DiMasi’s sheep

By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  June 15, 2011

“There is no process other than the Speaker and his decisions,” says one well-connected State House observer. “You know it’s pretty bad when even lobbyists are complaining that the process is rigged.”

Why this sorry state of affairs? DiMasi’s critics say he runs a tyrannical operation that buys acquiescence and punishes dissent. Members on the outs — so-called back-benchers who are denied positions of responsibility and access to the Speaker’s inner circle — blame the suck-ups who toe the DiMasi line. DiMasi defenders accuse those back-benchers of using the myth of King Sal as a scapegoat for their own timidity and incompetence.

Who’s right? Sadly, all of them.

With very few exceptions, the Democrats in the state legislature find it all too easy to go with the flow, letting DiMasi run the show as a virtual one-man operation. Everyone else coasts and avoids controversy and contention, “sublimating their views to the legislative leadership,” as one observer puts it.

The Godfather
DiMasi, in an interview with the Phoenix this week, says that committee chairs and rank-and-file members are empowered to act as they choose. But disgruntled members insist that DiMasi forces compliance through a combination of rewards and punishments. The unfortunate, stereotype-reinforcing image of the North End rep, evoked by some sources, is that of the leg breaker huddled with his fellow power brokers in a back room, à la the opening scene of The Godfather.

DiMasi, 63, cultivated this reputation as a Tom Finneran lieutenant, and carries the imposing physique of the football player he once was at Christopher Columbus High School. He does little to dispel the image. He seems well aware that belief in his wrath is often enough.

“He is credited and blamed with being a lot more heavy-handed than he actually is,” says Arline Isaacson, a lobbyist for gay rights and teachers’ unions. “Because legislators believe the myth, they pre-emptively vote the way they think he wants them to vote.”

Isaacson and other gay-marriage supporters say they were actually disappointed by DiMasi’s unwillingness to bully members into opposing a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, in which they barely prevailed this past year. They say he insisted on trying to persuade members of the measure’s merits, sometimes in long one-on-one conversations, and then letting them vote their conscience.

That may have been true on that vote, but there have been other occasions that look very different. On July 19, 2006, a House vote failed to override then-governor Mitt Romney’s veto on establishing a commission on gay and lesbian youth. After a 15-minute recess, and a vote for “reconsideration” of the override attempt, it succeeded. Seven members — Jennifer Callahan of Sutton, Thomas Kennedy of Brockton, Robert Koczera of New Bedford, Vincent Pedone of Worcester, Joyce Spiliotis of Peabody, Stephen Tobin of Quincy, and James Welch of West Springfield— kowtowed and flipped their votes. Perhaps no legs were broken, but something more than lofty rhetoric was at work.

The only thing unusual about this was that the kowtowing unfolded in public. Normally, there’s no before-and-after voting record, but it is not unusual for representatives, under pressure from leadership, to vote opposite their own beliefs. “If I had a dollar for every time a Democratic member said, ‘I agree with you, I wish I could vote with you,’ I could eliminate the fiscal crisis in Massachusetts,” says Bradley Jones Jr., House minority leader.

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