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Massachusetts Liberal

Observations on politics, the media and life in Massachusetts and beyond from the left side of the road.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

We the Sheeple

The conviction of Sal DiMasi on extortion and conspiracy charges doesn't comes as a huge surprise to anyone who has followed the sordid case. But it also does not mean that Beacon Hill is rotten to the core.

Rather, it means that "followership" -- particularly those in the House where three successive speakers have been convicted of crimes -- is the major problem facing a Great and General Court where lawmakers have become too accepting of their leaders and their various trespasses.

The problem reached its apex under DiMasi's rule -- as chronicled by the Phoenix's David Bernstein -- three years ago and reprised today. It was brought home in stark reality in early 2009 when Democrats were virtually unanimous in reelecting him as Speaker, even as it was obvious he was planning an exit strategy that culminated with his handing the gavel to Robert DeLeo a few weeks later.

Many years covering the Legislature -- and a couple of years on the inside -- made it clear to me why lawmakers seemingly turn their free will over to their leader. In exchange for that vote, he (or she) protects them from tough votes and looks favorably on requests for programs and spending that would benefit "the district."

Former Senate President Billy Bulger and one-time speaker Tom Finneran were the best at that role. It's no surprise that Finneran got caught -- and a major accomplishment that Bulger did not.

In contrast, the single most ethical legislative leader I ever observed on Beacon Hill -- former Speaker George Keverian -- allowed his members free will and presided over the most ineffective and chaotic House I ever covered.

Legislative leaders use whatever tools they can to accomplish what in the end are mostly beneficial results for their members and taxpayers. Followers go along to get along and produce results for the people who elect them.

Where the system -- and trust -- breaks down is when the followers turn a blind eye to obvious shenanigans, legal or otherwise.

Does that make them all corrupt? Not by a long shot. Most of the legislators I have known are decent, well-intentioned human beings. I suspect the slippery ones are in direct proportion to their counterparts in the dreaded private sector.

But just because they re not corrupt does not leave them with clean hands when things fly off the track.

And many members of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, starting with their current leader DeLeo, have a lot of soul-searching to do about their roles in aiding and abetting "leaders" like DiMasi.

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