In a Democratic presidential field rich with both centrist pragmatists and progressive warriors alike, former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick stands as the answer to a question no one has thought to ask: What does a former oil company executive and venture capitalist think?
“I admire and respect the candidates in the Democratic field,” Patrick said of his 17 opponents for the nomination—not including one additional johnny-come-lately waiting in the wings—in his announcement video released on Thursday. “They bring a richness of ideas and experience and a depth of character that makes me proud to be a Democrat. But if the character of the candidates is an issue in every election, this time is about the character of the country.”
Like Frito-Lay desperately trying to cram one more flavor of Doritos into America’s snack-swollen stomach, Patrick sees a Democratic presidential primary that has already witnessed the rise and fall of nine other candidates as missing one key ingredient: himself.
“If I felt like the voters had settled or folks had made up their minds,” Patrick told the Boston Globe, “I wouldn’t do it.”
But in a campaign cycle where presidential candidates from every lane have denounced the outsized role of money in politics, the oil and natural gas industry, and “vulture capitalism,” Patrick’s résumé—marked by lucrative stints at Texaco, Bain Capital and subprime mortgage abattoir ACC Holdings—risks making him a foil for both progressive and centrist rivals for the nomination. Well-placed Democrats told The Daily Beast that the distance between the current mood of the Democratic presidential field and the controversial private sector industries where Patrick has made his living may be too vast to cover—and could make him little more than a punching bag for better-funded candidates.
“There is a lot of talk out there that Patrick enjoys support from Obama world and could win support from the Obama coalition, but I am not sure that is true,” said Brian Fallon, executive director of Demand Justice and former national press secretary for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. “Obama in 2008 paired strong support among black voters with support from white liberals who were distrustful of Clinton’s time in Washington and her support for the Iraq War. It is unclear if Patrick can peel away Biden’s support among black voters, but even if he does, he is not a viable candidate to win white liberals given his time at Bain.”
Campaigns are already testing the waters on how best to use Patrick’s résumé against him, linking reporters to a damning HuffPost article from last December outlining his legal work for huge corporate clients—many of them linked to industries so toxic that most of Patrick’s Democratic rivals have entirely sworn off accepting donations from anyone linked to them.
Patrick, a former two-term governor, began his career as a civil rights attorney, working both in private practice and at the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund. After being nominated by President Bill Clinton to run the Department of Justice’s civil rights division, Patrick led investigations into police misconduct, racial profiling, and a massive investigation into the burnings of black churches across the South.
After leaving the Department of Justice in 1997, Patrick was appointed to lead a task force charged with reviewing recruitment, hiring and promotion practices at Texaco, an oil company that, during Patrick’s tenure at the Department of Justice, had settled a racial discrimination lawsuit for $176 million—the largest such suit in history at the time. After the task force’s work was completed, Patrick was hired as Texaco’s general counsel, effectively moving from fighting discrimination in court to becoming corporate counsel for a discriminator.
“I said, ‘I’m not even sure we should be having this conversation,’” Patrick later recalled about the initial job offer.
Patrick worked to defend Texaco from lawsuits filed over the dumping of billions of gallons of run-off while drilling for oil in the Ecuadorian rainforest, among other issues, but his crowning achievement was helping to orchestrate its merger with Chevron, creating one of the largest oil and natural gas companies in the country.
From there, he departed to serve as the chief counsel at Coca-Cola, which faced a years-long legal battle and a P.R. nightmare over the actions of its bottling plants in South America, which had allegedly hired far-right Colombian militias to intimidate labor organizers. Three workers were killed, allegedly at the hands of death squads in the company’s employ, and the company was threatened with a global boycott campaign, dubbed “Killer Coke.”
Patrick, who called that suit’s eventual dismissal “the right legal outcome,” would later defend his tenure at the company, although he left Coca-Cola after he failed to get the company to perform an independent internal investigation into the allegations.
“I’ve fixed hard problems of all kinds, civil rights and business problems,” Patrick told the Boston Globe in 2006. “It’s the stuff I like to do, and I’m good at it, as a matter of fact… and I never left my conscience at the door. So I should go and become the general counsel at Coke and take on all those headaches and say I’m going to do this for free?”
Since that interview, Patrick has turned changed his telling of his tenure at the beverage giant from a tale of a mercenary to one of a populist—according to the biography on his campaign website, Patrick “stood up for employees and unions” while at Coca-Cola.
In 2004, Patrick joined the board of ACC Capital Holdings, the nation’s largest subprime mortgage lender, whose corporate predecessor had been sued by the Department of Justice over racial, gender, national and age discrimination during Patrick’s time at the helm of the civil rights division. Patrick was lured aboard by ACC Capital founder Roland Arnall, who made billions in the subprime mortgage lending business that would later nearly tank the American economy.
Ameriquest Mortgages, an ACC Capital subsidiary, was eventually hit by a class action lawsuit over alleged predatory lending practices that tricked African-American applicants to take on mortgages that they couldn’t afford. “Ameriquest acts with total disregard of these potential devastating consequences for African-American borrowers because the high upfront fees and costs Ameriquest obtains from these borrowers offset any potential losses Ameriquest might incur,” the 2007 lawsuit alleged.
By that time, however, Patrick had already given up his seat on ACC Capital’s board and the accompanying $360,000 salary after Democratic primary rival Thomas Reilly hit him for his connections to the industry, which had not yet collapsed.
“I’ve been on the side of the people,” Reilly, then the state’s attorney general, told Patrick during a debate. “You’ve been on the side of Ameriquest, the largest, most notorious predatory lender in the history of this country.”
Patrick would later characterize his work at ACC as working to change a predatory industry from the inside—similar to his post-gubernatorial work at Bain Capital, where, until Wednesday, he ran the Mitt Romney-founded venture capital firm’s Double Impact Fund, which seeks to build companies by “maximizing their financial potential, and scaling their social and environmental impact.”
But for Democrats who first learned to loathe Bain Capital during Romney’s 2012 presidential run, any connection to the firm is fertile ground for criticism. Even Republicans are already getting in on the fun: in an email to supporters on Thursday, the Republican National Committee welcomed Patrick to the race by dubbing him “Mr. Bain.”
Patrick’s nascent campaign, for its part, clearly sees the Bain Capital connection as a potential liability. Within hours of his announcement on Thursday, his bio page had disappeared from Bain Capital’s website. Patrick’s page on the website of his speakers bureau, the Harry Walker Agency, was also removed.
On Tuesday, the Wall Street giant Wells Fargo circulated an agenda of its upcoming Global Investment Symposium. The agenda, a copy of which was obtained by The Daily Beast, showed Patrick speaking on a Dec. 4 panel on how investors can “find new, yet compelling, opportunities to place capital.”
Patrick’s campaign manager told The Daily Beast he no longer planned to attend the conference.
The current anti-corporate tenor of within the Democratic Party—and the failure of the establishment lane to contain it—appears to have played a role in encouraging Patrick’s candidacy in the first place.
“We seem to be migrating to, on the one camp, sort of nostalgia, let’s just get rid, if you will, of the incumbent president and we can go back to doing what we used to do. Or, you know, it’s our way, our big idea, or no way,” Patrick said in an interview with CBS News on Thursday. “And neither of those, it seems to me, seizes the moment to pull the nation together and bring some humility that—frankly—we have a lot of ideas, but no one candidate, no one party has a corner on all the best ideas.”
Some progressives said they feel cheered by Patrick’s entrance in the race, seeing his candidacy as evidence that the business-friendly wing of the Democratic Party must be feeling the pinch if figures like Patrick and former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg feel compelled to run.
“Patrick’s entry into the race shows just how out of touch is the establishment wing of the Democratic Party,” Maria Svart, national director of the Democratic Socialists of America, told The Daily Beast. “We face the existential threat of the climate change cliff and plummeting living standards brought on by Wall Street gambling, yet they think a guy with a history in dirty fossil fuels and venture capital will inspire the party base. Trump might rant about the rising socialist movement, but it’s clear he’s not the only one who is getting a little uncomfortable with how this primary is heating up.”
—with reporting from Hanna Trudo and Lachlan Markay