A House United Cannot Stand

What would it take to really fix Beacon Hill? A party insurrection—like the one once led by a couple of upstart Dems named Dukakis and Frank—is a good place to start.

Illustration by Heather Burke

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!

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.

The reason for the move? In February, Flynn backed the wrong horse, John Rogers, for speaker. When Robert DeLeo won, he stripped Flynn of his chairmanship and the $15,000 bonus and plum office that came with it.

“I knew [Rogers] didn’t have the votes, but I didn’t switch just to curry favor,” Flynn says.

His defiant posture is rare in a legislature that’s created institutional rewards for obedience. That $15,000 bonus, for instance, represents a hefty raise for reps, whose base pay is $61,440 (vice chairs earn an extra $7,500). And because of the power the speaker wields — and his ability to decide matters in cahoots with his deputies — our current crop of lawmakers has grown convinced that the only way to get ahead is to get into leadership, or at least fall in line behind it.

Consider the gaming issue. During the fight over Governor Deval Patrick’s casino proposal last year, the anti-gaming DiMasi twisted arms to ensure that Patrick’s bill was killed in committee, before the full House could debate it. “There were a couple of reps who were pro-casino — who actually signed on to my casino bill this year — who voted it ought-not-to-pass,” Dorchester rep Marty Walsh recalls of the committee process.

Now we face a similar peril in the opposite direction. Speaker DeLeo represents Revere, home to slots-hungry Wonderland Greyhound Park, and has much to gain from legalizing the one-armed bandits. What — and more important, who — is to stop him from ramming gaming legislation through as forcefully as DiMasi blocked it? However you feel about the issue, it can’t sit well that one man elected by just a sliver of the state gets to influence the decision so heavily.

All of which is exactly why we need a modern incarnation of the DSG. Though he’s hopeful that DeLeo will bring openness, Walsh, frustrated by the DiMasi era, says he might just be game to rekindle the cause. Eventually. ‘Within six months to a year, if it goes back to a closed shop, then that absolutely will be needed,” he says.

His patience is admirable, but we’ve already waited long enough. We need Democrats willing to take an opposing stand without sweating the blowback, and we need them now. The ammunition is all there — the only question is who’s got the guts to take the first shot.