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Republican freshman shakes up Beacon Hill

Daniel B. Winslow (without tie) with bankers Kevin Browne (right) and Joseph Scholl (left) and state Senator Richard Ross. Daniel B. Winslow (without tie) with bankers Kevin Browne (right) and Joseph Scholl (left) and state Senator Richard Ross. (Debee Tlumacki for The Boston Globe)
By Noah Bierman
Globe Staff / March 30, 2011

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Daniel B. Winslow has charged through nearly every corridor of power in Massachusetts. He has been a judge. He has been general counsel to Governor Mitt Romney. And he is US Senator Scott Brown’s attorney.

Yet there he was on a recent afternoon, perched on a radiator in a barren basement room in the State House, lamenting that he didn’t have enough chairs to conduct a meeting in his own office.

Winslow, at the age of 52, decided to run for the Legislature last year. His victory put him at the bottom of Beacon Hill’s pecking order, one of 31 Republicans in the 160-member House, with no seniority, no committees to lead, not even a window in that basement office.

Yet the representative from Norfolk is far from anonymous. He has quickly become an omnipresent voice, drawing both scorn and praise, and loads of attention as he wages battles on nearly every contentious issue on Beacon Hill — gambling, redistricting, union rights, prisons. College students have staged a sit-in in his office; union members have shouted epithets about him during a protest on the State House steps; he was even confronted by an angry union steward outside a bar.

And he’s been in office only three months.

But Winslow is doing more than just finding his way around — he’s strutting. He salutes when he passes the oil portraits of Josiah and Edward Winslow, Colonial governors who he says are his ancestors, on his way to the House floor. His frenetic energy for the new job has already stirred speculation that he is looking to join those other Winslows, by making his own bid for governor.

In an interview, Winslow spoke passionately and in exacting detail about the 20 bills he has filed, his philosophy on neighborhood zoning, and a new method of corporate mediation he plans to present at a legal conference in Malibu, Calif., next month.

“Ideas can be provocative,’’ Winslow said with a smile. “This place is desperate for ideas.’’ He quickly added that he has the “highest regard’’ for his new colleagues in the Legislature and insisted he is pleased to be a rank-and-file member. “What’s lacking — it’s usually supplied to us by lobbyists — is new thinking.’’

Between heavy doses of policy, Winslow wove in dramatic personal tales, including one about a bombing in his kitchen that, paradoxically, cemented Winslow’s relationship with politics.

The 1990 bombing, part of an escalating harassment campaign, put Winslow in the news as a young member of the Norfolk planning board. First, nails were placed on his driveway; then came a poorly written letter to his wife, purporting to be from a former lover of Winslow’s. The nastiness culminated with a bomb that blew out his kitchen windows and turned open the water faucets.

“If anybody would have been in that house, it was not a survivable incident,’’ Winslow recalled.

He said the prime suspect was a strip mall developer who was angry that his building petition had been denied. The attorney general’s office obtained a restraining order against the man, who has since died. Police never gathered enough evidence to charge the suspect criminally.

Winslow said he was frightened by the bombing but chose not to leave town or quit the planning board. Instead, he said, he used the nails that had been strewn on his driveway to hold up his reelection signs.

Avoidance is not Winslow’s style. When he leaves the House chamber, he is among a handful of legislators who walk toward the scrum of reporters instead of bolting straight for the elevator. He said he likes the give and take, no matter who is asking the questions.

“We need more engagement,’’ he says.

But to unions, Winslow’s form of engagement has amounted to a provocation. They say he has quickly become their top enemy on Beacon Hill.

“You can tell Winslow: We’re after him,’’ said Robert J. Haynes, the president of the AFL-CIO of Massachusetts.

Winslow filed a bill to remove all but wages, hours, and working conditions from the bargaining table for public employees. Haynes noted Winslow’s close ties with Romney and called him the face of the national Republican Party in Massachusetts, bent on replicating the measure in Wisconsin that stripped public employee unions of collective bargaining rights.

But Winslow also has some liberal admirers, including Scott Harshbarger, the Democrat and former attorney general. The men still work together at the law firm Proskauer Rose and filed a failed lawsuit two years ago to remove tolls from the Massachusetts Turnpike.

“Could he be attorney general or governor?’’ Harshbarger said. “No doubt, in my view. If I happened to be a Republican I’d be looking very closely at Dan Winslow as someone able to be a major force in my party.’’

Winslow does little to dispel that talk, noting that he chose to run for the state House of Representatives instead of the state Senate because it is a much better launching pad, historically, to higher office.

He has pledged to limit himself to three terms in the House while maintaining his law practice, making almost everything he does feel like a sprint. Earlier this month, he initiated an unsuccessful attempt to declare slot machines legal in the state under existing law, a move that would have helped Plainridge Racecourse, the harness track in his district. He is initiating an effort to bring a federal prison to Norfolk. And he is representing a group that is challenging the state’s effort to redraw congressional districts, saying they dilute minority representation.

But his high profile, so early in his tenure, has not endeared him to all of his colleagues in the State House, most of whom are accustomed to respecting rank and seniority. Representative Martin J. Walsh, a Dorchester Democrat who leads one of Winslow’s committees, called Winslow a nice and smart guy, but said the lawmaker should follow the advice he gives to all freshmen legislators: “Sit back. Learn the process. Learn the players. Don’t try to grab the spotlight on every issue, because what happens is you become a flash in the pan.’’

Noah Bierman can be reached at nbierman@globe.com.