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Mass. pols deal or go bust on casino debate

Glen Johnson

It all, it appears, comes down to what you mean by the word “deal.”

Did Salvatore F. DiMasi make a deal with his members, when they elected him House speaker in 2004, to exhibit leadership different from the autocratic, opaque style of his predecessor, Tom Finneran? A majority felt so.

Did DiMasi fulfill the deal he made with Gov. Deval Patrick last year when he pledged a “full and fair” debate on the governor’s proposal to build three gambling casinos in Massachusetts? The governor certainly doesn’t think so.

And did DiMasi consummate a deal with state Rep. Richard Ross last week before the Wrentham Republican switched his vote and decided to oppose the casino bill in a crucial committee vote, all but dooming it a day later on the House floor?

The member thinks so. The speaker thinks not.

Such is the aftermath of a contentious week on Beacon Hill, which left the casino bill in tatters, prospects for closing the state’s $1.3 billion budget surplus further in doubt and relations between the governor and the speaker in need of some tending.

That’s quite a deal for just one piece of legislation.

The truth is that this kind of showdown has been coming since Patrick ran for office in 2006 with the promise to clean up the clubby culture on Beacon Hill. That remark didn’t sit well with fellow Democrats already in the State House, including DiMasi.

There’s been barely a Patrick bill introduction that hasn’t been greeted with words of caution from the speaker. That was particularly the case when the new governor proposed to close a series of tax loopholes benefiting corporations.

DiMasi was against them last year, but last month, he did a 180-degree turn and led the House to approve the loophole closures.

While DiMasi has supported other Patrick bills, including a $1 billion life sciences initiative that also cleared the Senate last week, Patrick aides remain flustered. They feel the disagreements have little to do with policy and far more to do with personality — contradicting DiMasi’s promises when he became speaker.

“I would like to say a world about my views on leadership,” DiMasi told his members after they elected him speaker on Sept. 29, 2004. “I am open-minded and openhearted in my approach to decision-making. I will bring a generosity of spirit to this job, and I will work in collaboration with each of you as we confront the demands of governing.”

Some members questioned his adherence to that pledge in recent weeks, as he made clear his opposition to the casino bill even before it received its promised public hearing on March 18.

The first time came earlier this month, after the administration acknowledged that the 30,000 construction jobs it projected the casinos would create was based on an analysis by a likely casino bidder.

“The governor’s arguments for casinos are clearly losing credibility,” DiMasi said in a March 2 statement.

Patrick replied a day later with an equally tart statement: “One thing is certain: the speaker’s alternative will create zero jobs.”

The two kept up their dispute at the South Boston St. Patrick’s Day breakfast, where Patrick serenaded DiMasi with a casino jingle and DiMasi reminded the governor of the saying, “The House always wins.”

Things were so bad that when Patrick sat down to begin the “full and fair” debate at a public hearing last Wednesday, he told the Joint Committee on Economic Development he expected his bill would be defeated. After a 13-hour hearing, the governor’s suspicions were confirmed: The panel voted 10-8 against the measure, setting up an even broader defeat before the full House membership the following day.

State Rep. Bradley Jones, R-North Reading, described what transpired as “euthanasia by debate.”

The bill wouldn’t have died, though, without that crucial committee vote.

Ross, the Wrentham representative, told reporters he decided to break an initial 9-9 committee deadlock and vote against the bill after DiMasi told him he would soon allow the House to vote on an alternative bill. It proposes allowing 2,500 slot machines at each of the state’s four racetracks — one of which, Plainridge, is in Ross’s district.

After Ross left the microphone, the speaker stepped up and denied any such deal. DiMasi also denied applying any pressure on his membership, or cutting any deals for their support.

Yet when asked whether he was now more amenable to slot machines at racetracks, DiMasi double-clutched, something of a surprise for someone who had been unequivocal about the social and financial dangers of casino gambling.

“That’s a question for another day,” the speaker said.

Glen Johnson has covered local, state and national politics since 1985.

(Associated Press)