DiMasi’s sheep

By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  June 15, 2011

Add nearly three-dozen vice-chairs, some of whom also get bonus checks, and one could say that the Speaker has almost half the legislature in his pocket. There are plenty of others who are covetous of those positions, and see acquiescence as the surest road to get one. The result is an easy majority for any vote.

Consider, for example, the recently passed bill exempting senior citizens from local property-tax overrides. Conversations with legislators and staff suggest that members hold widespread concerns that the feel-good bill is problematic — if not just lousy — public policy; the Senate appears unlikely to pass it. Yet only 15 Democrats in the House voted no, while 110 joined DiMasi in voting yes.

They call this working for the team. Others call it hiding behind the Speaker’s protection.

The public image of DiMasi controlling every committee action and every vote frees individual members from any responsibility.

DiMasi keeps most controversial issues away from the floor — allowing legislators to take whatever position works best politically, or take no position at all.

“They like that kind of cover,” DiMasi acknowledges. “And then they’ll complain, but they like that the Speaker is taking the public pressure on certain issues.”

Jessica’s Law is a perfect example. Many legislators — following the advice of their local law-enforcement officials — privately oppose the bill to impose high mandatory-minimum sentences on sex offenders. But few want to say so publicly, lest they become targets of the anti-perv crusaders. The last thing they desire is a floor vote, so Eugene O’Flaherty is dutifully protecting them by holding the bill indefinitely in his Joint Committee on the Judiciary. DiMasi notes that when O’Flaherty was ambushed this past week at his Chelsea home by Fox News’ The O’Reilly Factor, no Democratic House members came forward asking for the bill to move forward, or to file a motion to discharge the bill from O’Flaherty’s committee.

On occasions when a bill has become controversial, DiMasi has freed members to vote against him — and seen his majority disappear. Primary seat-belt enforcement passed in January 2006. But when it returned for a final vote five months later after becoming a talk-radio hot-potato, Reinstein and Dedham’s Robert Coughlin (now president of the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council) flipped their votes from yes, and several reps who had skipped the first vote came forward to vote no. It would seem that either they were initially kowtowing to the Speaker, or subsequently cowering before the public — or both.

No raised voices
Observers both inside and outside the State House say that there is growing frustration among members over what they see as the heavy-handed tactics of DiMasi’s team. Even some DiMasi supporters tell the Phoenix they wish there was more open debate on issues.

Yet even those already on the outs with the Speaker rarely make their views public.

To put it simply, there is an awful lot of lily-liveredness among the House Democrats these days.

“Anybody can get up and offer amendments and debate on anything,” says DiMasi. “If they choose not to, that’s their prerogative. Perhaps they are happy with the agenda.”

Perhaps. Or, as some suggest, the vocal dissenters have vacated the House. Most of the once-numerous conservative Democrats have left the building since Finneran handed off the Speaker’s gavel: Phil Travis, Marie Parente, Mark Carron, Edward Connolly, and Emile Goguen, to name a few, have either retired, passed away, or been voted out.

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