Couldn’t the North End Columbus Day Celebration Committee find an Italian-American who didn’t go to prison for public corruption to honor with a public service award?
Former House speaker and convicted felon Sal DiMasi was recently recognized by a North End community organization, at an event attended by Mayor Marty Walsh and City Council President Michelle Wu, along with Councilors Michael Flaherty and Ayanna Pressley. Walsh was unavailable to discuss the matter, but issued a statement that he “was happy to join the committee to celebrate Italian heritage and the contributions of the Italian community in Boston.”
Like Christopher Columbus, DiMasi’s legacy is complicated. When asked about the appropriateness of this honor, Governor Charlie Baker told the State House News Service that the former speaker played a critical role in shepherding the state’s groundbreaking health care law. “I would say, first of all, that the Massachusetts health care law, which has been a big success here in the Commonwealth, is something that the former speaker had a lot to do with,” said Baker.
Unfortunately, DiMasi was also convicted for accepting $65,000 in kickbacks in return for steering $17.5 million in state contracts to a Burlington software company. With that, he wasn’t serving the public. He was serving himself and a circle of friends. When he sentenced DiMasi to eight years in federal prison, the judge said he wanted to put a stop to the “culture of arrogance” on Beacon Hill and send a message that corruption would not be tolerated.
Some Italian-Americans did wonder whether the sentence might be less harsh if the defendant had fewer vowels in his name. DiMasi was sent to federal prison in Kentucky, where his family said he never received proper treatment for a lump in his throat that was discovered soon after his sentence began. He was ultimately diagnosed with Stage 4 tongue cancer. Last November, after a battle waged by his wife, he was granted early release after serving five years.
Home detention for DiMasi ended in May. Now comes his re-emergence into the world he once ruled as “King Sal.” Besides helping to craft the state’s landmark health care law, he also championed same-sex marriage. At the same time, DiMasi fiercely opposed casino gambling, a stance that led to whispers, but no proof, that his political enemies were somehow behind the federal investigation that ended with his conviction.
For some, standing up for liberal principles outweighs unprincipled personal conduct.
“So he made a mistake,” said David D’Alessandro, the former CEO of John Hancock Financial Services. “His transgression in the overall scheme of mistakes we are witnessing these days seems trivial. Madoff, Weinstein, Weiner. Without Sal, Romney never would have had universal health care, which served as Obama’s model. Sal saved a lot more lives with his courage than virtually anyone in power.” A version of that argument — that ideology outflanks character — allowed voters to accept Bill Clinton and Donald Trump. Ted Kennedy was also embraced by Massachusetts voters, despite Chappaquiddick and other alleged misconduct. In DiMasi’s case, however, there’s an actual criminal conviction.
To be fair, no one’s giving DiMasi the Medal of Honor — just the Michael A. Nazzaro Jr. Public Service Award, named after a North End state lawmaker. DiMasi, who represented the North End for 30 years, shared the award with outgoing City Councilor Sal LaMattina, who said he was honored to do so. “My feeling is that Sal did his time, did his punishment. People make mistakes and we forgive in the North End,” said LaMattina.
The late Mayor Thomas M. Menino was also a past recipient. And that shows the real complication. Past and future honorees now share this public service award with someone who dishonored the public trust — no matter what other good he did.