A long way up for DiMasi before the spectacular fall

Social liberal pursued power with old-school ways

Salvatore DiMasi in his office in the early days of his career as a lawmaker. Salvatore DiMasi in his office in the early days of his career as a lawmaker. (Globe File 1983)
By Michael Levenson
Globe Staff / June 17, 2011

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Rising from a cold-water tenement in the North End to the gold-trimmed speaker’s office at the State House, Salvatore F. DiMasi was a man of contradictions.

A proud practitioner of the political old school whose glad-handing style was rooted in the ethnic politics of Boston’s past, he racked up significant legislative victories as an early and ardent champion of gay rights and universal health care and as an implacable opponent of casino gambling.

He also committed a crime — conspiring with friends to rig a contract for kickbacks — that represented the worst excesses of old-school politics: cronyism, greed, and the arrogance of power.

On Wednesday, the tall and imposing former high school football player fought tears as he stood outside the courthouse moments after his conviction and lamented his spectacular fall on federal corruption charges.

“You spend a lot of time, 30 years, being a legislator and doing what you think is right and helping a lot of people, and I don’t think that there was a full story told in there about my record and about what I’ve accomplished as a speaker or a legislator,’’ he said. “I think that was all lost in this case.’’

DiMasi, 65, grew up in a world that revolved around sports, church, and family in the old Italian-American neighborhood. By his own telling, he was an altar boy at St. Leonard’s Church who played stickball with a sanded broomstick.

One of three sons of Joseph, a bartender, and Celia, a homemaker, DiMasi was a standout athlete at Christopher Columbus High School until, at age 16, he ran into a fence during a game of touch football and injured his spleen and pancreas.

Accepted to Boston College, he studied accounting and planned a career that would take him far from the poverty he had known growing up.

“I wanted to be in business where you could make money and work for a corporation and you could do almost anything,’’ he said after his election to speaker in 2004.

But a constitutional law class at BC changed this thinking, and, after a year training as a financial manager at Raytheon, he entered Suffolk University Law School. After tending bar, like his father, to make ends meet during law school, he worked as a prosecutor and then began a career as a defense lawyer.

Friends saw in him the gifts of charm and persuasion, and they encouraged him to pursue another path, politics. In 1976, at age 31, DiMasi ran for state representative against an incumbent and lost. Two years later, with the seat open, he ran again and won narrowly.

Unusual for a politician from a culturally conservative enclave, he was a social liberal whose support for abortion rights and gay rights put him at odds with the Catholic Church. Those stances helped him win support in the liberal South End, which was also in his district.

He pointed to the North End’s old-world values to explain his world view. “If a neighbor was sick, you took care of him,’’ he said. “If a neighbor was out of work, you brought food to his family.’’

But policy took a back seat to the pursuit of power in the Legislature. DiMasi, a Democrat, never expressed any interest in running for Congress or mayor. Rather, he said as a young lawmaker in 1984, “the possibility of rising to a leadership position in the House of Representatives is very exciting to me.’’

In the clubby social order of the House, he was esteemed for his ability to disarm lawmakers with a joke or an arm draped over a shoulder. He rarely gave speeches and seldom attended press conferences, yet he rose in the ranks.

“He was effective because he was a gentleman that knew everybody in the chamber,’’ said Representative Thomas A. Golden Jr., a Lowell Democrat. “He was someone who really worked the room very, very well.’’

He was as chummy with lobbyists as he was with lawmakers and landed in ethical tangles long before his conviction.

In 1993, after he was photographed shirtless with lobbyists and legislators at a Puerto Rican beach resort, he was cited by state officials for using campaign funds to finance the junket. In 1998, he crafted a law rewriting the financial terms of a North End condo complex, a change that would have financially benefited his brother, aunt, and niece, who owned condos in the building.

In 2006, the Globe reported that DiMasi had purchased two BMWs for considerably less than their estimated value from a used car dealer he was steered to by a lobbyist.

DiMasi denied wrongdoing in every case, and his stature in the House was never shaken. In 2004, he was elected speaker, succeeding Thomas M. Finneran, who later pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice.

As speaker, DiMasi deftly flexed his muscle. He worked with Governor Mitt Romney to pass the state’s universal health care law, and he battled Romney to prevent a gay marriage ban from going on the ballot. He also sparred with the politically inexperienced Governor Deval Patrick, shooting down one of Patrick’s priorities, the legalization of casinos.

But DiMasi’s fortunes began to change in March 2008, when the Globe reported the first in a series of stories describing his involvement in a questionable software contract. Colleagues rallied to his defense, even as unflattering details of the deal continued to mount.

On Jan. 7, 2009, though mired in ethics questions, DiMasi was reelected speaker, with the support of 135 of 160 representatives. Basking in sustained applause, he blew kisses to his wife in the House balcony.

Even as he clung to power, DiMasi was drowning in financial troubles, according to evidence presented at his trial.

Part of a high-flying social circle that included Jay Cashman, a major developer, and Larry Lucchino, president of the Red Sox, DiMasi and his wife, Debbie, owed $250,000 in consumer debt as of 2007, including $50,000 in credit card bills for restaurants, travel, and clothing.

The couple also had a $500,000 mortgage on a North End condominium and another $400,000 mortgage for property in Needham.

The burden, prosecutors said, led DiMasi to seek $65,000 in kickbacks in the software deal.

“People live beyond their means,’’ US Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz said Wednesday. “People get into financial trouble and, unfortunately, think that the resolution, or how to solve the problem, is by committing a crime that can put money in their pockets.’’

Less than three weeks after his reelection as speaker, on Jan. 27, 2009, DiMasi resigned.

“I like to think when I leave that I heeded the words of my father,’’ he said, voice cracking, in his farewell address. “Whatever job you do, do it well. And whatever work you do, take pride in it.’’

On Wednesday, after his conviction, the man who started with little and acquired much was facing a significant prison sentence. Yet he was unrepentant. He said he hopes he will be exonerated on appeal.

“I was a legislator who did the best I could,’’ he said. “I made a lot of good decisions, and I helped a lot of people. And I would never have any second thoughts of running for office again.’’

Michael Levenson can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.