Having followed Deval Patrick's storybook rise from childhood poverty on Chicago's South Side to become the second black governor in U.S. history, I have a nagging question about his announcement that he's running for president: Why now?
He apparently wants to rescue the party from itself, although polls indicate most Democrats may not feel in need of rescuing. The Dems are being pushed to the left by popular progressive candidates such as Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. But former Vice President Joe Biden has been remarkably durable, despite misgivings about his early debate performance.
Enter Patrick days after former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg filed papers to meet Alabama's early deadline, although spokesmen said he still was making up his mind.
Each appears to think that he can offer something that's missing in the large field of 17 that existed before Patrick entered, although polls show most Democrats say they are satisfied with the field they have. Yet many also are nervous and divided, after years of waiting for an opportunity to unseat President Donald Trump, about who's the best candidate to do it.
Patrick brings a lot of positives to the race. He has an inspiring life story, raised largely by a single mother, earning a scholarship to the ritzy Milton Academy in the eighth grade and graduating from Harvard Law School and being appointed assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department in 1994.
In 2007, he was elected governor of Massachusetts, a first for that state and only the second black governor in the nation.
He also served later as co-chair of Barack Obama's presidential campaign. Members of Obama's inner circle had encouraged him to run for president in 2020, but he turned it down, citing concerns for his family. Now that he has changed his mind, Obama's network of advisers and potential donors is expected to help him build a campaign in early primary states that begin voting in February.
But he also has some baggage for a man seeking the nomination in today's Democratic Party. The first problem I hear mentioned by some Democrats is his past ties to Bain Capital, the private equity firm that now-Sen. Mitt Romney, Obama's 2012 Republican opponent, founded before he went on later to become governor of Massachusetts. Obama ridiculed Romney's involvement with the sort of big-money Wall Street firm that many blamed for the financial collapse of 2008.
Democrats have grown only more critical at a time when progressives such as Warren and Sanders nip at Biden's heels. These days, Patrick needs to brace for attacks from the left, even as he is admired by many others as an accomplished business executive who could run the economy with a social as well as financial conscience.
In interviews, he has taken on that issue by calling on the rest of us to "stay vigilant or, as the kids say, 'stay woke,'" while also reaching out to those who have not reached the same level of social awareness and are "still waking."
That's clever, but rest assured that he will be called upon to put more meat on those bones of an idea. He also can claim success with running the Massachusetts health care plan begun by former Gov. Romney and emulated by Obama for the Affordable Care Act. But he also has to account for the complaints that he, like Obama, endured for the botched rollout of that plan's early days.
Biden still leads the pack, especially among African Americans — a crucially important bloc in Democratic ranks. But his disappointing performance in early debates has helped Sanders and Warren, in particular, to challenge his position.
South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg also has moved up, partly because many see him as a promising second choice if Biden loses steam. Sens. Kamala Harris and Cory Booker may already have lost momentum.
Still, we must remember, no actual votes have been cast yet. Having whittled their already-crowded field down from about 25, it remains to be seen whether primary voters want to hear from yet another candidate — or two — with less than three months to go before the primary voting officially begins.
But presidential contests always surprise us. Patrick's bid is a long shot, but sometimes long shots can change a party's direction. I am thinking of our current president, for better or worse. Now the big question for Democrats is whether they can use Trump's name to unify their factions as well as Trump used Hillary Clinton's name to unify the Republicans.
Clarence Page wrote this for the Chicago Tribune.