The Argument: A House United Cannot Stand

Needs more work, needs more salt, needs more rum — these are all perfectly normal thoughts. Here’s a less common one: Needs more Dukakis. Back in ’88, they couldn’t find enough people who wanted him in the first place. But hey, these are crazy days. So grab a helmet and rev up the tank, because looking at the State House and what’s been going on up there, it seems so clear: Needs more Dukakis!

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No, not Dukakis the failed presidential candidate, or even Dukakis the governor. We need Michael Dukakis the flame-throwing state representative from Brookline, around whom a reform movement coalesced in the ’60s. Facing a culture of outrageous corruption when he entered the House in 1962, the Duke and about 25 other young, progressive state reps rose up from within their party to form the so-called Democratic Study Group. They then took the wood to the establishment, helping to bring a measure of sanity to Beacon Hill in the process.

"We banged away," Dukakis recalls. Working against the entrenched powers, the DSG — which would come to include the likes of future U.S. Congressmen Barney Frank, Ed Markey, and Michael Harrington — regularly battled both lobbyists and leadership. "We were taking on the utilities, taking on the insurance companies. These folks were very powerful interests; they spent a lot of time on Beacon Hill." The DSG members knew they were too reform-minded to break into leadership, so they built their own bully pulpits, yelling and screaming until the press, the public, and then finally their peers paid them heed.

Sounds refreshing, no? Especially coming off Sal DiMasi’s ethically challenged reign as speaker, during which open debate was rare and the most important decisions were all too often made behind closed doors. But alas, the DSG — which had continued on even after Dukakis left the legislature — faded away in the mid-1980s as the outsiders became insiders. Ever since, one-party Massachusetts has been lacking an effective legislative counterweight.

Representative David Flynn of Bridgewater, who served in the House from 1965 to ’72 and then reentered it in ’99, has seen both eras. When I called him, the former DSG member was in the midst of moving to a smaller State House office. Aides were shuffling around, packing files and rolling boxes out on dollies. Everything else was gone, save the chair he was sitting in and the phone in his hand, its cord stretching up from the floor.