Dan Morain

Dan Morain: An old photo, money, blurred lines, architecture and Arlington

Sen. Mark DeSaulnier removed a framed black-and-white photo, circa 1958, from the wall of his Capitol office.

He is 6 and dressed in his Sunday best, looking up at his dad, who is wearing a dark suit, smiling and shaking hands with the governor.

There was plenty to be proud of that day. Gov. Foster Furcolo had appointed Edward DeSaulnier to the Massachusetts Superior Court.

All that had changed by 1971.

Mark had finished his freshman year at Holy Cross, when a congressional committee investigating mob influence with the judiciary called a witness who testified that Judge DeSaulnier had accepted a bribe.

“It was a Friday, and I was going to go to Cape Cod with a couple buddies. A reporter showed up at the door,” the senator said. “I remember he was wearing white socks. And he asked where my dad was.”

DeSaulnier is open about his father, brutally so: “My dad was an alcoholic. He had gambling problems. He gambled on everything. When we were kids, he’d get on the phone and the joke was ‘beans.’ He’d put a bean and a half on the Celtics.” That’s likely how crooks got their hooks into him.

Soon after Judge DeSaulnier’s name surfaced in the congressional hearings, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court disbarred him, citing “grossly improper” conduct, and he resigned from the bench rather than face impeachment.

Sen. DeSaulnier had a good week last week. He won the primary, all but ensuring he will replace Rep. George Miller, a Democratic lion who represented the Contra Costa County district in Congress for four decades.

But his father’s fall is never far from his thoughts, certainly not this year, when Sens. Leland Yee and Ron Calderon were indicted on federal corruption charges and Sen. Rod Wright was convicted of perjury.

I stopped by his office seeking his insights into what has gone awry in the town he will be leaving. He talked about the power of money, the blurring of lines, the brutality of campaigns, the need for more transparency, architecture and Arlington National Cemetery.

After graduating from college, DeSaulnier moved to California, far from the city where his family name had been sullied through no fault of his own. He built a successful restaurant and had sons of his own.

His father remarried, relocated to Florida, went back to school, and tried to stay sober and away from gambling. He’d slip and ask for money, sometimes thousands of dollars. Mark believes he was the last person to talk to his father.

A few months after his father died in 1989, a contingent from the Concord Chamber of Commerce asked DeSaulnier to go onto the planning commission, and he did. He won a City Council seat. Gov. Pete Wilson appointed DeSaulnier, then a Republican, to the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors. Then an Assembly seat opened, then a Senate seat, and now the congressional seat.

“This work is endlessly interesting and rewarding,” he told me. “But I do think, based on the experience with my father and I see it here, there is a seduction process. People are more than willing to tell you how great you are. And how smart you are. And how witty you are.”

And there is all the money. Legislators’ fundraising prowess equates to success and power, and campaigns have become insidious. The point is not solely to defeat opponents but to “psychologically terrorize them in their community.”

“The thought of having millions of dollars spent on TV or mail saying you’re a horrible human being, that is a very powerful psychological tool,” he said.

His father is front of mind when bills come up dealing with certain topics. He votes against gambling bills, because the industry doesn’t pay the full cost of doing its business by helping gambling addicts. Although he sold liquor as a restaurateur, he thinks the Legislature lets the liquor industry off too easily by keeping alcohol taxes among the lowest in the nation.

Legislators reacted to the indictments of Yee and Calderon by introducing bills to clean up politics. Perhaps some of the measures will have an effect, on the margins, though no law or regulation will stop politicians who are bent from stepping over the lines.

“You either have to get money out of politics, or make it so transparent that members won’t do pay-to-play,” DeSaulnier said. “All these bills in the aggregate will be helpful. But it comes down to the individual ethics of the member.”

DeSaulnier noted California’s Capitol was built to inspire awe. Its architecture is supposed to make clear to its occupants that they come and go, but are part of something much more grand.

“American democracy isn’t some trite thing,” he said. “I don’t think Americans realize the reverence with which the rest of the world looks at us in our best moments. And California in particular.”

Edward DeSaulnier was a Marine fighter pilot in the South Pacific in World War II, who became a lawyer in 1948, won a seat in the Massachusetts House of Representatives at age 26, when Tip O’Neill was there, and became a state senator at 32. People mentioned him as gubernatorial timber.

He father came by the restaurant one day in April 25 years ago, and wrote his son a check for $300, saying he needed cash to get back to Florida.

“He called me in the middle of lunch; he knew I would be busy because I always worked lunches. He was crying and said, ‘The check is no good.’ I said, ‘I know, Dad.’ ”

The senator remembers ending the conversation, as he often did, by saying, “Keep the faith,” a reference to the Marine Corps motto, semper fidelis. His father shot himself on April 20, 1989.

DeSaulnier believes he might find a measure of redemption for himself and for his father’s name in Congress, and wants to be able to tell his sons and grandchildren that, whatever mistakes he makes, “no one questioned my integrity.”

His father won’t be far. Depending on the approach of the jets when he flies into Reagan National Airport, the congressman will be able to look out the window and see the part of Arlington National Cemetery where his father is buried, another framed picture of all the ways that a politician can be elevated and humbled by the less governable aspects of humanity.