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Globe Editorial

DeLeo needs to build a legacy beyond slots and patronage

February 5, 2011

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HOUSE SPEAKER Robert DeLeo isn’t the daunting power broker that his recent predecessors were, and that’s mostly for the good. But the 20-year representative from Winthrop isn’t an instinctive reformer, either. For the remainder of his tenure as speaker, DeLeo the State House lifer will be pulling against DeLeo the agent of change. It’s vital that the agent of change prevails, but lately the lifer seems to be winning.

DeLeo’s renewed push for slot machines at the state’s racetracks this week provided an unpleasant flashback to last year’s legislative session, when his small-bore fixation on the issue nearly ground all other business to a halt. DeLeo has personal reasons to support racetrack slot parlors; his father worked at Suffolk Downs, and two of the four tracks in question are in his district. But his stubborn advocacy for what could be a no-bid gambling contract for business interests in his district suggests a larger problem: His inability to understand that, as speaker, he must pursue the best interests of the state, not his narrow constituency.

That same inability to see the larger picture has put DeLeo on the defensive as scandal swirled around the state probation department. He is among those named in an independent counsel’s report as recommending job candidates to the agency. His godson, one of the youngest chief probation officers in state history, is an obvious beneficiary of political favoritism. In downplaying the scandal — by feigning surprise that probation officials would heed recommendations from the Legislature that controls the department budget — DeLeo came off as indifferent to a betrayal of public trust.

DeLeo’s blind spots are all the more frustrating because his support has been crucial in enacting pension, transportation, and ethics reforms that past Legislatures have resisted. DeLeo’s House led the charge for a major package of education reforms, without which the state never would have won an infusion of federal Race to the Top money. And DeLeo’s more recent call for forcing cities and towns to take advantage of cost-saving measures for employee health insurance upholds the House’s traditional duty to mind the public purse.

DeLeo surely exceeds the low standards set by his immediate predecessors. His political mentor, Sal DiMasi, left the speakership amid an influence-peddling scandal and is now under indictment. The previous two speakers have felony convictions. To his credit, DeLeo hasn’t ruled with the iron grip that any of the three exercised.

Still, DeLeo recently consolidated his power by reassigning former House Majority Leader James Vallee and then Ways and Means Chairman Charles Murphy — two lieutenants widely assumed to be planning future runs for speaker. The move was a punishment for Vallee, and perhaps also Murphy. Notably, the biggest beneficiary may be new Ways and Means Chairman Brian Dempsey, who was DeLeo’s top negotiator in last year’s gambling debacle.

Somehow, all arrows point back to racetrack slot parlors. Massachusetts needs a speaker who is committed to repairing the public trust and who shows a passion for issues beyond racetrack slots. DeLeo must live up to that role.