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After eight years as Massachusetts Speaker of the House, Thomas M. Finneran unexpectedly announced his resignation Sept. 28 to become president of the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council. Salvatore DiMasi, D-Boston, who until now held the position of House Majority Leader, was elected the new speaker by 133 of 155 representatives voting Sept. 29. With the change in leadership, a staunch proponent of abortion rights and same-sex marriage has taken the gavel from a socially conservative speaker whose views often coincided with the Church's moral teachings.
"What might change [with DiMasi] is the effort on issues like the life issues and the marriage issue," Gerry D'Avolio, director of the Massachusetts Catholic conference told The Pilot.
"Sal, from his own record, has opposed the Church's view on that," D'Avolio said.
"Even though he is fairly liberal on some social issues, I also think he's always has been a fair person at the Statehouse and we would hope that will continue as he takes over speakership," D'Avolio said.
Speaking of Finneran, D'Avolio praised his firmness in defending many issues in line with the Church's teachings.
"His own upbringing and his faith was strong in his decision making," he said.
"He will be sorely missed in the future at the Statehouse and by the citizens of the Commonwealth, and I am hoping Sal DiMasi carries on in his seat well also," D'Avolio said.
The speaker of the House holds an essential position in determining what issues will be priorities during a legislative session. He appoints the chairs of the House committees who, along with the speaker, set the priorities during each session.
"Whoever assumes the role of speaker will have a large part to play in what the House actually passes and doesn't pass," according to Dan Avila, Associate Director for Policy and Research of the MCC.
"If you have someone who is more inclined to focus on economic issues as opposed to social issues, or is more inclined to take one side as opposed to the other on moral issues, you will see an influence of that on the process and what actually comes out of the House," Avila said.
Still, D'Avolio hopes that DiMasi will continue in his predecessor's path honoring committee work and making efforts to build consensus.
"I don't think that's going to change with Sal," D'Avolio said.
"All we are asking is to be assured from the speaker that he will be fair and he will give us the opportunity at the committee level on critical issues, and not do it through budget questions, by circumventing the committee process," D'Avolio said
But DiMasi's pro-abortion rights and pro-same-sex marriage views have been hailed by leaders of lobbying groups, whose expectations run high.
"We're ecstatic," said Arline Isaacson, co-leader of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus, referring to the expectation that DiMasi's election may help in their efforts to thwart the Constitutional amendment process that would ban same-sex marriage but establish civil unions.
"While this certainly does not guarantee a change in the outcome, it sure as heck helps," she told the Associated Press.
Asked about how to better continue the lobbying efforts of the bishops of Massachusetts in a changed, less receptive environment, D'Avolio emphasized the great success grass-roots involvement had in influencing the same-sex marriage debate.
"It galvanized a number of Catholics throughout the Commonwealth in support of the position that marriage should be between one man and one woman," he said.
The new era in the House coincides with D'Avolio's own announced retirement after 30 years leading the MCC. His successor is expected to be named around the end of October.
He expects that his successor will continue promoting political awareness among rank and file Catholics, "because without the kind of support you might have had in the legislature in past years, we have to make it up by doing a great deal of grass-roots efforts and letting our legislators know our positions on issues through those who elect them," he said.
For several years the MCC has run MCC-Net, a network of volunteers who support the lobbying efforts of the bishops of Massachusetts by contacting "legislators on issues touching on the Catholic Church's vision of a society that is pro-life, pro-family, and pro-poor," according to the MCC web site.
"If our numbers continue to grow, it doesn't matter who the speaker is, who the senate president is. We can then show our influence, as many the other groups have. We might not have the money to do it but we may have the people behind to support the positions that bishops will take on a range of public policy issues in the coming years," D'Avolio said.