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SCOT LEHIGH

Beacon Hill loyalty oath

IN THE State House debate over whether, as House speaker, Sal DiMasi will suddenly discover his inner process liberal or comport himself as the arm-twisting patronage-pushing pol he has long been, several clues have just emerged.

Let's label the largest one House Speaker Pro Tempore Thomas Petrolati.

Two weeks ago, DiMasi and Senate President Robert Travaglini met with some journalists to discuss their proposed legislative reorganization. This columnist came skeptical about the need for another House leadership position, particularly one with a $15,000 stipend.

But hearing DiMasi discourse about its value, one could have been forgiven for wondering how the Commonwealth has survived these several centuries without a House speaker pro tempore.

"Institutional knowledge needs to be maintained so that we can know what we have done before, how successful it was, and the history of legislation and the history of this body," said the speaker, describing the role the shadow speaker would play. And besides, the Senate already has a president pro tempore.

Of course, it's also true that if the Senate were a community, it would be Lake Wobegon, where every child is above average. In the Senate, every Democrat is a leader. Or at least a member of leadership. It's a place where there are almost more human chairs than wooden ones.

The Senate president pro tempore is Stanley Rosenberg. That post was created for Rosenberg after he was outmaneuvered for the top job by Robert Travaglini, a more skilled inside player. Still, it's hard to begrudge Rosenberg the position. A former Ways and Means Committee chairman, he is recognized as one of the most knowledgeable members of the Senate.

But on the House side, even before the new role was created, word was circulating that it was wired for DiMasi's pal and Mini-Me. That is, Tommy Petrolati. Now, Petro is a gregarious guy in a back-slapping, share-a-laugh-in-the-hallway kind of way, but a legislative Socrates he is not. Ask what qualifies him for a top leadership spot and skittish members shrug, grimace, roll their eyes, or turn their palms heavenward in a desperate game of corridor charades whose purpose is to avoid uttering anything that might be pinned to paper.

So back in that meeting, I asked DiMasi: Given his expansive rhetoric about the importance of the new position, we could expect a person widely recognized as an extraordinarily talented legislator, right? The speaker hemmed. And started to haw. The staff interrupted, saving him from answering.

I did, however, get a reply to this query: Was it true that the new post was being created for Petro?

"I haven't made any decisions at all," DiMasi claimed. "I am considering maybe 10 people for that position right now."

Imagine the shock, then, when on Monday the speaker announced his choice for speaker pro tempore: Thomas M. Petrolati.

The appointment raises this question: What, exactly, won Petro the job? (And this more fanciful query: Who were the nine legislators judged less able?)

"Tom Petrolati is an experienced legislator and he is [from] Springfield, which is in the west," explained the speaker, expatiating about the need to better represent the Massachusetts frontier.

Now, Napoleon might just believe that geography is destiny, but on Beacon Hill, everyone knows it was Petrolati's unswerving loyalty that carried the day.

Pressed further, DiMasi deflected, noting his appointment of two African-American members to lower leadership positions: Byron Rushing as assistant majority whip and Marie St. Fleur as vice chairman of Ways and Means.

"You should pay attention to those factors as well as the others," the speaker counseled. Balance the bad with the good, in other words?

OK. To be fair, it is true that DiMasi has both diversified the House leadership and recalled some of the liberals from the lonely Finneranian Siberia where they have long chilled their toes. But let's not lose sight of the problematic, either.

The speaker argued for the creation of a big new leadership job with a handsome stipend, selling it as important to an effectively run House. He then delivered it to a loyal but undistinguished crony.

Put another way, when it comes to the question of whether we'll get the same old Sal or a late-blooming reformer, the appointment of Petro was decidedly retro.

Scot Lehigh's e-mail address is lehigh@globe.com. 

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