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New leader, same old politics

ANOTHER OVER-50 white male wins a powerful position in state government and Massachusetts celebrates diversity.

Congratulations, Salvatore F. DiMasi. It was a pleasure watching you hug the intimacy-phobic Governor Mitt Romney. Italian-Americans are proud of your new title, Speaker of the House, and hope you do well and good in the job.

But DiMasi's ascension is no sign of a dramatic new political age in Massachusetts. DiMasi and Senate President Robert E. Travaglini, now hold the two top positions in the state Legislature. They join longtime state Auditor Joe DeNucci and three-term Mayor Thomas M. Menino, providing a confluence of Massachusetts powerbrokers with vowels at the end of their name. Three Italian-Americans have served as governors -- Foster Furculo, John Volpe, and Paul Cellucci -- but Irish-Americans are the legendary backbone of Massachusetts politics.

This current concentration of Italian-Americans is a coincidence of time and successful political gamesmanship rather than any substantive changing of the face of Massachusetts politics. And the fact that DiMasi and Travaglini hail from overlapping legislative districts illustrates a concentration of power in not just one part of the state -- Boston -- but in one corner of the city -- the first and third Suffolk districts, which include the North End and East Boston.

When it comes to real power, the best female legislators can do is hand over blocs of votes to the male colleagues who ultimately win and then hope they are chosen to be part of his leadership team as a reward. Taking the next step, as in becoming a viable candidate for the Senate presidency, is no more likely for today's women legislators than it was for Patricia McGovern, who headed ways and means during the tenure of William M. Bulger. Despite her loyal and capable service, Bulger's handpicked successor was Thomas F. Birmingham.

During the recent Senate leadership battle, two female senators, Linda Melconian and Marian Walsh, also jockeyed for a chance to replace Birmingham. After helping Travaglini cobble together the votes he needed to win, Melconian believed Travaglini promised to keep her as majority leader. Walsh believed Travaglini wuld appoint her chair of the Way and Means committee. Travaglini replaced Melconian and named Senator Therese Murray as chair of Ways and Means.

Gender and ethnic diversity is slow in coming to Massachusetts elective politics, where Democrats hold much of the power. The congressional delegation is all white and all male. Democrat Shannon O'Brien was the first female to win statewide office in her own right in Massachusetts, but was defeated in a run for governor. Former US Senator Edward W. Brooke, the only person of color that Massachusetts ever sent to Congress, was a Republican. Andrea J. Cabral, the first African-American woman to hold countywide office in Suffolk County and the state's first female sheriff, defeated Boston City Councilor Stephen J. Murphy last month to retain her post. Republican Acting Governor Jane Swift first appointed Cabral to the post to replace Ralph Martin, who is also African-American.

There are 10 people of color in the Legislature. State Representative Byron Rushing, an African-American, launched a mostly symbolic bid to unseat Thomas M. Finneran as Speaker of the House and garnered 17 votes in 2003. Rushing's showing had little to do with his skin color and everything to do with the entrenched power of the incumbent speaker, who now leaves the speaker's office to DiMasi.

Massachusetts overall population is 84.5 percent white. Change, if it comes, will flow from the urban areas, where demographics show a shifting population. According to the US Census, Boston became a majority minority city only recently, with the nonwhite population outnumbering the white population for the first time in the 2000 Census. Cabral's victory over Murphy in the recent Suffolk County sheriff primary battle is cited as evidence of the new power of Boston's minority vote. With Finneran's resignation, potential candidates emerge to battle for the seat he held for nearly a quarter century in Mattapan, Dorchester, and Milton.

None of this takes away from DiMasi's victory, but call it what it is: a victory, first, for old Massachusetts politics rather than new Boston politics. His ethnicity is a subplot that lends itself to reporting on his tendency to embrace anyone within reach, as well as less positive stereotyping relating to Italian gangsters.

It would be great if DiMasi truly opens up the process and presides over a new era of inclusion in the House. The new speaker can change the feel of legislative politics, but not the face or complexion. Only the voters can do that.

Joan Vennochi's e-mail address is 

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