I have. And we do need a healing. And whether, you know, that comes as a candidate or in some other way, I think those are all contributions that we need as a nation. I totally — look, it’s not that I’m not angry enough. To hit and kick. I’ve been in these situations before. People are funny. They act — I think we talked about this once before, you know, you got all saditty and went off to DC — that sometimes people act like my life began when I got that scholarship through ABC and went on to Milton Academy...they forget that, you know, I grew up on the South Side of Chicago. But I don’t forget that I grew up on the South Side of Chicago. I — I still have a little attitude. I know how to keep it in check. But I also know how to summon it when I need to.
I’m thinking — I think as people, frankly, like you and me (he moved his hands to suggest their shared blackness then held them up as if to shrug) have to [think] about then what? Because sometimes when you pick a fight, you have to know that sometimes you’re picking a fight with people you’re going to have to work with the next day. And you want a relationship with someone you have to work with the next day. And, uh, I spent a lot of years making those kinds of calculations. Not always right, but making those kinds of calculations.
Patrick wasn’t just talking about what growing up Chicago taught him about toughness. His memoir references the “transplanted southern enclave, with its indigenous economy, neighbors who watched over the children, and institutions that craved order,” that he wrote had been rendered into a “wasteland of charred buildings and restlessness” in the absence of community, a reality today he feels people are experiencing all over the country. “The experience of the steel mills on the South Side leaving communities with economic uncertainty and anxiety in their wake is very familiar to me from home,” he told BuzzFeed News.
People who want to see Patrick run see empathy, not combativeness, as the key. This is where those people start eliminating possible candidates like Joe Biden (who literally said he wants to take Trump out behind a barn to kick his ass), Michael Avenatti (do Democrats really want a daily Twitter war in the race for the president of the United States?), and Elizabeth Warren (“if you can be provoked into Pocahontas fights and DNA tests, then you don’t belong in this race,” said one well-known Democrat who would also support Patrick. “You can’t beat a pig in a wrestling match. They like mud”).
Bakari Sellers, a strategist and political commentator who is working with the Reason to Believe PAC’s fall efforts, has a real problem with overzealous Democrats like Avenatti. You want someone who is thoughtful, gracefully reluctant to the presidency, who can fight with depth, intellect, and conviction, he said. “As thoughtful as he’s being about it, he’s being just as prayerful about it. No one is going to push him into running for president.”
Patrick’s been happy with what he’s seen campaigning for midterm candidates this year. He was pleased that some of the people who had shown up in New Jersey to see him and Josh Welle had never before given to a campaign, knocked on a door, or done anything outside of just voting.
At the end of the rally for Welle, Patrick plopped himself in the middle of the Campus at Macedonia church’s floor.
An older black woman came up to Patrick to tell him that she read he was thinking about running for president. You have a record, she said. And we’ve got newer people who are great, but we need someone like you.
Patrick let silence linger.
“You need to pray about it. Because we need you.”
Another black woman who heard him speak in a living room that morning followed him to Welle’s campaign headquarters so that she could tell Patrick to get his message out. “That’s the healing that our country needs.”
Patrick has heard this message a lot, and it’s clearly moved him. Dr. Peter Sadow, who Patrick met on a recent flight from Boston to Dallas, asked him the 2020 question. Patrick joked that his wife would kill him if he decided to run for president, so Sadow took out his laptop and wrote to her. “A Note to Mrs. Patrick,” it read. “He is a real person, and he is amazing. Mrs. Patrick, I am really sorry. America needs your husband. The temporary calamity endured will surely be for the greater good, restoring the American ideal; a welcoming America unafraid to embrace the unfortunate and raise them up while nurturing its own citizens, simultaneously repelling and foiling those who seek power, influence and glory at the expense of humanity.”
Patrick read to the end and was in tears again.
“Would you email this to me?”