Melanie's Law: Mass GOP's Finest Hour
By Ben Kilgore; Friday, December 30, 2005 (Published in the Providence Journal)
BOSTON - ATOP the Rhode Island State House perches "the Independent Man," a statue that speaks volumes about the state's highly individualistic political culture.
Outside the Massachusetts State House stands the equestrian statue of Union Gen. "Fighting Joe" Hooker, whose contemporary namesakes were known as "camp followers" before the Civil War. They literally followed the money. That statue, too, speaks volumes about its state's political culture in the wake of the fiasco attendant to "Melanie's Law," which bared the clueless hubris of several of the state's most prominent legislators.
The breathtakingly ill-advised pre-Halloween legislative sojourn to the Portuguese riviera should be the last straw for voters who have reflexively returned undeserving Democrats to office year after year.
The lark began hours after the House had gutted "Melanie's Law," a bill named for Melanie Powell, 13, who was killed when struck by a repeat drunken driver. After several legislators, with the complicity of House Speaker Sal DiMasi, convinced their colleagues that Melanie's Law was too punitive, the House voted 114 to 22 to remove the following provisions:
Guess how many of the six Democrats who initially eviscerated Melanie's Law are lawyers making fees by representing drunken-driving offenders. The answer is: Five.
The Shameless Six who gutted the bill include Rep. Eugene O'Flaherty, who celebrated masquerading his self-interest as the public interest by packing his bags for sunnier climates.
When asked who benefited by the weakened bill, Ron Bersani, Melanie's grandfather, said simply: "Drunks and their defenders."
Now guess how many of the 22 legislators who voted against weakening Melanie's Law are Republicans. The answer is: 22.
Governor Romney ultimately prevailed upon the legislature to restore the essential enforcement elements of the law, and the sun-struck solons returned from their junket to face the wrath of the electorate.
Romney signed the strengthened bill into law in late October, and, fatefully, within 48 hours two allegedly intoxicated drivers killed two people and seriously injured another in accidents in Boston and Methuen.
Hours after the governor had signed the bill, the Milton police arrested a Hyde Park man, Jerry Taylor, who is likely to have the distinction of being the first suspect prosecuted under the provisions of Melanie's Law.
Guess how many times he has been convicted for drunken driving? Five. Perhaps he had a good lawyer.
After the tougher version prevailed, and subsequent to the tragic accidents, Sen. Bruce Tarr (R.-Gloucester), the bill's co-sponsor, observed: "The events of this weekend are just another example of why we need stronger laws for repeat drunk[en] drivers. It's a pattern that's been going on for years."
Voters need to make their own decisions about individual legislators, and the increasingly arrogant behavior of the legislature as a body, but it is clear that the judgment of more than a few legislators is transparently compromised.
It is unfathomable -- to those who witnessed a handful of lobbyists posing as legislators undermine Melanie's Law -- that political scientist Paul Reins once wrote glowingly: "The General Court of Massachusetts is in all respects nearest to the people, and most responsive of any American legislature to public opinion."
That was, however, in 1907. The civic pride of our legislature has deteriorated into a smug monopoly, in which leisure golf, a deep tan, and public-payroll careerism are principal pursuits.
(Ben Kilgore is a public-relations consultant who represents Republicans.)
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