In the North End, sentiment sours on a fond friend

Constituents say ex-speaker should pay for his crimes

By Stephanie Ebbert
Globe Staff / June 16, 2011

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In the anise-scented bakeries of the North End, where locals defended Salvatore F. DiMasi long after he was indicted on corruption charges, yesterday’s guilty verdicts seemed to have a way of souring sentiment.

Though many still expressed fondness for their former legislator and his contributions to their neighborhood, they were not surprised that his indictment had led to a conviction. And having heard prosecutors’ evidence against him, they were decidedly less sympathetic.

“First of all, he is a personal friend,’’ said one constituent, who would identify himself only as Jack. “I know him and I like him. He was always very generous with people in the North End, if they needed a favor. Unfortunately, it looks like he did himself a favor.’’

The constituent was working at A. Parziale & Sons Bakery, whose storefront window was bedecked with photos from the bakery’s 100th anniversary celebration and pictured the former House speaker as an honored guest. “If the facts were reported correctly,’’ the man said, “then he probably deserved it.’’

Others were similarly hardened yesterday, even in the old Italian neighborhood where DiMasi launched his political career and where he is known as a regular customer, an ally, and a friend. “I like him, I feel bad,’’ said a man scooping olives behind the counter at Monica’s Mercato on Salem Street. “But you know, if you commit a crime, that’s what happens.’’

John Sullivan, who owns Prince Postale market, said some people who worked with DiMasi were “happy that he got what he got today.’’

“Yesterday, a woman said to me, ‘He did a lot of good for this neighborhood. He got jobs for people that no employers would hire,’ ’’ Sullivan said. “ ‘But when he did bad, he could have brought down innocent people around him.’ ’’

Sullivan said he was always pleased to see a corrupt politician toppled. “It’s the people’s money,’’ he said. “You’re elected for us, not yourself. Now he’s not going to get his pension. All those years he worked hard, he flushed down the toilet.’’

DiMasi grew up in the North End and was a familiar and loyal friend, known in the neighborhood and on his campaign signs as simply “Sal.’’ He represented the neighborhood in the Legislature for nearly three decades and made history in 2004 by becoming the first Italian-American elected speaker of the Massachusetts House.

Now he has made history as the third House speaker in a row to be indicted on criminal charges and the third in a recent string of Massachusetts politicians convicted of corruption or bribery. Many pointed to those factors to express a dim opinion of politicians at large.

“I think he deserves what he gets,’’ said Jose Dimas, who works in the North End in maintenance. “They get too greedy. I work for $10 an hour, and I’m very happy with the $350 a week. These guys live such a high life.’’

“What are you gonna do? They’re all crooked, right?’’ said Frank Taragna.

“It’s kind of funny — three speakers of the House in a row?’’ said Scott Imbrogna, general manager at Piccola Venezia on Hanover Street. When one of his patrons at the bar defended the current House speaker as a ‘humble guy,’’ Imbrogna prodded, “He won’t be the fourth?’’

The legislator who succeeded DiMasi in representing the North End in the House — former DiMasi aide Aaron Michlewitz — issued a statement yesterday reminding constituents of DiMasi’s contributions to the neighborhood and pledging to help restore the public’s confidence in elected officials. Calling the verdict “disappointing,’’ Michlewitz said in the statement that it “ends a tumultuous and sad chapter for my neighborhood, the district and the Legislature.’’

“It is also disappointing that people will forget the good that Sal did for equality, for health care, and for the neighborhoods he represented,’’ Michlewitz’s statement added. “My heart goes out to his family in this difficult time.’’

John Rosato, 87, a veteran who holds court at James “Nini’’ Limone Corner, also lamented the verdict could become DiMasi’s legacy. “It’s a shame with the career that he’s had at this stage of the game to be [remembered as] the bad guy,’’ said Rosato.

Nonetheless, Rosato made clear where he would place the blame: “He should know what’s right and wrong.’’

Though many had been surprised by the charges against DiMasi two years ago, some of those interviewed yesterday were not at all surprised to see them result in guilty verdicts.

Albie Alba was among those who was initially dubious of the charges against the speaker. “A lot of the locals were,’’ Alba said.

Alba, the owner of Alba Produce on Parmenter Street, knew DiMasi as a customer and a nice guy, noting that DiMasi always paid for what he got at his produce market. “It’s a shame,’’ Alba added. “Whatever happened, we’re going to be sad because as a neighborhood guy, he’ll be missed.’’

Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at