The Campaign Deval Patrick Is Searching For

The former Massachusetts governor hopes the 2020 presidential race comes down to character—the candidates’ and the country’s.

Deval Patrick has quietly been popping up around the country, seeing if there's room for the White House campaign he wants. (Kevin Lamarque / Reuters)

CHARLESTON, S.C.—The reverend asked for a moment of silence. Twelve bells chimed.

No place in America knows the pain of Pittsburgh quite like here at Mother Emanuel AME Church. Another man corrupted by hate, with another gun; another group of innocent people murdered because of who they were, in the place they’d come to pray.

The reverend looked out at the congregation: half full, with one armed police officer at the back, but welcoming everyone in after a glance inside the bags of the ones it didn’t know. Before the call to prayer, he asked the politician who happened to be visiting to speak about fear and getting past fear, the lessons of the Boston Marathon bombings.

“I keep thinking about what scripture teaches us in Galatians 6:7, that we reap what we sow,” Deval Patrick said when he took the microphone. “And there’s been so much poison, so much poison sown, so much hate sown. And we keep reaping it.”

Patrick was not reading from notes. He did not pause.

“But I also know what you know: that we don’t have to sow just hate; that we can also sow grace, that we can sow better seeds, kinder seeds, more fruitful, more glorious seeds,” he said.

Patrick was a two-term governor of Massachusetts, finishing four years ago. Though few have been focused on it, he is thinking about running for president, and is the preferred choice of his old friend Barack Obama—who gave that famous “Amazing Grace” speech just a few blocks away in 2015, on a day when the Confederate flag was coming down at the state capitol, the Supreme Court had legalized gay marriage, and Democrats were sure their new age had arrived. Every weekend since September, Patrick has been quietly traveling the country, purposefully picking places where Democrats don’t tend to win and other potential presidential candidates haven’t gone, looking to see if people want to hear what he has to say and how he feels about saying it. He’s been telling people privately that he feels like the answer just might be yes.

For every other prospective presidential candidate who’s come through South Carolina, the home of the fourth primary and the first in the South—and of particular importance for African Americans—it’s been a big deal, a clear nod, and has stirred up all sorts of buzz. Patrick showed up, and almost no one seemed to notice. He threw his whole weekend into campaigning for Joe Cunningham, a House candidate in a district that hasn’t elected a Democrat since Jimmy Carter was president. The Mother Emanuel visit was on the schedule for days. He didn’t even know if he would be asked to speak. He certainly didn’t know that he’d be speaking about the terror of those bombs in Boston and the manhunt, and what that told him about a country that feels closer to the brink after a week of white-supremacist terrorism.

“By asking people to turn to each other rather than on each other, we healed faster, we came together and rebuilt faster, and we found our way to justice and to goodness faster and more permanently,” Patrick said. “At a time when a lot of us are feeling powerless, it’s worth remembering that God gives us the power to sow better seeds. And I pray this morning that we regain, recapture that power, and for our own sake, and for the sake of our brothers and sisters, sow better seeds.”

As Patrick likes to point out, he’s only ever run for one office. He ran twice. He started the first time with about 2 percent name recognition, and started off his reelection campaign with about a 29 percent approval rating. He won twice. Before he ran, he headed the civil-rights division at the Justice Department under Bill Clinton. After George W. Bush was reelected in 2004, worried about what was happening in America, Patrick decided he needed to step up. A staple story he tells is going to see Obama when he was still in his temporary basement office, after just being elected to the Senate, and the future president being skeptical but, sure, supportive.

Patrick true believers see the 2020 race in the same way. The country’s never heard of him in the same way Massachusetts had never heard of him, and they’re fine with that for now. David Axelrod, the Obama political guru who’s also been with Patrick from the beginning, has been telling people for more than a year that he could see the former governor working Iowa like he did the governor’s race, house by house, conversation by conversation, winning people over. Put that together with a little bit of a neighboring home-field advantage in New Hampshire and the heavily African American electorate in South Carolina, as Axelrod and others urging Patrick along view it, and it’s just crazy enough to see a path.

Saturday morning at another church, 20 miles north in Summerville, Patrick joined a roundtable with about 18 local Democrats and, outside, headlined a rally for Cunningham that drew about 25 people (most of them had just come from inside). Afterward, sitting in the pastor’s dining room, Patrick said he doesn’t see 2020 as a 2006 reprise. The presidential field is bigger and more talented, the country is more complicated, and a state race took nowhere near the amount of money and the kind of operation he’d have to put together.

Other candidates have email lists primed, donors lined up, and are secretly interviewing people for new jobs that will be announced as soon as the midterms are done. Some of Patrick’s former aides have formed a PAC that’s donating to and helping field operations for candidates who seem to live up to his values. Last week, he invested in J. D. Scholten’s campaign to unseat Congressman Steve King. A few people have been drafted and asked to help him as he travels.

Patrick is looking for a feeling. He’s trying to convince himself that the country and the electorate he wants to believe in actually do exist, and that it’s going to be worth it for him to throw his life and his wife into what a presidential campaign would demand.

“I was feeling all kinds of pressure from the wise guys and gals that you’ve got to make a decision by X date, or so on” Patrick said. “I don’t care about any of that anymore. I’ll make a decision when I feel like I have a decision to make.”

For now, Patrick is keeping his day job—at Bain Capital, which the Obama reelection campaign invested millions in trashing because of the time Mitt Romney spent there, and which is the first thing most smart Democrats bring up to explain why they can’t imagine how Patrick would be viable. He was in London this week for the socially responsible investment fund he launched last year, and learned about the mail bombs from one of the firm’s security aides.

Routine protocol, the person told him—they hadn’t yet reached his wife, but state police with bomb-sniffing dogs were en route to his home.

“I said, ‘There’s nothing routine about this!’” Patrick recalled.

Then he started catching up with the news. It played into exactly what he says makes him want to be part of the political debate again, but also makes him worry that politics has moved past him.

“It was interesting to me that the first reaction was not ‘Thank God no one was hurt.’ Instead, it felt like the first reaction was ‘Look how the pattern is part of something.’ It could have been a mail carrier. It could have been someone in the mail room. It went immediately into the political frame. Even that, to me, was revealing,” Patrick said. “There’s the first step here, that is about our humanity, that we are skipping over pretty quickly. We get to our political discourse and that tribal brawl as fast as possible, and I don’t think that’s all about the media. It’s like a bad habit we’re in.”

There aren’t many national figures (and no other African American ones) that the Cunningham campaign would have brought in to this district, where the slogan on yard signs is Lowcountry Over Party. Cunningham—an enthusiastic young attorney who on Saturday announced that his campaign has a poll showing him running even—brings every conversation back to banning offshore drilling. Cunningham’s opponent, Katie Arrington, meanwhile, knocked off the congressman and frequent Donald Trump critic Mark Sanford earlier this year in a primary that demonstrated the total and proudly embraced Trumpification of the GOP, and has called the race “the fight of good and evil.”

Cunningham said he didn’t know much about Patrick before Bakari Sellers, a former state legislator and current CNN personality, suggested inviting him. (Sellers joined them for their tour of the district on Saturday, repeatedly telling crowds about how Patrick’s 2006 campaign was his inspiration before Obama’s 2008 White House campaign was.)

“He represents levelheaded leadership,” Cunningham said, explaining what he’d learned about Patrick since, and why he’d wanted him to come. “He didn’t come out of nowhere.”

At the roundtable on Saturday morning and at a stop at a local brewery, where he stood on top of two collapsed cornhole boards so the crowd could see him, Patrick repeated a line that he’s been saying to explain why a former governor of Massachusetts keeps popping up in all these odd spots. He draws it back to growing up on welfare on the South Side, talking about an interconnected responsibility that’s been lost.

“It may not be my neighborhood, but it is my community,” he says, his voice rising each time. “It may not be my campaign, but it is my campaign.”

There’s an element of this, from the Obama confidant Valerie Jarrett pushing him in private and public to these tiny events where Patrick will spend way more time than makes campaign sense. With most of the people he talks to, it feels like those West Wing flashbacks, when Jed Bartlet is a former governor laying his heart out to a handful of voters in New Hampshire, and a small group of devoted aides falls in love with him and insists he’s the real deal, that he could really do it. But those flashbacks all came after viewers had already seen a few seasons of Bartlet as president, so they’d been primed to believe that a campaign like this could work, and that the people who were in love with him would turn out to not be completely crazy.

Also, it was a TV-show fantasy.

Patrick doesn’t know if he’ll run. But he does know what kind of run he wants to see.

“There are some basic questions about the character of the country. I want our candidate to call that question and not dance around that question,” he said. “Every time, the character of the candidate is a question posed. This time it’s the character of the country, and I want that question posed. And I’m actually quite confident that if we pose that question in very clear terms, we’ll win, and we’ll deserve to win. I have that faith in the American people—and I want to have that faith that a Democrat will pose that question.”

Toward the end of the service at Mother Emanuel, the reverend called anyone who wanted a special prayer up to the altar. He put his hands on their head, one by one.

Patrick stayed where he was. His eyes were closed, and he didn’t see the reverend motioning for him to come join them until an aide tapped on his shoulder. The sermon had been about the power of words, life and death, but this was when the revered started talking more about Pittsburgh, the horror, the hope for something else.

He put his hands on Patrick’s head, prayed for God to put him to good use, for his leadership. Tears started streaming down the governor’s face. The few people with him started sobbing.

When we’d sat down Saturday morning, it was just as the news of the shooting was breaking, and Patrick hadn’t heard about it. I walked up to him after he’d finished greeting members of the congregation after the service; I asked him if he wanted to talk about that more now or what he’d just been through.

It was a polite but clear no.

“What I want to do right now,” Patrick told me, “is take a deep breath.”