Just over two years ago, soon after he secured the votes to become the new president of the Massachusetts state Senate, Robert Travaglini began talking to colleagues about what roles they hoped to play under his leadership. Jack Hart, an affable South Boston lawmaker who spent five years as a House backbencher before winning a special election to the Senate earlier that year, told Travaglini that what he wanted most was a chance to prove himself. “I said to him, ‘I would like to roll my sleeves up and demonstrate to people that, yeah, I might be a known as a decent fellow and I might be a person of integrity, but I want to demonstrate that I am a person of substance, too,’” says Hart. “He said to me, ‘Well, you and I, Jack, are in the same boat.’”

The new Senate president did have something to prove. Travaglini had surprised many observers when he emerged from a five-way field to capture the post Tom Birmingham gave up in order to run for governor in 2002. After a decade in the Senate, Travaglini was one of its best-liked members, a behind-the-scenes player with a reputation for dogged advocacy on behalf of his East Boston-based district and an ability to broker compromise among colleagues. But when it came to the big issues, the man known to most simply as “Trav” was hardly the Senate’s leading light.

Travaglini on his line of work:
“I’m in the delivery business. I don’t deliver,
I’m out. And I’ve been able to deliver.”

“Doubting Thomases” – that’s how Travaglini refers to those who wondered whether he was up to the job, and there were plenty of them when he picked up the gavel in January 2003. But a funny thing happened on the way to a quorum. With a new governor pledging to shake up the status quo with a raft of proposals he labeled “reform” and the state in the throes of its worst budget crisis in more than a decade, Travaglini grabbed the reform bull by the horns. Though known more for patronage than policy, Travaglini proved himself a fair match for the state’s star-powered governor and the swaggering House Speaker, Tom Finneran, who had come to be seen as the most powerful figure on Beacon Hill.

Travaglini took office with some people thinking he didn’t have “what it takes to survive in a pretty heated environment facing Romney and Finneran,” says Lou DiNatale, director of the Center for Economic and Civic Opinion at the University of Massachusetts­Lowell. “And bada boom, the guy shows up and steals everybody’s lunch.”

In the pressure cooker of the past two fiscal-crisis years, Travaglini’s Senate has won praise from advocates for protecting programs while earning plaudits from government watchdogs for embracing a range of reform measures. Travaglini has also responded to the yearning of his colleagues for a greater role in the workings of the 40-member Senate, which many complained had become top-heavy under Bir-mingham, a leader who staked out strong positions on every issue and became the driving force behind them.

If Senate members had been quietly bridling under Birmingham’s strong hand, that was nothing compared to the poisonous atmosphere that hung over the House of Representatives under Finneran’s reign. A sharp mind who was also known for sharp elbows when it came to keeping his chamber in line, Finneran had become the state’s most polarizing political figure by the time he abruptly resigned the Speaker’s post in September to become head of a statewide biotechnology trade organization.

In a transition of power that largely occurred over an autumn weekend, House majority leader Salvatore DiMasi, a longtime Finneran lieutenant, captured the Speaker’s chair. A 13-term lawmaker from Boston’s heavily Italian-American North End, DiMasi immediately pledged to open up the House for more give and take on important issues. The idea struck some as laughable, coming from someone who had been the iron-fisted Finneran’s chief enforcer. But others insisted that DiMasi would lead the House on a very different course than the man he had served so loyally.

For lawmakers as well as outside observers, the hope is that the changing of the guard in both houses will signal the revival of a Legislature that has atrophied badly in recent years, with rank-and-file members and even many committee chairmen relegated to the sidelines (See “Beacon Ill,” CW, Fall ‘02). If it does, there will be an unlikely pair of leaders to thank. Veteran politicos who have spent much of their careers as backroom dealmakers, Travaglini and DiMasi have never been identified with big legislative initiatives. And they certainly have never been part of the clamoring for reform in the way the legislative branch does business.

But if there is a Nixon-goes-to-China feel to the idea of Travaglini and DiMasi breathing new life into the Legislature, it’s because there are reasons to think the two Boston lawmakers could be precisely the leaders to do so. Unburdened by a wandering eye for higher political office – and arriving at their posts without preconceived policy agendas – Travaglini and DiMasi may have exactly what it takes to tackle big issues while simultaneously involving their members to a degree not seen in either branch for years.

The two leaders can do nothing to stop the Thomases from doubting. But they alone have the power to prove them wrong.

Essentially eastie

To understand Bobby Travaglini, you need to understand East Boston. Travaglini has spent his entire life in the tight-knit neighborhood that is packed onto a peninsula alongside the constant roar of Logan Airport. One of five sons of a working-class family whose father, Albert, died when he was just 16, Travaglini says it was bonds he formed in that overwhelmingly Italian-American neighborhood during his youth that taught him the values of loyalty and friendship. And it was Tony Marmo, a city housing inspector and youth sports leader, who taught him many of those lessons.

“He was the guy, when my father died, who stepped to the plate for me,” says Travagalini. Marmo, now 86 and living in neighboring Winthrop, hired Travaglini to manage a summer youth recreation program he started in the late 1960s, and saw in him a future politician.

“He had a good speaking voice, he had the charm,” says Marmo.

In 1983, Marmo ran Travaglini’s first campaign, which won the young man the district city council seat representing East Boston, the North End, and Charlestown. Referring to the hundreds of East Boston youth who had come through the local rec program but were by then of voting age, Marmo says, “I had a built-in committee of 1,000 or 1,200 people.”

No doubt some of them are present among the more than 100 people at Spinelli’s Function Room in East Boston, attending a mid-November Sunday brunch Travaglini is hosting to honor Marmo for his decades of service to the community. When a reporter arrives to take in the event, Travaglini could not be more gracious, inviting him to sit at a table filled with neighborhood leaders. After he reels off introductions, Travaglini adds that the visitor is doing a story on him, “so don’t tell him a goddamn thing.”

Everyone breaks into laughter, but the quip reflects the insular quality of the politics Travaglini has long practiced. Travaglini has never had much use for the press, and even in his new role as legislative leader, he’s hardly courting coverage.

To Travaglini, says one friend, ‘the idea that government is there to help people is not only not a foreign idea, it’s a natural idea.’

Elected to the Senate in 1992 – representing, in addition to East Boston, Winthrop and parts of Revere and Cambridge – Travaglini has, with little fanfare, consistently backed a range of children’s and human service causes, including serving as lead Senate sponsor of a bill to bring a single-payer health insurance system to Massachusetts. Jim Aloisi, a close political confidant who grew up with Travaglini and formerly served as general counsel to the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, says Travaglini, now a 52-year-old father of three, watched his mother struggle to raise five sons and saw many other families eke out a living in East Boston. To Trav, Aloisi says, “the idea that government is there to help people is not only not a foreign idea, it’s a natural idea.”

Though a reliable vote for government programs that help people, Travaglini has mainly put his energy, as senator and, before that, as city councilor, into helping people in more direct ways. Michael McCormack, who served with him on the Boston City Council, says Travaglini and his staff were on the phones all day “dealing with people with problems.” And sometimes, says McCormack, that problem was, “I need a job.”

For East Boston residents and politicians alike, living alongside Logan Airport and at the end of tunnels running under Boston Harbor has been both a curse and a blessing. While Travaglini has stood with residents as they’ve waged battles against airport expansion, Massport, the quasi-public agency that runs the airport, and the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, which operates the harbor tunnels, have also been a meal ticket for countless East Boston residents. More often than not, Travaglini has been the guy punching that meal ticket.

“I think that these authorities have a responsibility to provide employment opportunities for qualified individuals who live in impacted communities, and I held them accountable to that, and I’m proud of that,” says Travaglini. “Joe Moakley used to say, if you don’t want to bring home the bacon, give it to me – I’ve got a big family.”

“Some people criticized him,” says McCormack of Travaglini’s job-placement prowess. “I didn’t. I thought, that’s what the expectation is, and nobody does it any better. He probably put more people to work than any three people who served in government.”

Job giveaways notwithstanding, Travaglini tangled with the airport constantly during the 1990s, which meant banging heads with then-Massport director Stephen Tocco, a longtime friend and golfing buddy. Today, Tocco runs ML Strategies, the lobbying arm of Mintz Levin, one of the city’s most high-powered law firms. Although Tocco himself does not do State House lobbying, several ML Strategies employees, including former Worcester state senator Robert Bernstein, are representing gaming interests on Beacon Hill. With two racetracks in his district, Travaglini has been a big booster of efforts to bring slot machines to Massachusetts. But Travaglini insists that these ties in no way compromise his independence.

“I have a lot of friends in this business, but I never lose sight of who I am, and I’m very comfortable with my character,” says Travaglini.

His ability to make friends explains a lot about how Travaglini became the state Senate’s 93rd president. “Frankly, he has the best people skills I’ve ever seen,” says Sen. Steven Tolman, a Brighton Democrat.

“He wasn’t really out there on the forefront of a lot of different issues, but everyone in the building knew if you wanted to get something done, you had to go see Trav,” says Sen. Steven Baddour of Methuen.

Even now, as he holds court in the palatial office of the Senate president, Travaglini says that when he’s asked his line of work, “I simply say, I’m in the delivery business. I don’t deliver, I’m out. And I’ve been able to deliver.”

In electing Travaglini – as with the recent election of DiMasi as House Speaker – the Legislature has, in some ways, reverted to form. While their immediate predecessors came to the posts with sharply defined views, leadership on issues has not been the usual path to legislative leadership.

“The people who seem to rise are the people who are best at navigating the social environment of the chamber,” says former state representative John McDonough. “They aren’t people who are overly fixated on one single issue or single set of issues.”

If that explains how Travaglini emerged with the president’s gavel in hand, it offered little indication of what he would do with the newly gained power.

Reform this

With a B.A. from Harvard and a Georgetown law degree, Michael Travaglini is the brainy yin to his older brother’s streetwise yang. The younger Travaglini, who served as deputy treasurer to Shannon O’Brien and now directs the state pension fund, is one of the Senate president’s most trusted advisors. Still, there are plenty of times when big brother knows best. Michael Travaglini says after pulling off a coup of some kind, whether in the Legislature or back in his days on the Boston City Council, his brother would often turn to him and say with a self-satisfied smile, “Mike, you can’t read that on page 12.”

“His point was, there is academic intelligence, and there is life intelligence,” says Michael Travaglini.

If he came to the Senate president’s office with plenty of life intelligence, Travaglini makes no bones about what he was lacking.

“I understood what I was good at and what I wasn’t good at,” he says. “My interpersonal skills, my political skills, and my character were above the norm,” says Travaglini. “[But] I never really involved myself in all of the issues confronting the Commonwealth. I had to get up to speed quickly.”

As he did so, Travaglini was hardly hemmed in by public expectations. A Boston Globe poll taken three months after he took office found that 84 percent of Massachusetts residents either didn’t know him or had no opinion of him. “I found it wonderfully refreshing and very liberating that nobody knew me,” he says.

Travaglini says he also felt liberated by life-shaking health threats he faced in the year before becoming Senate president. He underwent thyroid cancer surgery and a heart bypass operation all in a matter of months, experiences he says have given him the perspective to brush off the petty slights of politics and to seize the opportunity to make a difference.

Travaglini indicated from the start that he would vigorously champion many of the social service programs he had supported over the years. But he also made clear that he was ready to engage the debate over reforms to state government that Romney had used as his campaign platform.

“Our policy-making role is not to cripple or eliminate programs of obvious social importance,” he said at his swearing in on New Year’s Day 2003. “Rather, we should preserve them by taking necessary legislative action to improve operations, eliminate waste, and make certain that the public is getting the maximum return on every dollar spent.”

If politics is like poker, Travaglini often managed to call Romney’s bet – and then raise him. One of Romney’s reform gambits was a proposal to merge the state highway department with the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, a move the administration claimed would yield $190 million in one-time savings and reduce state road costs by about $20 million annually. The proposal received a cool reception on Beacon Hill, where lawmakers questioned the purported savings. Doubts about the Romney plan deepened when two influential business groups, the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation and the Artery Business Committee, issued a report in May that was critical of the proposed asphalt-agencies merger.

But rather than push the idea of transportation reform aside, the Senate one-upped the administration, rolling out a sweeping proposal last spring that called for consolidation of the state’s transportation functions and for making the state secretary of transportation chairman of the governing boards of the turnpike authority, Massport, and the Massachusetts Aeronautics Commission, which oversees regional airports.

“He challenged us to come up with reform that was real,” Baddour, the Senate transportation committee chairman, says of Travaglini.

Along with the transportation plan, which Romney embraced enthusiastically, the Senate took the lead in efforts to restructure the state’s patchwork system of human services and revise public-construction laws – with support of both labor and business leaders as well as Romney – and was a partner in a major restructuring of the state’s school building assistance program.

“From a reform point of view, it was one of the most productive years in decades, and I think the Senate deserves a lot of credit for that,” says Michael Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation. “Those are issues that have been around for a long time and have resisted efforts to improve them or address them.”

For his part, Travaglini readily admits that the impetus came from Romney, but insists that, in the end, the Legislature outreformed the governor. “I think that the governor was the catalyst that sparked all of this reform movement. But the Legislature did it in a responsible and professional way. It dealt with the details, and it realized the ramifications of the actions,” he says.

“He’s not a policy wonk,” says Steve Tocco of his friend. “[But] he understands how to get policy implemented.”

Along with tapping his newfound reform impulse, Travaglini surprised many with his success at battling on behalf of constituencies and programs that were in the budget-cutting crosshairs as the state faced a $3 billion deficit. In his first budget negotiations, Travaglini managed to preserve funding for the state’s senior citizen prescription drug program, which Romney proposed eliminating, and he won restoration of health care benefits to most of the 36,000 adults who had been trimmed from the rolls of MassHealth, the state’s Medicaid program for the poor and disabled, despite opposition from the House Speaker.

“Trav was able to keep it focused on the issues and wouldn’t give up, despite repeated insistence by Finneran that he would never agree to it,” says McDonough, the former legislator, who now heads the advocacy group Health Care for All. “To me that was kind of a spectacular achievement.”

Marriage vows

If part of Travaglini’s success comes from an ability to stand firm without escalating differences into bitter confrontation, that skill was never more apparent than in last year’s debate over a constitutional amendment on same-sex marriage.

Most members of the House and Senate, which deliberate jointly when considering proposed amendments, went into the Constitutional Convention favoring either an outright ban on same-sex marriage or complete acceptance of the Supreme Judicial Court’s historic 2003 decree legalizing gay marriage. But when the tension-filled days of debate were over, lawmakers had given initial approval to a compromise amendment sponsored by Travaglini and Senate minority leader Brian Lees that would ban gay marriage but provide for state-sanctioned “civil unions” for same-sex partners with all the rights and privileges of marriage.

It was an outcome that satisfied neither side but nonetheless passed by majority vote, a classic display of Travaglini’s brokering skills.

Travaglini also retained his cool in the face of a bold move by Finneran to hijack the proceedings. Finneran introduced a gay-marriage ban at the convention’s outset, when Travaglini had recognized him for what the Senate president thought were to be only opening remarks.

“He and I had a private conversation,” Travaglini says of the way he and Finneran settled accounts from the episode. “Where I come from, and the way I was brought up, you don’t do that. It provoked a passionate response on my behalf – that I will say.”

In November, several months after advancing a legal ban on civil marriage for gays, Travaglini delivered a heartfelt toast at the wedding reception of Cambridge state Sen. Jarrett Barrios and his longtime partner, political and media consultant Doug Hattaway. This left observers wondering whether Travaglini truly objected to same-sex marriage at all – and if he would continue to push an amendment banning it. But Arline Isaacson of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus says she didn’t presume any change in his stance.

“That’s treating someone you know in a caring and compassionate way, and that’s quintessential Travaglini,” Isaacson says of the wedding toast. “He’s a man of the heart. But I won’t pretend that means he’s changed his mind. Different body part.”

Travaglini, who as Senate president presides over the Constitutional Convention, says he plans to convene the joint session again this year, and that he intends to push for the Legislature to give a second approval to his amendment, which will place the measure on the 2006 statewide ballot.

As for his first two-year term at the Senate helm, Travaglini doesn’t hold back his satisfaction in having dazzled the doubters. “All of those questions as to what is the true character and true makeup of Bobby Travaglini – I think they now know,” he says. “The business community is very pleased with what I’ve done. The advocates are very pleased with what I’ve done. And those who occupy political office are very pleased with what I’ve done.”


On a Thursday afternoon in October, about 70 people are gathered at the Milky Way, a hip Jamaica Plain restaurant and lounge featuring trendy beers and candlepin bowling. The Milky Way is run by a trio of grass-roots activists, and the crowd is thick with liberal stalwarts and Latino leaders who’ve been invited by the local state representative, Jeffrey Sanchez. The big draw is Sal DiMasi, the newly elected Speaker of the House of Representatives. After Sanchez gives him a warm introduction, peppered with a little Spanish for the bilingual audience, DiMasi takes the microphone.

Gracias, amigo,” he says to Sanchez, his awkward Spanish filtered through a thick Boston accent. “My Italian’s not too good, either,” he adds, drawing a laugh. With a mix of self-effacing humor and from-the-heart homily, DiMasi is off and running, charming the crowd with tales of the North End tenement life he was born into and the causes of the little guy that upbringing has led him to champion.

Truth be told, DiMasi probably won over lots of those in the room just by being there. Despite serving as Tom Finneran’s right-hand man as House majority leader, DiMasi cuts a considerably more liberal profile than the man he replaced, and House liberals – as well as advocates for everything from affordable housing to gay marriage and stem-cell research – see in him fresh hope for their causes on Beacon Hill.

If DiMasi’s liberal views seem a little out of sync with the more conservative values of the narrow North End streets where he grew up, he says it was in that Italian-American enclave that he came to believe in the basic tenets of fairness he often cites in explaining his political views. When he gave a rare floor speech during last year’s Constitutional Convention, DiMasi recalled his Italian immigrant grandfather’s passion for reading the US Constitution as he declared his opposition to any amendment that would restrict marriage rights for same-sex couples.

DiMasi cuts a considerably
more liberal profile than
the man he replaced.

A strapping 6-foot-2, DiMasi was a standout football player at Christopher Columbus High School. “I thought I was going to get scholarships to some very good schools for football,” he says. But a serious injury in a touch football game when he was 16, which nearly cost him his life and led to the removal of DiMasi’s spleen, ended his athletic career. DiMasi channeled his competitive drive into other pursuits, including chess, for which he was a reigning champion in the North End. “You have to anticipate moves in advance, and that’s what I like to do in politics,” he says.

Also good training for his later pursuits were the bartending jobs he held while working his way through Suffolk Law School. “I listened up and down to everybody’s problems, and I related the listening with making tips. So it was a good start,” says DiMasi.

After law school, DiMasi, 59, worked as an assistant district attorney in Suffolk County. But his professional career has been defined by the House seat he was first elected to in 1978 and the lucrative criminal defense practice he has maintained throughout his 26 years in office.

In describing the difference between Finneran and DiMasi, one former lawmaker who knows both men well says, “Both are city kids who grew up in rough and tumble Boston. Tommy picked himself up from the bootstraps and thinks anybody could. Sal takes very different lessons from similar experience – that you’ve got to be there for other people when they need you.”

Under the spotlight

That “be there for other people” credo has shaped DiMasi’s liberal-leaning outlook on everything from social service spending to gay rights, for which he was an early supporter in the Legislature. But DiMasi has also operated under the shadow of charges that he has also been willing to pull the levers of public power for more questionable purposes.

In 1999, a Boston Globe “Spotlight” report claimed that DiMasi was behind legislation that removed resale restrictions on 61 units of affordable housing in his North End district. The Globe said the change could yield a windfall of $146,000 for DiMasi’s brother as well as an aunt and niece, who all owned condos in the Lincoln Warf complex.

In the late 1980s, questions were raised about DiMasi’s role in fighting a bill that would have restricted the work of a former law client and business partner who operated as an “heir finder,” locating individuals unaware of property claims they could make on the estate of deceased relatives. The bill, which passed in 1990 over DiMasi’s opposition, limited to 40 years the time in which heirs could step forward to stop a land-taking by a municipality because of delinquent taxes.

And in 1990, a “Spotlight” series on the state court system charged that DiMasi was one of six politically connected lawyers, four of them state legislators, who enjoyed rates of acquittal and favorable plea agreements far higher than those of other lawyers in Boston Municipal Court. Much of DiMasi’s criminal defense work takes place in the BMC, an anachronism of the state judicial system in which the court serving Boston’s downtown neighborhoods has operated as department distinct from all other district courts across the Commonwealth. The Globe series suggested that politically powerful attorneys found favor with judges in the BMC, who depend on lawmakers for the court’s annual operating budget.

DiMasi rejects all the charges as baseless, and on some he has corroboration. A panel chaired by then-Suffolk Law School dean Paul Sugarman reviewed the cases cited in the Globe series and concluded that there was no evidence of impropriety in the cases DiMasi handled – although it did recommend that legislator-lawyers be “limited or prohibited” from practicing in the state’s trial courts.

As for the North End condominium project where his relatives live, DiMasi says it was the MBTA, which owned and developed the project, that wanted to cut short the affordable housing covenants. “I told them I didn’t want to have anything to do with it because it was in my district,” says DiMasi. While DiMasi did not file the legislation, the 1999 Globe report claims the bill was drafted by members of DiMasi’s staff and that he personally took credit for the bill in a letter to an owner in the condo complex. Of the questions about his role, DiMasi says, “I got a letter of exoneration from the ethics committee,” a reference, his office says, to correspondence from the state ethics commission. (DiMasi declined to make available a copy of the letter.)

Though he resents the stigma associated with the newspaper éxposés, DiMasi says that, for a politician, charges like these come with the territory. He says a favorite cartoon of his shows a man in a doctor’s office complaining about a sharp pain in his back. When the doctor asks him to turn around, there is a huge dagger sticking out. “The doctor says, ‘I told you, if you’re going to be in politics, you have to get used to the pain.’”

A house united?

On the September weekend that DiMasi – in a late-night meeting in his North End condo with his chief rival, John Rogers, which Finneran reportedly arranged – sealed the deal to become Speaker, the lawmaker took a congratulatory phone call from veteran human services lobbyist Judy Meredith.

“I’m 59 years old, and I want to do a Bobby Travaglini,” DiMasi told her, she says. “And I knew exactly what he meant.”

After watching Travaglini defy expectations, DiMasi seems determined to do the same.

After nearly 30 years in the Legislature, DiMasi was assuming the reins of power with little in the way of a public profile, and a reputation among State House watchers as a Beacon Hill bon vivant who enjoyed the perks of public office – and was willing to use his power as Finneran’s top lieutenant to put reps in their place. After watching Travaglini defy expectations in his first two years by showing leadership on serious issues facing the state and bringing a new collegiality to the workings of a dispirited Senate, Meredith says DiMasi seemed determined to do the same.

He will have his work cut out for him. Almost immediately after winning the Speaker’s post in September, DiMasi formed a committee of legislators to recommend reforms in House rules that critics – Democrats out of favor with leadership and Republicans alike – say were molded by Finneran over the years to tightly control the flow of legislation. But for some, it was hard to believe that DiMasi, who at times seemed to relish the role of enforcer as much as his Speaker relied upon him to play it, will deliver the House from Finneran’s tight grip.

But that is not what they say in the House. To consider DiMasi as Finneran’s leg-breaker is a caricature, they say. As much as he was part of Finneran’s team, DiMasi often tried to play the role of conciliator, the behind-the-scenes peacemaker trying to heal rifts in a House torn by division from the moment Finneran assumed power nine years ago. That experience, they say, will serve him well in the days ahead.

“My sense is that Sal is the right guy at the right time and at the right place in his life to do a really bang-up job,” says Rep. Harriet Stanley, a one-time Finneran ally who grew increasingly critical of his leadership, losing her committee chairmanship as a result. Even in his personal life, the one-time high-lifer has settled down. Remarried four years ago, and now a doting father to his wife’s two children, DiMasi seems more grounded these days, colleagues say. “That’s a different Sal than we’ve seen in the past,” says Stanley.

While House members are anxious for a bigger role, they’re also mindful of the need for a forceful leader who can bring discipline.

And it will be a different House, says DiMasi. “My style is going to be inclusive,” he says. “It’s going to be empowering of the members. I mean that committee work is going to be meaningful, and chairmen will have an obligation or responsibility for decision making.”

Rep. Angelo Scaccia, who chaired the powerful House rules committee under Finneran and is one of DiMasi’s closest friends in the Legislature, is convinced that DiMasi will be different from Finneran. “Tommy was always involved [in every matter] from Stage One,” says Scaccia. “I’m not so sure Sal’s going to be involved from Stage One.”

Indeed, some members say that, whatever comes out of DiMasi’s rules-reform committee, the rules may be less important than the ruler. “I always thought fights over the legislative rules were a surrogate for battles over power,” says Rep. James Marzilli of Arlington, who was part of the small group of Democrats who regularly challenged Finneran. “Depending on who’s holding the gavel, the system can work either really good or bad. So change will be made in the tone set by Sal.”

That tone may be more collegial not only because of who’s holding the gavel but how he came to hold it. In the months leading up to Finneran’s departure, DiMasi and John Rogers, the more conservative chairman of the House Ways and Means committee, were actively soliciting support for bids to succeed the Mattapan lawmaker. A loosely organized group of 30 to 40 representatives, which included the 18 liberal dissidents who had voted for Byron Rushing in his largely symbolic challenge to Finneran in January 2003, had hoped to back a third candidate when the leadership transition finally came. But Finneran’s fast exit caught many lawmakers by surprise, and with the third-candidate caucus not even able to agree on a standard bearer, most of them jumped into DiMasi’s camp, helping to seal his triumph over Rogers, who agreed to serve as majority leader under DiMasi.

It was a far cry from the bruising leadership battle of 1996, when Finneran pulled a stunning end-around by striking a deal with Republican House members to support his bid against then-majority leader Richard Voke, who enjoyed the support of a majority of House Democrats.

“Sal doesn’t come in taking the place over under the same circumstances as Finneran,” says Rep. Charles Murphy, a Burlington Democrat who entered the House in 1997. “When I came in, there was still blood on the floor.”

For all the talk of change in the House, some members are just as glad that the change won’t be so dramatic. “This is not a revolution,” says Marzilli. “There’s a lot of damage done in revolutions, and the good guys don’t always win.”

While many House members are anxious to keep DiMasi to his word on giving committee chairmen and rank-and-file members a bigger role, they are also mindful of the need for a forceful leader who can bring discipline, when needed, to the 160-member body, a task often likened to herding cats. House members don’t want an autocrat in charge, says Marzilli, but neither do they want the chamber run by “the virgin homecoming queen.”

On that score, there is little to worry about. In one of the more notorious episodes of DiMasi hardball politics, in early 2001, DiMasi told Rep. Doug Petersen in a weekend phone call that he couldn’t be sure what the consequences would be if Petersen persisted in voting not to weaken the state’s controversial “Clean Elections” law, as the leadership was proposing. Petersen voted “off” the leadership line, and was removed the next week as chairman of the Natural Resources and Agriculture Committee when Finneran announced new committee assignments.

Asked now about the episode of arm-twisting-followed-by-retribution, Petersen is willing to chalk it up to a different era. “I’m assuming and hoping that that was loyalty to Tom Finneran,” Petersen says.

“If you really knew Sal, that’s not his M.O. in life,” says Richard Iannella, a former Boston city councilor and longtime friend of DiMasi’s. “He’s a bridge builder. He’s not a bully.”

Indeed, many Beacon Hill insiders say DiMasi often worked tirelessly behind the scenes to bridge the gulf between Finneran and liberal lawmakers on various issues, even if not always successfully. “You would hear from other people in those meetings how hard Sal worked,” says Meredith, the longtime human services lobbyist. “He’d joke, he’d fool around,” she says, looking for any way to get Finneran to give a little.

Even the badly outnumbered House Republicans, whose ranks are now down to 21 members, see hope for a new chance at least to have their voices heard.

“I have an agenda that I would like to see carry the day,” says Brad Jones, the House Republican leader. “But on a more realistic level, I have an agenda that I would like to have see the light of day.”

Chip shots

At a North End fete in early November celebrating DiMasi’s rise to the Speaker’s position, Boston Mayor Tom Menino poked some fun at DiMasi’s most well-known passion. “I know your golf game will not improve, but our representation in the State House will improve because you’ll be there for the folks in our society who need you the most,” Menino told DiMasi.

While DiMasi’s responsibilities are certainly greater than they’ve ever been, there’s no reason to think his golf game will suffer. Indeed, for DiMasi, serious business often involves a good bottle of wine or a round of golf.

“Let me tell you, in any business, and in anything that you do, when you socialize and understand and learn things about people, etcetera, I think that’s extremely important,” says DiMasi, who drops “etcetera” into sentences where others sprinkle “uhs” and “ohs.” “There’s no barriers. And when you play golf, [when] you go out to dinner, I think that happens.”

For DiMasi, that happens a lot. According to campaign finance reports, in 2003, DiMasi was reimbursed from his campaign account $11,931 for 103 separate credit card charges, many for meals with Beacon Hill colleagues, and he charged his campaign account $4,982 for golf fees, covering himself and the lawmakers in his company, at the Ipswich Country Club, where he has long been a member.

For Rep. Frank Smizik, a love of golf may prove to be worth more than any elaborate policy pronouncement. A Brookline Democrat, Smizik was elected to office in 2000 by charging that the incumbent Democrat was too cozy with Finneran. It was an effective campaign message in one of the state’s most liberal communities, but it meant Smizik was relegated to the margins once he took office. With a leadership change clearly in the offing, last summer he broke bread – and hit the links – with Finneran’s chief lieutenant, cementing a friendship and an agreement to support DiMasi in his bid to succeed Finneran.

“My feeling was, I didn’t want to be a liberal dissident for my entire career,” says Smizik, explaining his break from many other House liberals who were hoping for a third candidate to emerge in the Speaker’s battle. “I’m the only progressive who plays golf – that helped.”

“I recognize that Frank Smizik has an awful lot of talent,” says DiMasi. “Frank and I became very good friends, and I respect his opinion.”

While Smizik is anxious to assume a more active role in the business of the House, whether everyone will take to the new member-empowerment promised by DiMasi remains to be seen.

“It’s a test for them, too,” Meredith says of those House members who have squawked the loudest for a larger role. “Imagine, finally being taken seriously. You better come up with something that’s pretty good.”

The same could be said for DiMasi, whom many are looking to as the kind of leader who will return the House to a place where vigorous debate takes place. DiMasi may be in the unenviable position of having raised expectations among those looking for change, while still drawing skeptical stares from other corners.

“We don’t expect to see much difference,” says Barbara Anderson, the longtime director of Citizens for Limited Taxation. “Sal DiMasi was in lockstep with the Speaker [Finneran] right from the beginning,” says Anderson, who was as critical of Finneran for his short-circuiting of public process in House proceedings as for his embrace of new taxes. In what passes for a charitable welcome from the hard-bitten veteran of Beacon Hill battles, Anderson says of the new Speaker, “You give a guy a chance – until he does the expected.”

Mandate for what?

As the Legislature begins a new session, the dominance of Democrats in both chambers is remarkable even by Massachusetts standards. As a result, there is lots of talk among Democrats of driving straight over a badly weakened governor. It’s a view that Travaglini does little to dispel. “I now have a mandate, the Speaker of the House now has a mandate… and we are going to define policy and the direction of the Commonwealth,” says Travaglini.

That may be dismissing Romney a little too quickly. As governor, he retains a public stature and ability to draw news coverage far beyond that of any other state official, including Travaglini and DiMasi. What’s more, Romney’s two-part mantra of no-new-taxes and reform of state government has, in fact, set the terms for much of the activity on Beacon Hill over the past two years.

Even assuming the Democratic Legislature holds most of the political capital on Beacon Hill, exactly how do the leaders plan to spend it? In the run-up to the new session, DiMasi offered little hint of the agenda he would pursue as House leader. He also kept his cards close to the vest on the most anticipated move of his early tenure – the announcement of committee chairmanships and other leadership positions, appointments that may provide clues to the direction the House will take on a range of issues.

In fact, Romney’s stands against taxes and in favor of government reform have set the
terms for much of
the activity on Beacon Hill.

In November, Travaglini outlined one big issue he plans to tackle, announcing at a meeting of health care advocates that he will be rolling out an initiative aimed at cutting the number of Massachusetts residents without health insurance in half within two years. Travaglini vowed to seek out creative, market-based solutions to the plight of the uninsured, disavowing new taxes or employer mandates as ways to increase coverage.

It was an attention-grabbing move that set in motion a flurry of activity in health care unlike anything seen on Beacon Hill in almost a decade. For months, the Romney administration had said it was working on a plan to address the problem of the uninsured, but Travaglini’s foray seemed to spur the governor into action. Within days, the administration, which had said it wouldn’t even be releasing the “principles” of its health care plan until the new year, suddenly jumped out of the box, with Romney authoring an op-ed piece in the Globe, in which he offered up a sketchy plan to offer coverage to all residents, with a similar reliance on market-based approaches. (The governor’s plan is elaborated, and accompanied by responses from advocates, business, and insurers, in Argument and Counterpoints, page 98.)

Romney aides say they’re eager to work with lawmakers to craft a plan all parties can embrace. “With the election over, now it’s time for all of us to extend the hand of goodwill to the other side and work together,” says Eric Fehrnstrom, Romney’s communication director.

That was clearly Romney’s intent as he mounted a post-election push to curry favor with Democratic legislators he had tried so hard to drive out of office. Romney asked Travaglini and DiMasi to dine with him in the North End, and he invited top Democrats to his Belmont home for some holiday cheer. In November, Jack Hart, the South Boston state senator, suddenly got a call inviting him to meet with the governor. Hart describes their half-hour get-together as an informal get-acquainted session, with some general discussion of state issues.

“I think it’s a sound move for him to make, to reach out to people,” says Hart, who had little contact with Romney over the previous two years. “I was a little bit surprised, but pleasantly surprised.”

Meanwhile, administration officials say they’re eager to work with the new House Speaker, and they have nothing but good things to say about Travaglini’s first session presiding over the Senate. “The Senate president, I think, has surprised people with his commitment to reform,” says Fehrnstrom. “It’s a fact of life that people in politics get stereotyped, sometimes unfairly.”

Travaglini undoubtedly couldn’t agree with him more. It was Fehrnstrom’s boss who helped introduce Travaglini to statewide view with campaign ads in 2002 that placed the incoming Senate president in the “Gang of Three,” a troika made up of Travaglini, Finneran, and Democratic nominee Shannon O’Brien, the lot of them portrayed as responsible for the patronage-soaked “mess on Beacon Hill” Romney vowed to clean up. Last fall, Romney-backed legislative candidates pushed a similar message, branding Democratic incumbents as reform-resistant toadies of the Boston politicians running the Legislature.

“I don’t think that’s something that’s going to be easily forgotten,” says Sen. Richard Moore. Lawmakers may not “let it get in the way of what needs to get done, but I don’t think they’re going to be looking to do the governor any special favors, either,” says the Uxbridge Democrat.

“I applaud him for re-energizing incumbents in the Democratic Party,” says Travaglini, in a backhanded compliment to the governor.

With Travaglini and DiMasi more in sync on issues than Birmingham and Finneran, some Beacon Hill players think the Democrat-controlled House and Senate may be able to pursue a common agenda in a way that was not possible in recent years, when the two chambers often spent as much time battling each other as they did a succession of Republican governors. That could put the Legislature in an unusually strong position in working with the governor – or defying him.

“We have the possibility, for the first time in a long time, of the two branches working together on a Democratic agenda against a Republican administration, and working with a Republican administration for the good of the people when there is common ground,” says Sen. Stanley Rosenberg, an Amherst Democrat.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean the state is off to the races, in programs or spending. “They’re pragmatic people,” Tocco says of Travaglini and DiMasi. “They’re not driven by ideology, and I think that presents real opportunity, because to be pragmatic you have to listen, you have to be inclusive, and you have to realize there are many ways to solve big problems.”

While both men realize they now carry far weightier responsibilities than in the past, when they were simply sticking up for their districts, it would be foolish to think that two lawmakers who built their careers on going to bat for those they represent won’t be looking out for those who brought them to the pinnacle of power.

A month after his visit with Jamaica Plain activists at the Milky Way, the new House leader is standing on more familiar ground. It’s “Sal DiMasi Day” in the North End, and local leaders have organized a tribute to the local boy made good, the state’s first Italian-American House Speaker. Several hundred residents are gathered on the Prado, a cobblestone pedestrian mall that runs between Hanover Street, the neighborhood’s busy main thoroughfare, and the grounds of the famed Old North Church on Salem Street.

“I am proud to be an Italian-American. I am proud to be Speaker of the House. But I am most proud to be a North Ender,” DiMasi says to the crowd.

When it’s his turn to honor his new partner on the bridge of the Legislature, Travaglini speaks of their broad commitment to shaping policy on health care, education, and the economy. “I am excited about the responsibilities he and I will share,” Travaglini tells the crowd. “And to all of those who live close by,” he adds, referencing DiMasi’s North End neighborhood, which also happens to sit in Travaglini’s own state Senate district, “I wouldn’t recommend relocation.”