Image: Deval Patrick
Chitose Suzuki  /  AP file
Deval Patrick, Democratic candidate for Massachusetts governor, left, arrives in Attleboro, Mass., for an Aug. 22 luncheon with local supporters. The question whether state voters are ready to elect their first black governor will be answered in the Democratic primary on Sept. 19 or in the general election on Nov. 7.
updated 9/10/2006 8:16:38 PM ET 2006-09-11T00:16:38

In April 1976, Ted Landsmark stumbled into a crowd of whites demonstrating against the city’s desegregation school busing and was speared with the pointed staff of an American flag. A photo of the attack won a Pulitzer Prize and branded Boston as racially intolerant.

Thirty years later, Landsmark is president of Boston Architectural College. And he watches with great interest as another black man, Deval Patrick, runs neck-and-neck with his opponents in Massachusetts’ Democratic gubernatorial race.

Should Patrick win the Sept. 19 primary and the general election, he would be the state’s first black governor and could be only the second black person ever elected governor in the nation. Two other black candidates — Kenneth Blackwell and Lynn Swann — are running for governor this year in Ohio and Pennsylvania.

“The state’s demographics have changed dramatically in the 25 years since we last had a person of color elected statewide,” Landsmark said, referring to Sen. Edward W. Brooke III. “And there’s been a substantial increase in the minority electorate in cities across the state. That opens possibilities for a candidate to be considered less on the basis of race per se and more on the basis of their managerial skill and vision for the commonwealth.”

Tight race
Patrick, 50, a lawyer and former assistant attorney general for civil rights in the Clinton administration, is in a close primary battle with state Attorney General Tom Reilly and Boston venture capitalist Chris Gabrieli. The winner will face Republican Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey to succeed Gov. Mitt Romney, who decided not to seek a second term. If Healey wins, she would be the state’s first woman governor.

David Gergen, a former White House aide who now is a national political observer and teacher at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, said it’s hard to gauge public opinion, since voters may not answer racial questions honestly.

Nonetheless, Gergen no longer thinks race costs minority candidates 2 to 3 percentage points at the polls, as analysts believed was the case in 1989 when L. Douglas Wilder of Virginia became the nation’s first black elected governor.

The Obama example
“We also now have one state, Illinois, where (Sen.) Barack Obama’s race turned out to be a modest advantage for him,” said Gergen. “He has become a national figure and a prominently mentioned potential presidential candidate in 2012 primarily because he has such moral stature, and that stature comes from the fact that he’s black and he has been fighting against discrimination.”

Patrick, a first-time candidate, sat atop the polls through the spring and summer, although recent surveys have shown his lead close to within the margin of error. Internal polls by the candidates’ campaigns show Patrick with a lead, although the Gabrieli camp insists their candidate is ahead. Reilly aides concede he’s in third place.

Patrick minimized the role of race in the election, although he conceded it may be on some voters’ minds.

“I know that this is America, so race is on people’s minds, but the welcome has been warm, and look at what we’ve built, look at it: We’ve got 20,000 contributors and volunteers across the commonwealth,” Patrick said in an interview. “We’ve got a broader, deeper organization than this commonwealth has ever seen.”

Bad reputation
Massachusetts and Boston have built reputations for racial intolerance since the days of criticism by professional athletes who felt discrimination and the 1970s battle over court-ordered busing and school desegregation in Boston. Minority representation in the Legislature has increased, and in 2004 Boston residents elected a black woman as Suffolk County sheriff.

The flag spearing of Landsmark was one of the city’s low points.

Landsmark was hit, kicked and shoved by the protesters, and then was struck with the flag pole. He suffered minor injuries. Several demonstrators were arrested, including the white man with the flag, who was convicted of assault with a deadly weapon.

Today, Reilly says he does not believe race will affect the election outcome. “People are pretty savvy; they can size people up,” said the attorney general.

Gabrieli said the warm reception Patrick has received indicates race will not be a factor.

“I think it would be hard to say, on the basis of the number of powerful Democratic incumbents and constituencies who are supporting him, that he’s anything other than welcomed by the establishment,” Gabrieli said.

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