Is the Massachusetts House of Representatives beyond all hope? Under Democratic leadership — whether conservative (Thomas Finneran, 1996 to 2004), liberal (Salvatore DiMasi, 2004 to 2009), or moderate (new Speaker Robert DeLeo) — the song has pretty much remained the same for the last decade and a half: an insular and out-of-touch legislature is lost in its own constricted and often petty perspectives.
As the recent pattern has been, those in the current Speaker's good graces protect the status quo; the rest plot and wait for their chance to benefit from the system. Thus, the liberals who regularly decried Finneran's autocratic, centralized, secretive leadership were later found, under DiMasi, strutting imperiously through the sty of Beacon Hill, like the pigs in George Orwell's Animal Farm.
That charge was leveled at them even before scandalous revelations led to DiMasi's resignation in January (see "DiMasi's Sheep," April 11, 2008), and has now taken on increased urgency in the wake of the former Speaker's federal indictment on corruption charges earlier this month.
DiMasi's indictment, after all, paints a shocking portrait of a powerful politician on the take. According to the feds, he and his friends took money from Canadian software maker Cognos, in exchange for the Speaker using and abusing his power to get lucrative state contracts for the company.
While DiMasi has been officially charged only in that matter, many on Beacon Hill suspect additional charges may ultimately be filed. Other actions, such as controversial bill changes that benefited friends of DiMasi or their clients, may still be under investigation. (Indictments on the Cognos affair were made first, they speculate, because a key informant had a paper trail of payments, coming from Cognos and made to DiMasi).
In retrospect, some say, nobody knows what DiMasi's motives might have been when acting on any number of laws or favors, because, for the most part, House members — including many progressive lawmakers from Boston and the immediate area — were willing to obey the Speaker's requests without demanding much in the way of explanations. Many of those lawmakers have since moved up in the power structure under DiMasi, and his chosen successor DeLeo.
That silent obedience, critics charge, has been the great failing of the House liberals: they enabled DiMasi by accepting their roles as quiescent pawns, rubber-stamping the bills and amendments delivered from on high, and quashing any initiatives disapproved by the central office.
In response, some have argued that reform-minded members of the liberal wing of the House have been steadily gaining power, and are actually working to enact change against a recalcitrant body of old-time traditionalists. But that theory is a tough sell when one considers that, even as troubling accusations built against DiMasi during the past year, most of those representatives defended both their leader and the system. They overwhelmingly voted to retain him as Speaker in January; defended his decision to withhold documents from the State Ethics Commission; cheered him as he resigned; rallied behind his hand-picked successor to be Speaker; dragged their feet on reform legislation; supported his aide, Aaron Michlewitz, to succeed DiMasi in his district; and never, ever, spoke ill of the Speaker in public.
Many local good-government advocates are now hoping that the stunning new allegations about DiMasi will awaken their favorite lawmakers to the need for systemic change — in the rules and in their own personal behavior. But they are not feeling optimistic.
"The silence is deafening," says one Boston pol, who, like others, asked not to be identified when criticizing the local representatives. "I don't think any of them have changed their attitudes."
"I don't think that any of them are saying there's a group culture problem," adds one consultant. "They get so used to the way things work, it's hard to see what needs to be changed."
"What changes?" asks the pol. "They're just loyal to another Speaker."
Who's to blame?
The truth may be more complex, but attempts to get a more optimistic picture don't get very far.
The Phoenix tried this past week to ask 10 local representatives — Linda Dorcena Forry of Dorchester, Kevin Honan of Brighton, Elizabeth Malia of Dorchester, Michael Moran of Brighton, Byron Rushing of the South End, Jeffrey Sánchez of Jamaica Plain, Carl Sciortino of Somerville, Frank Smizik of Brookline, Marty Walz of Beacon Hill, and Alice Wolf of Cambridge — about the need for systemic and cultural change in the wake of the DiMasi developments. All are considered relatively progressive, but voted for DiMasi and then DeLeo — and have subsequently moved up in leadership. In fact, all are now committee chairs, with the exceptions of Rushing, who has a leadership position as division chair, and Sciortino, who is vice-chair of transportation and also sits on the Ways and Means committee.