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Majority leader Sal DiMasi, who could be named House speaker as early as tomorrow, took a call in his State House office yesterday, one of many conversations he had over the weekend.
Majority leader Sal DiMasi, who could be named House speaker as early as tomorrow, took a call in his State House office yesterday, one of many conversations he had over the weekend. (Globe Photo / Bill Brett)

Whirlwind for DiMasi

Takes final steps toward speakership

The deal making had all but died down, but Salvatore F. DiMasi was in his State House office yesterday, spending a sunny Sunday talking to colleagues and arranging for the final steps in his stunning capture of the speakership of the House of Representatives.

It was the third day of a whirlwind of phone calling and ego-stroking that tapped all the tools that DiMasi has honed in 26 years on Beacon Hill. An inside player who knows the levers of power, he struck with amazing speed when it became clear Friday that House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran would leave office.

DiMasi was awake past midnight Friday, calling a Jewish colleague on Yom Kippur by accident, before returning to his office Saturday and Sunday to talk with colleagues. In a late-night meeting at his North End home Friday, DiMasi had persuaded his chief rival, John H. Rogers, to become the majority leader.

It may have been the best behind-the-scenes performance yet for a man who has built a career-closing deals in the back rooms of the State House.

For the last three years, DiMasi has been the House majority leader, acting as Finneran's second in command and a vote counter when the Democrats needed to ensure a victory on the House floor. Now he will be thrust into higher-profile role, as the public face of the 160-member House and a leading negotiator with Senate President Robert E. Travaglini and Governor Mitt Romney, a Republican.

He was laying plans yesterday to gather his House colleagues as early as tomorrow, with Democrats expected to elect him the next speaker if Finneran completes negotiations for a job as president of the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council. It would be the first time since 1970 that both the speaker and the Senate president represented the same district -- DiMasi and Travaglini have overlapping districts.

DiMasi, a Democrat from Boston's North End, is a social liberal who supports abortion rights, gay marriage, and social services. He rarely gives speeches on the floor or calls news conferences, often choosing to hover at the side of the House chamber, where he can cajole lawmakers into reaching agreement on tax bills, health care, and other business of the day.

Years ago, when antitax activist Barbara Anderson sat down to categorize lawmakers into fiscal liberals and conservatives, she fit DiMasi into a third category, "pols."

"I see him as a pol, the poster child for the pols, and I don't think he'd consider that as an insult, either," Anderson said. "He thinks in terms of the leadership and power."

Representative Robert A. DeLeo sketched a similar profile: "Sal is sort of hard to pinpoint ideologically and philosophically -- not that he doesn't take positions, but he's not hard and fast."

Representative Lida Harkins, a Needham Democrat, said DiMasi's skill at calling lawmakers and forcing them to an agreement can cut both ways: Those left out of a deal feel they have been strong-armed; those included feel an accord has been reached.

"He can be tough. I've seen him. When he knows something is the right thing to do or the right way to do it, he doesn't waver, and he doesn't hesitate. He stands firm," Harkins said. "The thing that I really like about Sal is he can roll with the punches really well.

"And he gets along great with people of different political agendas, and he does it with a really self-effacing manner."

In the late 1980s, when DiMasi was at his North End home recuperating from a mild heart attack, he shooed away colleagues who asked whether he was going to show up for a vote on a tax increase. "I'm recovering from a heart attack, not a lobotomy," he said.

In other words, Harkins said, DiMasi knew when to avoid a sticky situation, with a good medical excuse and a dose of humor.

DiMasi, 59, married in August 2001, in a ceremony well attended by friends from the North End and the State House. His wife, Debbie, manages her father's liquor store, Harkins said. He frequently attends the soccer games of their two children.

He enjoys golf and leading lawmakers on tours of the North End's cafs and restaurants. Tall and easygoing, DiMasi rarely gets far without someone stopping him on the narrow streets with a "Hey Sal!," Harkins said.

In the House, he is known as an enforcer for Finneran and the man liberals go to if they can't get their way with the conservative speaker.

Deborah Blumer, a Framingham Democrat, recalled marching to DiMasi's office several years ago after she learned that health care coverage for about 55,000 poor people was threatened in a proposed House budget.

DiMasi intervened and helped set up a meeting that evening with Representative John H. Rogers, the top budget writer for the House, who unexpectedly seemed willing to compromise, Blumer recalled. "He was open to discussion and wasn't just restating his decisions," she said.

Yet, over the weekend, he held fast against demands by Rogers, the 39-year-old Norwood lawmaker who was close to Finneran personally and ideologically. Rogers, according to lawmakers, wanted DiMasi to limit his term as speaker, but DiMasi was confident enough that he had Democrats' support that he simply said no. Rogers will become majority leader; DiMasi has yet to name a new chairman of the Ways and Means Committee to replace Rogers.

By yesterday, DiMasi was focusing on unifying the Democratic Party before the November elections and Romney's well-financed effort to elect Republicans. DiMasi issued a statement saying he had been "humbled by my colleagues expressions of confidence in my judgment, leadership skills, and experience."

"I want to thank my colleague, Representative John Rogers, for recognizing that a leadership fight would have been counterproductive for House members and for the state as a whole," DiMasi said. "He deserves credit for helping to unify the House during this critical time. I look forward to working with him and all of the members as we move forward."

Globe Staff Writer Frank Phillips contributed to this report. 

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