Amid health care, gay marriage victories, no one invokes DiMasi
Sal DiMasi (right) watched then Governor Mitt Romney sign the health care bill.
By Jim O’Sullivan Globe Staff July 02, 2015
It took a federal court to cement Sal DiMasi’s legacy. And, this time, almost no one noticed.
It wasn’t the Moakley Courthouse, the one where DiMasi had to answer for his crimes born of greed and corruption. But rather the big one across the street from the US Capitol, where DiMasi’s lasting impact was, over the course of the past week, writ large. While he rots in a prison cell in Butner, N.C., the two causes that Sal DiMasi went to the wall for — maybe more than anyone else — passed from controversial wayposts to the virtually unshakable law of the land.
President Obama likely wouldn’t have had the chance to pass his 2010 federal health care expansion if DiMasi, the former Massachusetts House speaker, didn’t stick to the left during the 2006 debate here. There are valid arguments that DiMasi was not the prime mover behind the Massachusetts health care bill that provided a model for the national version (former Senate president Robert Travaglini and governor Mitt Romney might quibble), but it wouldn’t have gotten done without him.
A year later, gay marriage was at the gallows on Beacon Hill. It had been law here for three years, but a few votes or a slip of the foot in either direction would have dealt it a blow that might have frozen the whole movement and robbed sanctimonious Democrats in 2015 of the ability to overlook the fact that it was an institution their own president didn’t support until six months before his reelection — and Hillary Rodham Clinton didn’t support until a full year after that.
DiMasi went to the wall for gay marriage, in old-school, arm-twisting fashion, including the successful persuasion of one state rep who said his father-in-law offered him a new car to vote against it. There are valid arguments that others did more — Senate President Therese Murray, for instance, had the fortitude to call for the fateful 2007 vote — but that wouldn’t have gotten done without him, either.
Twice in the past decade Massachusetts has established a far-reaching, long-resonating beachhead in the progressive campaign. There was one constant.
“He was a hero, but too often an unsung hero, a not-acknowledged-enough hero of our community,” Arline Isaacson, a longtime gay rights advocate, said this week. “We would not have made it as far or as fast legislatively towards equality had it not been for him.”
There is a valid argument to be made that no one has done more over the past four decades on the side of liberalism in Massachusetts than Sal DiMasi.
A gay rights bill in 1983 that established rock-bottom civil rights thresholds for gay people. The 2008 Global Warming Solutions Act, requiring an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Together with Travaglini, DiMasi helped pass landmark stem cell research legislation that social conservatives opposed, an oft-forgotten legislative battle that marked the first big win of the DiMasi speakership.
“Despite all of the personal issues that Speaker DiMasi faced, he always maintained a very aggressive progressive agenda,” said Aaron Michlewitz, a former DiMasi aide who succeeded him in the House. “A lot of what has taken place on the national level originated from that work that Speaker DiMasi did.”
Governor Deval Patrick shook hands with House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi after signing a bill repealing a law preventing gay couples from other states from marrying in Massachusetts.
There was another echo of DiMasi’s career last week, this one not an enduring success, but a short-lived victory that thrilled the liberals who now won’t speak his name.
Plainridge Park Casino opened June 24, a day long delayed by DiMasi’s opposition to expanded gambling. He fought unions, a sitting governor of his own party, pernicious rumors about his motivations based on his ethnicity — but DiMasi held casinos and slot parlors at bay until after he left office.
Indeed, there is a valid argument to be made that no one — not Ted Kennedy, not Deval Patrick, not Mike Dukakis — has done more over the past four decades on the side of liberalism in Massachusetts, and with sweeping repercussions beyond, than Prisoner 27371-038.
DiMasi’s crimes are embarrassing to honest public officials and almost humiliatingly penny-ante. He went to prison for, essentially, taking $65,000 in bribes to steer several million dollars in contracts. The jury found him crooked, selling his office to enrich himself. He is paying his debt to society.
But, if his family is to be believed, his treatment since he entered the federal penal system has been virtually inhumane — symptoms of cancer ignored and allowed to fester.
And the lack of credit paid DiMasi after historic affirmations of his policy and political work should be almost as galling, except that almost no one noticed. Several prominent Massachusetts Democrats declined to speak on the record for this column.
On the steps of the State House last Friday evening, a raucous crowd celebrated the court’s same-sex marriage decision. Speakers praised the activists and legislators who had defended same-sex marriage in Massachusetts.
The tremendous amount of happiness was rivaled closely by self-congratulation. Speaker Bob DeLeo, who once opposed same-sex marriage while DiMasi was whipping votes in favor, took the stage to Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way.”
And no one mentioned Sal DiMasi.
In his day — and in those since — no one has wielded power on Beacon Hill the way DiMasi did. After a slow start that prompted questions about whether his would be a weak speakership, DiMasi found his footing and brought to fruition the liberal causes that had animated much of his career. He vexed conservatives, but they’re not the ones turning their backs on him now. It’s the liberals who crow about DiMasi’s achievements as if they were their own, as if they ever would have happened without him.