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Douglas W. Petersen, at 66; lawmaker became agriculture chief

Early in his long career as a Democratic state representative from Marblehead, Douglas W. Petersen phoned his campaign manager with a startling confession from the House floor. A news reporter had just asked him to comment on then-House Speaker Charlie Flaherty’s management style.

“I think I just committed political suicide,” he told his friend Frank Yetter. “I just called the speaker a gangster.”

Mr. Petersen, who championed the environment, gay marriage, and clean elections laws during 17 years in the Legislature, wound up in the “cheap seats” for disparaging the speaker, Yetter recalled.

When another iron-fisted speaker, Thomas Finneran, demanded Mr. Petersen vote to block term limits and campaign finance reforms, Mr. Petersen chose the will of his district over his own political career and paid the price. The speaker removed him as chairman of the Natural Resources Committee.


Public service “was something Doug did because he wanted to. He believed if you didn’t stand for your principles, go do something else,” Yetter said.

Mr. Petersen, who was also Massachusetts commissioner of agriculture from 2007 to 2009, died July 1 at his home in Portland, Maine. He was 66.

The Jones-Rich-Hutchins Funeral Home in Portland confirmed his death. No information about the cause was released.

Both speakers Flaherty and Finneran were eventually forced out of office amid scandal and federal prosecutions.

“Doug was a complex, talented man, passionate about life, people, his work, and his family. He developed a thick skin to survive the battles of Beacon Hill, but underneath the veneer he bore the weight of his failures far more acutely than his successes,” Yetter, a former community newspaper executive, wrote in a tribute published in the Marblehead Reporter.

In a prepared statement, Governor Deval Patrick lamented Mr. Petersen’s death.

“Doug’s passing is a shocking loss. He was an early supporter in politics and a friend in the Legislature. As commissioner, Doug was a tireless advocate for Massachusetts farmers. My heart goes out to his family. He will be missed,” the governor said.


Mr. Petersen sponsored and co-sponsored more than 250 bills, according to his family. He successfully fought for the Brownfields Act, which stiffened standards for cleanup of toxic sites and indemnified buyers from lawsuits. He also battled for regulations forcing reduction of emissions at power plants.

In 1995, Mr. Petersen sponsored legislation to legalize medical suicide and found himself defending the proposal against Cardinal Bernard Law in public forums.

Mr. Petersen told the Globe he knew the measure was doomed. He said he hoped to promote discussion on terminal patients’ right to seek medical help in ending their lives.

“Doug stood steadfast in his belief in reason and human kindness versus religious dogma,” wrote his former legislative aide Barbara Schneider in a tribute for The Jewish Journal, where she is publisher.

Schneider, who worked in state government with Mr. Petersen for 13 years, said she first met Mr. Petersen when the handsome candidate knocked on her door during his first campaign.

“I was very impressed. He had a wonderful gift of gab — a good communicator. He was well-liked by his constituents,” she said in an interview.

He also had a “certain naivete,” she said. “He was a very principled person and that made it difficult for him to succeed” on Beacon Hill.

Robert Ritchie, a former legislative staff member, said Mr. Petersen was “a great person to work for. He was passionate and compassionate.”


When Mr. Petersen lost his chairmanship, “we admired his principles. It was important to stand up for what the people wanted,” said Ritchie, now an attorney for the Department of Environmental Protection.

Born in 1948 in Rockville Centre, on Long Island, N.Y., Mr. Petersen endured tragedy at an early age. Both his parents died when he was a teenager, according to his friends.

In 1970, he earned his undergraduate degree in sociology from Wagner College in New York, followed by a master’s degree in social work from Simmons College in Boston. He started his career as a therapist and clinical director for the North Essex Health Resource Center, where he also worked on public policy issues advocated by the National Association of Social Workers.

He earned a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government in 1989, according to his family, and fulfilled a long-held dream of entering politics.

“Doug was just a good, solid guy. He cared about environmental issues deeply,” said former Allston-Brighton state representative Susan Tracy. “He was honest, hard-working, all the thing you want in a public servant.”

In 2007, Mr. Petersen sought to become Patrick’s secretary of environmental affairs but lost the post to former Clinton administration staffer Ian Bowles.

The governor then named Mr. Petersen commissioner of agriculture amid opposition from farm interests who were upset over his environmental record and labeled him inexperienced.


“I’m very wedded to the mission of the agency,” Mr. Petersen vowed. But his tenure was short-lived. He was forced out in April 2009, the Globe reported.

Mr. Petersen was devastated by the end of his political career and his life fell into disarray, friends said.

His marriage broke up in 2012, and he moved to Portland. He and Dr. Nancy Ryan, a gynecologist, were married for 28 years, according to his family.

In addition to his former wife, Mr. Petersen leaves a son, Ryan, of Philadelphia; a daughter, Katrin, of Los Angeles; and a brother, Roger, of New York. Services have been held.

Representative Lori A. Ehrlich, who succeeded Mr. Petersen in the Eighth Essex, recalled Mr. Petersen as a devoted fighter for his district.

“Doug was earnest and kind. He also courageously stood up for important issues when it wasn’t necessarily easy to do so. He was an early supporter of marriage equality as our state was on the leading edge of what now is increasingly accepted nationwide. He also went to the mat for environmental causes and good government, sometimes at the peril of his own advancement,” she said.

Yetter said he will miss his old neighbor’s love of life and his “goofy golf swing.”

Doug Petersen, he wrote, was “a man who truly, genuinely, and relentlessly cared. About all of us.”

J.M. Lawrence can be reached at jmlawrence@me.com.