Attack on DiMasi was irresponsible

Former speaker did not block progressive values

THERE ARE SOME THINGS I KNOW with certainty.  One of them is that former House speaker Sal DiMasi was a consistent and principled progressive.  Whether he was fighting for health care reform enabling all citizens to have access to health care, or fighting for marriage equality, or fighting against global warming by passing the Global Warming Solutions Act, or fighting to enable Massachusetts to lead in stem cell research, Sal was a reliable voice for the voiceless, a reliable ally for those of us who believe in progressive values.   So it was with some dismay that I read in Sunday’s Upload a column that irresponsibly mentioned Sal in an effort to make a point about power at the State House.

The author of “Whose Party Is It?” paints with a broad brush, a technique that works nicely when you are refreshing the look of your home but more often than not fails when you are writing an opinion piece. The rhetorical broad brush covers up a lot of detail, nuance, and fact in its effort to persuade. This is exactly what happened when the author of the piece attempted to make a point about the ideology and power of the House. He wrote:

Recent governors, of either party, have made it clear that for anything to get done in Massachusetts, the House must consent. Deval Patrick’s agenda was held up by Sal DiMasi. Charlie Baker, the most popular governor in the country, constantly finds himself in agreement with Speaker Robert DeLeo.

I was personally very close to Sal DiMasi. I supported him throughout his career and I wrote his inaugural address. I was also an early supporter of Deval Patrick, and was appointed by him to serve on the Massport board and later as secretary of transportation.  I know both men well, and I know something about the dynamic between them. So let’s get the record straight. Patrick’s agenda was not ever held up by DiMasi, except in one instance. That one instance is the one linked in the Commonwealth article – gaming.

Sal opposed gaming because he believed it was a bad way to raise revenue, and because he had seen the ill effects of gambling addiction close to home.  Sal was always looking out for the little guy, and he knew that a good deal of the revenue generated by gaming would come from those least able to afford to gamble. Gaming was, and remains, a gimmick used by the public sector to avoid the hard work of generating net new revenue fairly and transparently.  It is also a regressive tax on the middle class.  As I have said many times, you never saw many Mercedes or BMWs parked at the Suffolk Downs or Wonderland racetracks.  Sal knew that gaming would be an efficient way to pick the pockets of the poor and middle class, and he opposed it with every fiber in his body.

For the author of “Who’s Party Is It?” to use Sal DiMasi’s opposition to gaming as an example of how House speakers stand in the way of progressive values is mind boggling, to say the least.

I remember meeting with Sal shortly after I became transportation secretary. We spoke about the transportation reform legislation I was developing on behalf of the administration.  Sal listened, asked some pointed questions, and told me that he would support the proposed hike in the gas tax that I was proposing as a key component of the bill.  His support of our plan came without qualification, and was consistent with Sal’s progressive values.  He instinctively understood the importance of modal equity and sustainable mobility even if he never used those terms. Sal’s support was critical because the leadership of the Senate had recently changed hands, and was decidedly less congenial to a progressive transportation policy.  In this instance, as in most others, Sal supported the Patrick administration’s agenda when it stood for progressive values.

Sadly, Sal announced his resignation a few weeks later.  And with his departure we could never get legislative support for a gas tax increase in 2009, settling instead for a sales tax hike because, as a former Senate leader told me, a one cent increase in the sales tax had “better optics” than a 19-cent gas tax hike.

Progressives in Massachusetts should always remember that we would not have marriage equality, or a strong stem cell research law, or a powerful global warming act, or our landmark health care law without the leadership and persistent support of DiMasi. Of course he needed the support of others and he had an important ally in former Senate president Robert Travaglini.  He was also able to craft strategic alliances with both Mitt Romney and Deval Patrick in order to accomplish these important advances in our state’s quality of life.

Meet the Author

Sal may have made mistakes, and I don’t mean to turn a blind eye on the most public of those mistakes. But his career as a progressive legislator and his leadership as speaker of the House ought to be remembered in a positive light, and not obscured by the broad rhetorical brush, because he always had an eye out for the little guy, always had his heart in the right place.

James Aloisi is a former state secretary of transportation and a principal at Trimount Consulting and the Pemberton Square Group.