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Speaker DiMasi’s leadership style and impact on progressive legislation

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Author: Jamie Eldridge

In last Friday’s Boston Globe, reporter Jim O’Sullivan wrote an outstanding column on former Speaker of the House Sal DiMasi (“DiMasi’s liberal legacy is now often ignored”). With the Supreme Court upholding the legality of the Affordable Care Act and same-sex marriage, both born in Massachusetts, O’Sullivan wrote, “Twice in the past decade Massachusetts has established a far-reaching, long-resonating beachhead in the progressive campaign. There was one constant.”

Of course, victories on health care and marriage equality are due to the efforts of a long list of champions. However, no person at that level of elected power was doing more to see these liberal ideals through than Sal DiMasi.

I was a second-term State Representative in 2005 during DiMasi’s first full-term as Speaker of the House. I was not close to DiMasi, but I feel fortunate to have been able to serve with him and observe his style of leadership. I remember the sense of excitement among liberal legislators about the possibility of legislation that could now become law under Speaker DiMasi.

More than any other bill, Speaker DiMasi guided the House to pass the bill to legalize over-the-counter sale of hypodermic needles to curb the spread of HIV, during the 2005-2006 session. When the bill came up for a vote in the House on November 14th, 2005, both privately and publicly conservative Democrats and Republicans were railing against the bill, suggesting that it was encouraging illegal drug use. Despite all of the public health data that not allowing these sales would only continue to contribute to the spread of HIV, this was clearly considered a controversial vote. Check out the Boston Phoenix article “Sticking Point” by Adam Reilly from the Nov. 11-17th, 2005 issue for a great summary of that dynamic.

I remember very clearly when a handful of lawmakers raised their objections in the House Democratic Caucus and were clearly prepared for a long debate. DiMasi listened to their concerns, and then essentially said, “Okay, now we’re going to debate the bill, and put it to a vote.”

Three hours later, in one of the more passionate debates of that session, the House of Representatives passed the measure by a vote of 115-37. After the bill passed the Senate, Governor Romney vetoed the bill (despite the fact that his Department of Public Health Commissioner had testified in support of it), and on July 13, 2006 the House overrode the veto 115 to 42 making it a law.

My biggest take away from that successful effort was that when you are an elected leader in a democracy, you allow for robust discussion and debate and go forward and do what you think is right. In a democracy, moving forward on a “controversial” proposal doesn’t have to mean that it becomes watered down, or you have to reach “consensus,” but rather that you just have to have the votes. I think that’s the way a democracy is supposed to work.

I always respected the fact that Speaker DiMasi had a handful of bold ideas as part of what can clearly be called a progressive vision (gay marriage, near-universal health care, alternative energy and global warming). He guided and in some cases applied pressure to result in liberal policies that put Massachusetts at the forefront of the nation, made a difference in the lives of residents across the state, and represent the main ideas of the national Democratic Party campaign platform.

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