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Sales tax hike could be key for Patrick's re-election bid

Associated Press | 7/8/2009, 5:25 a.m.

Sixteen months before Election Day, the die has been cast on Deval Patrick’s re-election campaign.

With the stroke of a pen last Monday, the governor of Massachusetts signed into law the first hike in the state’s sales tax in 33 years. For a Democrat presiding over the state once derided as “Taxachusetts,” the 25 percent increase could be politically devastating.

But Patrick signed the bill with confidence, not trepidation, because he believes much of his work leading up to the signing ceremony will help him against potential 2010 challengers.

Derided in 2006 as a political neophyte, Patrick strong-armed his fellow Democrats in the state Legislature into passing transportation, ethics and pension overhaul packages in the days before he signed the tax bill. He even appropriated Senate President Therese Murray’s “reform before revenue” pledge in the process.

Patrick’s team believes the reforms, combined with prior successes, give Patrick a record to run on. The victories include winning passage of a 10-year, $1 billion package to promote the state’s life sciences industry and achievement of three longtime Republican goals — instituting a civilian flagger system at state construction sites, expanding auto insurance competition and eliminating the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority.

The series of victories, which culminated last Wednesday with the signing of the ethics bill, marked a reversal for the governor.

It was only March when the governor, supposedly in tune with the voting public, dismissed as “trivial” the outcry over his attempt to give a $100,000 raise to state Sen. Marian Walsh for filling a nonexistent job at a state agency. When the criticism persisted, Patrick reversed course. Walsh first accepted a salary cut before bagging the job outright.

The governor also faced a legislative revolt, and public criticism from Murray, over his proposal to increase the state’s gasoline tax by 19 cents a gallon to pay for his transportation plan.

In response, Patrick decided to get down to deal-making and push his three big initiatives — transportation, pension and ethics reform.

In each arena, though, there’s some fertile territory for debate with possible challengers in 2010, who include newly Independent state Treasurer Timothy Cahill, and health care executive Charles Baker and convenience store magnate Christy Mihos, both Republicans.

Patrick talked about transportation reform when he took office in January 2007; his bill wasn’t filed until this year. His first transportation secretary, Bernard Cohen, was brought in for his expertise but he ended up being replaced by former Turnpike General Counsel James Aloisi, part of the “Big Dig culture” Patrick had derided during the 2006 campaign.

The pension debate was leavened with Boston Globe stories about bald-faced abuses by a variety of current and former state officials, but fueled by the outrage over Walsh’s proposed job. Any boosted pension she received wouldn’t have come from state coffers, but the idea of a state senator and Patrick supporter getting a handsome raise amid a severe recession fueled criticism of public-sector perks.

Ethics reform, meanwhile, was born largely in public outrage with three high-profile episodes, each involving Patrick’s fellow Democrats — the party that dominates both branches of the Legislature, as well as the governor’s office.

Last year, then-state Sen. James Marzilli of Arlington was arrested after allegedly leering at women in downtown Lowell. And then-state Sen. Dianne Wilkerson was indicted on federal bribery charges after being photographed allegedly shoving money in her bra at a Beacon Hill eatery. This year, Patrick’s political partner, House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi, also resigned amid a series of influence-peddling investigations that culminated in a federal indictment.

In signing the ethics bill last Wednesday, the governor tried to cast his political comeback in the most positive light with comments that sounded like a campaign ad.

“These reforms, along with a budget that is on time, balanced and in partnership with the Legislature, demonstrate that we can successfully lead the Commonwealth through these difficult economic times,” he said. “While many other states are in the midst of potential government shutdowns and protracted budget delays, residents of Massachusetts should take confidence and heart that their leaders are working together.”

Glen Johnson has covered local, state and national politics since 1985.

(Associated Press)