Bellotti going strong at 95

He also was unwilling to wait his turn

FRANK BELLOTTI IS 95, the kind of 95 you’d want to be if you live to be 95. Trim, tan, sharp of mind (but perhaps slower of gait), Bellotti joined me recently to record a CommonWealth Codcast. He is, I’m pretty sure, the oldest living former statewide office holder – he was lieutenant governor from 1963 to 1965, and attorney general for 12 years, from 1975 to 1987. Most people today probably remember him as the former AG, a role that was perfectly suited to this progressive libertarian whose personal discipline and rigorous preparation made him a formidable lawyer.

Bellotti suffered the slings and arrows of Massachusetts politics, and he gave as good as he got. He was the target of dirty political tactics designed to raise questions about his integrity, questions that played off his Italian heritage and attempted to link him to the Italian mob.  The whispers and accusations were foul and false, but they effectively helped drive voters away from him in 1964 and 1966.

Embedded in Bellotti’s career are lessons that resonate with meaning today. There are no perfect analogues, but often we can see images of the past reflected in today’s political battles. In 1964 he was a restless and ambitious lieutenant governor unwilling to patiently “wait his turn.” He ran against the incumbent governor, Endicott Peabody, in a bruising intra-party battle, one that pitted Bellotti against a powerful status quo led at the time by the Kennedy family and Tip O’Neill.

Bellotti emerged victorious, winning his party’s nomination with a nearly 20,000-vote margin. In the general election against John Volpe, he lost what remains the second closest gubernatorial election in the state’s history. If you are inclined (as I am) to make connections between past and current events, you can see Bellotti’s decision to take on an incumbent in his own party reflected in Ayanna Presley’s challenge to Congressman Mike Capuano. Like Bellotti, she also chose not to wait her turn.

Each generation has its moments when candidates emerge who are willing, and ambitious enough, to take on the status quo. For Pressley, the future appears limitless.  For Bellotti in 1964 – scarred by a campaign where opponents asked, “Peabody trusted Bellotti, can you?” – the question of his political future was in serious doubt. But Bellotti is a persistent man, and he kept running until finally he prevailed in a close election for attorney general in 1974.

There were many doubters and critics, but once in office as attorney general, Bellotti quickly reversed their negative preconceptions of him. He recruited a fresh team of senior lawyers and litigators who were largely progressive and determined to make a mark on Massachusetts law and policy.  Bellotti ended the old practice of part-time lawyers. Henceforward, all assistant AG’s would be full-time lawyers working solely for the public interest. His initial first assistant, Robert Bonin (later chief justice of the Superior Court), and the chief of his Public Protection Bureau, Scott Harshbarger (later attorney general), admitted that they had not even voted for Bellotti. It did not matter.

Lawyers like Steve Rosenfeld (later chief counsel to former governor Michael Dukakis), Margot Botsford (later an SJC Justice), Paul Johnson (later chief counsel to former governor William Weld), Mitch Sikora (later an Appeals Court judge), Don Stern (later US attorney), and Paula Gold (later secretary of consumer affairs) represented a legion of talented attorneys who were drawn to the excitement and professionalism of Bellotti’s office.

Social equity advocate Judy Meredith was hired to work directly out of Bellotti’s office, She served as a vital bridge to groups that historically had no voice in the AG’s office and ensured that Bellotti would have the benefit of her advocacy when he was making decisions about how to use the power of his office to serve the public interest.  No one had ever seen the attorney general’s office function in this way before.

I was fortunate to have been asked to join Bellotti’s government bureau when I graduated from law school.  It was an exciting time and an extraordinary place to learn how to practice law. Strong bonds of respect and affection were built among the lawyers in that bureau, bonds that time has not weakened. We lost one of our own recently with the passing of Garrick Cole, who left the venerable law firm Hill & Barlow to join Bellotti’s government bureau. He was one of those young, quirky, progressive lawyers who set an example I’ve kept with me all these years: he was exacting in his work and rigorous in his preparation.

Meet the Author

Frank Bellotti’s story is a microcosm of Massachusetts politics in the second half of the 20th century.  It’s also a story of perseverance, of political integrity, and the power of example.  I’m certain that my memories are so positive and powerful that they interfere with my ability to provide a perfectly objective description of Bellotti, that office, and those times.  Maybe so.  But I can tell you this without exaggeration: to a person, everyone who worked in Bellotti’s office during his years as attorney general remembers that experience as remarkably important, personally gratifying, and in many respects life-changing. It was a time and place when you were deeply proud to be serving in the public sector, and equally proud to be doing so under the leadership of a man who was setting standards of excellence that each of his successors has felt duty-bound to continue.  That’s a legacy only a few can lay claim to.

James Aloisi is a former state secretary of transportation, principal of TriMount Consulting, and a member of the TransitMatters Board.  He was a lawyer in Frank Bellotti’s government bureau from 1978-1983.