The legacy of former AG Francis X. Bellotti is worth celebrating

In 1986, following his decision not to seek a fourth term despite overwhelming popularity in the Commonwealth, Attorney General Francis X. Bellotti addressed the Democratic State Convention.

His remarks were the subject of an op-ed titled “Political Risks, Political Power,” which quoted Bellotti’s convention speech and complimented his posh start and political leadership during his tenure.

“Political leadership,” Bellotti said, “is not derived from a negotiated agenda, nor from managerial strategies, nor from the articulation of perceived public will. True leaders consider the human element in decision-making and never forget that the purpose of government is to meet human needs.

Bellotti, who turns 99 this week, said the words 36 years ago and warned that “it’s not power that corrupts, it’s the fear of losing power”.

During Bellotti’s tenure as Attorney General, he transformed the Attorney General’s State Department from a part-time law firm in the State House into a formidable public interest firm at One Ashburton Place. He became a model for other AG offices across the country. Its alumni include former and current judges, chiefs of staff and many renowned private practitioners.

His former staff members had to hold themselves to the same high standards that Bellotti demanded of himself. Many were reformers seeking to achieve from within what was not possible in the private sector. His public interest law firm has worked tirelessly to use and propose laws to protect the small from the large – the needy from the greedy. Ironically, such a successful effort took place in 1979 when, as Attorney General, he challenged the Massachusetts law that prohibited underage abortion without parental consent. In Bellotti v. Baird, Justice Stevens overturned the requirement in an 8-1 Supreme Court decision.

Bellotti was further quoted on leadership in his 1986 speech: “True political leaders refuse to sacrifice their judgment to public opinion and take political risks, including the risk of losing political power.”

As he turns 99, political power is a distant memory for Bellotti. However, those of us who were fortunate enough to work for him learned political courage and leadership from a master. A birthday candle should be lit on his cake to commemorate the flame that Bellotti lit in more than a generation.

Steve Kramer is a lawyer and former assistant attorney general of Massachusetts from 1980 to 1987.

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