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DiMasi’s sheep

How Stepford politics rule Beacon Hill
By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  April 9, 2008


Railroading the law
House leadership, stressing the need to pass the transportation-bond bill without delay this week, told members not to propose any amendments — but then asked them to approve the inclusion of 17 amendments tacked on by the Senate. Only three House Democrats rose to complain about it — two of whom, Frank Hynes and Paul Casey, are not seeking re-election this fall. (Martin Walsh was the third.) Most did as instructed, adopting the entire batch of Senate amendments on a vote of 114 to 40 Tuesday.
A state representative recalls approaching a veteran House member this past year and asking how he intended to vote on an upcoming roll call. “I have this philosophy about voting,” replied the representative, a committee chair. “I look up on the board and see how the Speaker voted — and that’s how I vote.”

This appears to be the governing philosophy, quite literally, under the State House dome during the reign of Speaker of the House Sal DiMasi.

DiMasi’s overwhelming victory in the recent casino vote — in which only 34 of 140 Democrats voted against his plan to banish the bill for further study — was actually, as meager as it was, an unusual show of dissent.

Prior to the casino vote, Democrats in the House of Representatives had cast a total of just 567 votes in opposition to the Speaker in the current legislative session that began in January 2007, according to a Phoenix analysis. That’s an average of about four dissents per member, or one out of every 40 roll-call votes on bills, amendments, and rulings.

That’s a breathtaking decline even from the previous session, which saw nearly 3000 instances of Democrats “voting off,” as it’s called in the chamber. In the session prior to that, under Speaker Tom Finneran, that figure was greater than 5000.

The lock-step floor votes are only one manifestation of the lack of dissent, debate, or even discussion in the lower House, as described to the Phoenix by aides, close observers, and quite a number of Democratic legislators themselves — nearly all of whom, naturally, agreed to speak only with the promise of anonymity. Even members supportive of DiMasi don’t want to be caught talking about this topic. Several members were quite specific about how generically the Phoenix must refer to them (no reference to the area of the state they hail from, any committee they serve on, or even their gender), and more than one insisted on being called only on personal cell phones, for fear that State House secretaries are snitching to the Speaker about incoming calls.

Floor debate is almost nonexistent in the current House. A small cadre — primarily DiMasi, House Ways and Means Chair Robert DeLeo of Winthrop, Speaker Pro Tempore Thomas Petrolati of Ludlow, and their staffs — make all the decisions about legislation moving through committees. Members often don’t even see bills until shortly before they are rushed to the floor for vote, a practice that observers say has increased significantly under DiMasi. Input from committee members? Forget it: this past week, when Ways and Means “voted” the multi-billion-dollar transportation bond bill through to the floor, they learned of it less than four hours before it happened, via an e-mail from DeLeo telling them he was releasing the (dramatically revised) bill in that afternoon’s session, with the committee’s (unsolicited) recommendation for passage.

“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.

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