The Devil in Sal DiMasi

By Paul Kix | Boston Magazine |

It was spelled out in the indictment but known long before then, mostly by the few poor souls who dared oppose him: DiMasi could push through any bill he wanted. The understanding that he would get his way was so complete in the House, it actually predated DiMasi’s reign as speaker. He in fact attained the seat through the tyrant’s oldest trick. He stole it.

By 2004, then-Speaker Tom Finneran was in trouble. After each federal census, legislative districts are redrawn down to the state district level. Two lawsuits alleged that following the 2000 count, Finneran had drawn the lines in a manner that deprived minority neighborhoods of fair representation. Finneran, under oath, had pleaded ignorance; few had bought that, and many members were calling for a new leader. That September 24, DiMasi, Finneran, and John Rogers, chair of Ways and Means at the time, met at DiMasi’s North End home in secret to decide on one. The three kept the secret well; this is the first full accounting of what happened that night.

Finneran, out of character, was 20 minutes late: As he was putting on his jacket back home in Mattapan, his wife, Donna, told him to wait, see if DiMasi and Rogers, friendly enough with each other, could work things out on their own. But when Finneran finally walked into DiMasi’s condo on Commercial Street, past the kitchen and into the dining room, he saw the two struggling at small talk.

Where the hell have you been? Rogers thought. He and Finneran had the most peculiar relationship in the House, an almost familial bond. In 2002 Finneran had taken to the House rostrum to discuss the state budget and instead delivered a weepy soliloquy about Rogers, "the son I never had." Years later, a former House member still remembers the scene vividly. "One lobbyist told me that she was so grossed out by the speech," the former member says, "that if she had been the wife of Finneran or Rogers she would have hired a private detective to follow them."

DiMasi and Finneran had been close, too, but never to the point of it becoming unseemly. Both from Boston, they sat next to each other as freshmen in the House chamber, where DiMasi realized when he was in law school, he’d kicked Finneran’s older brothers out of the bar where he’d worked as a bouncer. The ties he and Finneran forged helped them orchestrate the coup that placed George Keverian in the speaker’s chair in 1985. In the 1990s, they grabbed their own power. By 2004, DiMasi was Finneran’s majority leader.

Finneran took a seat at the head of the dining room table. But then Finneran, in another un-Finneran move, chose not to direct the meeting. He was too close to these two men to pick a favorite. Besides, if Finneran were to eventually set up that lobbying practice, he would need a good working relationship with his successor. So the three men instead talked about the institution, how they were all institutional men, and how the institution of the Massachusetts House of Representatives must not debase itself with a rancorous (if democratic) battle for speaker. What the institution needed was an orderly transfer of power, they decided. People close to Rogers and Finneran say the agreement was as follows:

DiMasi was 59, Rogers 39. DiMasi would have his shot at speaker and serve until he got tired, or bored—or, given the ultimate fate of Finneran and his predecessor, indicted—at which point the mantle would pass to Rogers, who in the interim would be second-in-command, as majority leader.

But when the committee appointments came out in January 2005, Rogers was not second-in-command. That position was one DiMasi created overnight, speaker pro tempore; he’d assigned it to Tom Petrolati of Ludlow. DiMasi gave Petrolati the spot to serve as a buffer between him and Rogers. For Rogers, the move meant he was effectively out of House leadership. It meant the agreement was off. It meant DiMasi would have what he wanted most, what Rogers, because of his own ambitions, could never hand him. More power.

  • Rick

    Perhaps if the state employee pension system was a bit less generous, employees would have to exhibit the same frugality the rest of us have to endure? If one knows money will never be a real problem, extreme financial leverage is probably easier to get used to.

  • Michael

    Globe did a great job, but everyone knows this was handed to the Globe with a big red bow.