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Patrick Looks South To Ignite His Long-Shot Presidential Bid04:29
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Democratic presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick speaks with a business owner during a campaign stop,Tuesday in Columbia, S.C. (Meg Kinnard/AP)
Democratic presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick speaks with a business owner during a campaign stop,Tuesday in Columbia, S.C. (Meg Kinnard/AP)

While the front-runners in the Democratic presidential race have been at it for months, often drawing crowds in the thousands, Deval Patrick is taking the first steps of his nascent campaign, starting with a question: "Who are you?"

"My name is Deval Patrick," the former Massachusetts governor said at a campaign event in Columbia, South Carolina, this week. "I grew up on the South Side of Chicago."

Patrick was in a small office at a strip mall, addressing a dozen African American women entrepreneurs.

"I'm Democrat, but I don't think you have to hate Republicans to be a good Democrat," Patrick said. "But we do have a unique kind of leadership that seems to wake up every day trying to figure out how to divide us further. At the same time, the president says out loud what the Republican leadership have been saying in code for a long time. So, in some ways, it's an invitation to finish some unfinished business."

Patrick made a late entry into the presidential race last week, but insists there's still time to wage a successful campaign. Since announcing his bid, he has been campaigning in the early caucus and primary states, including South Carolina, which could hold one of the keys to his long-shot bid for the White House.

For voters unfamiliar with him, Patrick is not easy to pigeonhole. He was a civil rights lawyer and then a liberal Massachusetts governor, who raised taxes and the minimum wage. But he's also been a corporate lawyer for Texaco and Coca-Cola, most recently worked for Bain Capital, and embraces the benefits of the market. He was the state's first African American governor — the second in the whole country — who campaigned on hope, a theme adopted by his old friend Barack Obama.

Now, with none of the Democrats running away with the race, he sees an opening.

"It's interesting to me that after months — and years in many cases — of other campaigns working it, they haven't gotten it done," Patrick told reporters Tuesday night in Columbia. "And there was an opening, and I would say that [has] been confirmed in visits to the early states."

His audiences this week were small but receptive in the Palmetto State, which holds the first southern primary, and where two-thirds of Democratic voters are black.

Eyamba Sowers, a businesswoman from Columbia, has been leaning toward former Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, but says she likes what she heard from Patrick.

"I definitely did," she said. "He related a lot to what is going on with the community. He makes it seem like he understands where we're coming from."

Sowers says she will definitely "take a closer look" at Patrick in the coming weeks.

Patrick talks with students at Claflin University, a historically black university in South Carolina, on Wednesday. (Anthony Brooks/WBUR)
Patrick talks with students at Claflin University, a historically black university in South Carolina, on Wednesday. (Anthony Brooks/WBUR)

So will Jah'Juan Bess, a student at Claflin University, a historically black university about 45 miles outside of Columbia, which Patrick visited Wednesday morning. Bess has been leaning toward California U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, but after hearing from Patrick, he said the former Massachusetts governor might have the presidential qualities that he is looking for.

"What I'm looking for in a presidential candidate is definitely someone who can beat Donald Trump," Bess said. "Also someone who can bring us together, to rally us around hope, because right now we're divided."

That's the kind of voter Patrick hopes to win over. But some longtime South Carolina political observers say it's more than a long shot for Patrick to win there.

"Coming in this late, I don't see him having a chance," said Jim Felder, a longtime civil rights activist and a former South Carolina state representative, who says Patrick will be hard pressed to get enough boots on the ground to organize a winning campaign there.

Felder is a Biden supporter, and points out that the former vice president is well ahead in the polls in the state.

"This is really Biden's country," he said. "We know him [after] eight years with Obama. We go way back with Joe Biden."

Patrick, who seems to be enjoying the early days of his very young campaign, swats away the naysayers.

"First of all, I respect polls, but I don't believe in them," he said. "They are a moment in time. The electorate is still very much in flux. If I thought it was too late, I wouldn't have [jumped in.]"

It is hardly unusual for politicians behind in the polls to dismiss them. But in this case, Patrick might be right, according to Johnny Cordero, the chairman of the state's black caucus, which Patrick addressed Tuesday evening. Cordero says it is wrong to conclude that Biden has deep support in South Carolina.

"Joe Biden has a commanding lead among older African Americans, but you cannot win South Carolina on that vote alone," said Cordero, who argues that Biden's support falls off among the growing number of millennials and other younger voters.

His conclusion is that this race is "wide open."

Patrick would like to believe that, despite the wide lead Biden has maintained in South Carolina all year. Later Wednesday, Patrick's team reportedly cancelled an event at Morehouse College in next-door Georgia when a crowd failed to materialize.

The new candidate is currently running his campaign with a tiny staff, but he says it will be expanding in the coming days.

Have a story idea, question or feedback? Email the politics team: politics@wbur.org.

This segment aired on November 21, 2019.

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Anthony Brooks Twitter Senior Political Reporter
Anthony Brooks is WBUR's senior political reporter.

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