People and Politics: September 2010
Historic term. Colorado’s first African-American speaker of the House, the grandson of a sharecropper, ended his historic term with the bang of a gavel at the end of the 2010 session of the General Assembly. Terrance Carroll was appointed to his legislative seat when Peter Groff resigned to move to the Senate. When Carroll, a lawyer, ordained minister and former police officer, became speaker, Groff was Senate president. It was the first time in the United States that two African Americans led the same state legislature. Carroll is ending his legislative career because of term limits. Groff left the Senate in 2009 to head President Obama’s faith-based initiatives center for the U.S. secretary of education.
Independence day. A receipt in a box of Civil War love letters led to the discovery of a rare copy of the Declaration of Independence in Iowa recently. Senator Dennis Black located the document, which had been stored at the state archives in obscurity since it had been donated to the state in 1947. In 1843, former President John Quincy Adams commissioned the copies (printed from a copper plate made by J.W. Stone, which is on display at the National Archives) to go in the pocket of a book in the series “American Archives.” The Iowa copy was donated by the Rev. Mary Thornton. She is a relative of Mathew Thornton, a delegate to the Continental Congress from New Hampshire and the last signer of the Declaration. Black is writing a book, “A Kiss for Mary,” based on the letters. “This is a remarkable and inspirational document that has a true Iowa pedigree,” Black said. “Viewing it should inspire us all to contemplate the beginnings of this great nation and cause us to strive to return to the democracy our Founding Fathers envisioned.”
Place of honor. Stevens T. Mason, Michigan’s “boy governor” and the youngest governor in American history, has not rested in peace since his death at 31 in 1843. He was appointed the state’s acting territorial secretary at 19 and then acting territorial governor at 22. Influential in moving Michigan to statehood, Mason was elected the state’s first governor in 1835 at age 24. As governor he established the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and initiated an ambitious state improvement plan that included three railroads and a canal. But he retired from politics and moved to New York City to start a law practice. When he died of pneumonia, he was buried in New York. In 1905, his remains were moved to Detroit and buried beside the cornerstone of the first state Capitol under a large bronze statue of himself. In 1955, his ashes were moved to make way for a bus terminal, and now again as part of a reconstruction of a park. But this time, he wasn’t exactly where they thought he would be. “We thought we’d find him directly under the statue, but he was a few feet to the side,” said the contractor who had to search for the remains. The park renovation will put the governor back in a place of honor with his monument and statue atop.
Carp caper. Illinois is facing a severe budget crisis, and Governor Pat Quinn has an idea to partially plug the hole and protect Lake Michigan at the same time. “If you can’t beat ’em, eat ’em,” the governor said in announcing an agreement to sell as much as 30 million pounds of Asian carp a year to upscale restaurants in China. Carp are popular in China; in U.S. waterways, not so much. The invasive species, which is native to China and has no predators in American waters, devours food crucial to native fish and poses a huge threat to the entire ecosystem of the Great Lakes, with the potential of destroying a $7 billion fishing industry as they move up the Mississippi and Illinois rivers. In fact, despite being rebuffed twice by the U.S. Supreme Court, five states filed suit in late July with a lower federal court demanding tougher federal and municipal action to prevent Asian carp from overrunning the Great Lakes.
Pension ruling. Former Massachusetts House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi is entitled to his pension and immediate payment of some $40,000 in back benefits, according to a judge’s ruling in July. DiMasi, who is under indictment on corruption charges for allegedly profiting from steering state contracts to a software company, resigned in January 2009 after 29 years in the legislature. His $5,000 monthly pension was suspended in October by the State Retirement Board following the federal grand jury indictment. The judge ruled, however, the board did not have the authority to suspend the pension and furthermore should have conducted a hearing at which DiMasi could have presented his side or waited until there was a verdict in the federal case.
GOP on the move. Wisconsin Republicans are on the offensive. The GOP lost control of the Senate in 2006 and the Assembly in 2008. This year, 23 legislators are stepping down and Republicans have fielded candidates in 87 of 99 Assembly districts—38 more than in 2008. But Democrats, who have an 18-15 majority in the Senate and control the Assembly 51-46, believe they have a strong chance of winning 20 open seats in November. If the Republicans do make a clean sweep of the Legislature, “it would be astounding in sheer political terms,” according to Mordecai Lee, a former state legislator and University of Wisconsin government affairs professor. “You’d probably have to go back to the Great Depression to see something like it.”
Legislator remembered. Massachusetts Representative Robert Nyman, a lawmaker since 1999, died in a drowning accident in his pool in June. Some 200 legislators, the governor and lieutenant governor and U.S. Senator Scott Brown were among the 400 in attendance at his funeral. Former House Speaker Thomas Finneran was among those who eulogized the respected and popular lawmaker. “It is a grieving town,” he said, “but it is a better town because of friend Robert Nyman.” His widow, Rhonda, will take his spot on the ballot in November.