Mass betrayal

By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  June 19, 2009

Personal responsibility
Critics charge that lawmakers could change the culture now, with or without reforming the House rules, simply by refusing to do things the way they have previously been done. No set of rules, they add, will bring change if members prefer to be led like sheep.

So which is needed: new rules or new backbones?

"I think it's a bit of both," says Eldridge. Change requires "members speaking out and saying that the status quo can no longer be accepted." But, he adds, "the way those conversations are fostered is through the process of rules reform."

Some progressive House members are agitating for that rules-changing process. When he was in the House, Eldridge, along with Sciortino, started an informal Democratic Reform Caucus. Members have been meeting and discussing strategies for pushing reform, which may bear fruit later in this legislative session.

But outside the State House, many want more change than they're talking about even in that caucus — particularly, they're focused on reducing the power of the Speaker (by taking away his power to name committee chairs, for instance) and the influence of campaign money. "Because of the power of leadership," says one person who works with House Democrats, "all you need is the Speaker in your pocket."

Insiders insist moving too aggressively for reform would backfire. They believe progressives in the House are winning a long war over the traditionalists, one battle at a time, and that a public battle would prompt the traditionalists in the chamber to marginalize the reformers. That, they say, accounts for the liberal reps' public silence and seemingly tepid approach.

That's going to be a hard argument for progressives outside the building to accept. And they are getting mixed signals, at best. Nearly every Boston-area representative voted to keep the "hack holidays" of Evacuation Day and Bunker Hill Day on the state government's list of vacation days. The lone area dissenter was Walz; she, however, was among Michlewitz's most active supporters. Forry deserves credit for starting the ball rolling months ago for pension reform, and for pushing for a more aggressive bill. But in other cases, she has been a loyalist more willing to work her way up the structure than to rail against it.

Blind eye for the liberal guy?
Lefty reps roundly reject the notion that they overlooked DiMasi's flaws because he was on their side on the issues. But they certainly liked him for it, and still do.

"He is the guy who led the way on health-care reform, on marriage equality, on energy legislation, and on any number of things," says Wolf. "And that mattered a lot to me."

"Under his leadership, we were able to do so much," echoes Forry.

"For a lot of us, there's this internal battle going on," notes Moran. "We really liked him, and what he did as Speaker. The agenda Sal DiMasi brought was one that the state badly needed."

Those may seem like awfully kind sentiments for a man who, according to federal authorities, abused that group's personal trust and corrupted their institution for his own financial gain.

In fact, more than one close observer says that, in the aftermath of the DiMasi indictment, House progressives seem angrier at Governor Deval Patrick for pushing reform than at the former Speaker. Which may be true.

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  Topics: Talking Politics , Deval Patrick, Massachusetts House of Representatives, David Bernstien,  More more >
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