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Peter Lucas: During Robert DeLeo’s 12-year reign as Speaker of the House, he provided steady leadership

BOSTON, MA. – NOVEMBER 5:  Speaker of the Massachusetts House, Robert DeLeo holds a media briefing on the states budget at the State House on November 5, 2020 in Boston, Massachusetts.   (Staff Photo By Matt Stone/ MediaNews Group/Boston Herald)
BOSTON, MA. – NOVEMBER 5: Speaker of the Massachusetts House, Robert DeLeo holds a media briefing on the states budget at the State House on November 5, 2020 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Staff Photo By Matt Stone/ MediaNews Group/Boston Herald)
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The election of Rep. Ron Mariano as Speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives to succeed Robert DeLeo recalls speakers from the past.

I have known and/or covered the last 10 of them, all Democrats, four of whom were indicted.

The first speaker was the hard drinking, hard living John F. Thompson (1958-64) of Ludlow, known as “Duke,” or the “Iron Duke,” because he ran the House with an iron fist. He had to. The body was made up of 240 unruly members and not the more manageable 160 of today.

Thompson was a semi-crazed World War II combat veteran who still had shrapnel in both legs.

He drank to ease the pain, so they said. Everybody was afraid of him. He was a brawler, hitting the Boston bars every night. You never knew if he was going to shake hands or throw a punch. Today he would have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Thompson rarely went out at night without a minder — a fellow rep whose job was to keep Thompson out of trouble. One of the minders was Rep. Tom McGee of Lynn. McGee was also a semi-crazed World War II veteran, a Marine who had fought on Iwo Jima. He would later become speaker himself (1975-1985).

John F. Kennedy was a contemporary. However, Thompson, after more than a few drinks, hung up on him when President Kennedy called to ask for House approval of a state-by-state resolution supporting his Cuban missile policy. The House passed the resolution after Thompson passed out.

My first day on the job in 1963 came on the morning after a fistfight in the speaker’s office between Thompson and an official from the state Banking Department. It was over a woman they both were seeing.

The oval top of the wooden door to the speaker’s office had been smashed open after one of them — most suspected Thompson — threw a weighty andiron from the fireplace at the other and missed but hit the door and splintered it.

Welcome to the Massachusetts Statehouse.

Thompson was indicted on bribery charges in 1964 but died before his trial. He was 45 years old. He had a huge funeral in Ludlow.

The nine speakers who followed Thompson in the office — despite their problems — were all tame in comparison.

Thompson was followed by Rep. John F. X. Davoren of Milford who served for two years before the Legislature elected him to fill out the term of outgoing Secretary of State Kevin H. White who was elected mayor of Boston in 1967.

The Legislature has the power to fill statewide vacancies when it is in session.

But before White stepped down, he insisted that the House approve a stalled financial windfall bill for Boston. Otherwise, he would not resign. No bill, no job. Davoren got the bill approved.

Davoren was followed by Rep. Robert H. Quinn of Dorchester, who had ambitions of becoming governor. Like Davoren, Quinn only served for two years, 1967-1969, before the Legislature elected him to complete the term of Attorney General Eliot Richardson who resigned to join the Nixon administration.

Quinn ran for governor in 1974 but was beaten in the Democrat primary by Michael Dukakis, a former mere backbencher in the House under Quinn.

David M. Bartley of Holyoke was speaker from 1969 to 1975. He warned correctly that the move pushed by liberals to cut the size of the House from 240 to 160 members would reduce minority representation. It passed and it did.

Told that 80 legislators would lose their jobs in the cut, Wally, who ran the Golden Dome Pub across the street, commented: “Too bad for them. But I just lost eighty drinkers.”

McGee, who came next, served for 10 years as speaker before he was ousted by fellow Democrat Rep. George Keverian of Everett in a coup. Keverian as speaker (1985-1990) never turned down a good poker game, of which he was good at. He ran for state treasurer in 1990 and lost.

The next three speakers, despite solid legislative accomplishments, were all convicted of wrongdoing — Charles Flaherty (1991-1996) of Cambridge, tax evasion; Thomas M. Finneran (1996-2004) of Dorchester, perjury; and Sal DiMasi (2004 -2009) of the North End, extortion.

DeLeo took over as speaker in 2009. He provided steady leadership and restored some lost respectability to the House. He survived. And he never punched anyone out — that we know of.

Email comments to  luke1825@aol.com.