The Ninth Democrat on Stage Tonight

The Democratic presidential candidates will all cluster together for the third time tonight, but it won’t technically be a debate.  Instead, they will take turns fielding questions from a panel moderated by Tavis Smiley.  To air on PBS at 9:00, the gathering is billed as “the first time that a panel comprised of journalists of color will be represented in primetime.”

What may be most interesting, though, is that the top of the broadcast will be given over to Deval Patrick, the first-year Governor of Massachusetts, who will provide introductory remarks. 

This can be considered the unofficial national debut for the 50-year-old Patrick, who last fall became only the second African-American ever to win election as a governor.  Massachusetts Democrats had struggled mightily in the post-Dukakis era to field compelling gubernatorial nominees, but Patrick, with his infectious optimism and dazzling oratory, defeated the hapless GOP candidate by 20 points.

He’s off to a rockier than expected start as Governor (early and baffling self-inflicted wounds have left him with a shaky 47-46 approval rating), but if he can right the ship, there’s every reason to think Patrick will end up on the national stage someday.

First, there’s the compelling story of his personal and political rise.  Born in Chicago into a poor family on welfare, Patrick was given a scholarship to the prestigious Milton (Mass.) Academy, thanks to the group A Better Chance.  From Milton, it was off to nearby Harvard, where he received his undergraduate and law degrees, and after a stint with Legal Aid, Patrick began working for the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund.  Ultimately, he was tapped to head up the Civil Rights division of the Justice Department under Bill Clinton, and then ventured into the corporate world, where he amassed a small fortune.  (There are some political liabilities attached to this work, although they didn’t measurably harm him in Massachusetts.)

Also, consider that Patrick is only the fifth African-American ever to win election to a governorship or to the U.S. Senate.  Three of the four others ended up seeking the presidency (Virginia Governor Doug Wilder in 1992, former Illinois Senator Carol Moseley Braun in 2004, and now Barack Obama).  The only one who didn’t was Ed Brooke, the liberal Republican who represented Patrick’s Massachusetts in the Senate for two terms, before losing in 1978.

And then there’s Massachusetts’ undeniable breeding ground status for presidential candidates.  Virtually everyone who wins major office in the Bay State, it seems, ends up running for President (or at least comes close to running).  After then-Senator John F. Kennedy won the White House in 1960, there was former Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, who sort-of ran in 1964 (he was the surprise winner of the New Hampshire Primary after a write-in campaign he didn’t organize); Senator Ted Kennedy, who could have had the Democratic nomination in 1968, 1972 and 1976 had he wanted it but who instead sought it unsuccessfully in 1980; then-Governor Michael Dukakis in 1988; former Senator Paul Tsongas in 1992; Senator John Kerry in 2004; and now former Governor Mitt Romney (even if he now treats the state like a contagious disease).  And don’t forget William Weld, who after winning 71 percent in his gubernatorial re-election campaign in 1994 had to be talked out of running for the ’96 GOP nomination; and John R. Silber, the volcanic Boston University President who narrowly lost the 1990 governor’s race to Weld but who, nonetheless, toyed with jumping into the ’92 primaries as a conservative Democrat.

Of course, except for JFK, none of those candidates actually won.  And after their experience with Kerry in ’04, national Democrats are unlikely to turn to another “Massachusetts liberal” anytime soon. But Patrick has a story and a style that, at least potentially, transcends geography.  So far, he’s neutral in the ’08 race.  Most speculation has him backing Obama, but don’t overlook his personal ties to Bill Clinton, whom Patrick met as a NAACP lawyer and who appointed Patrick to his Justice Department post. 

So keep an eye on Deval Patrick tonight – and in the future. The Ninth Democrat on Stage Tonight