, Newburyport, MA

January 27, 2009

Region loses a political leader

Two months after the death of former Massachusetts Senate President Kevin B. Harrington of Salem, the North Shore lost another of its iconic politicians this past weekend, Manchester's William L. Saltonstall.

If the name is familiar, it's because the Saltonstall family's roots here can be traced to Sir Richard Saltonstall who accompanied John Winthrop to Salem in 1630 aboard the Arbella. Yet despite his impressive pedigree, "Bill" Saltonstall was as modest and easygoing a person as one was likely to encounter on Beacon Hill during the 12 years he represented a district that stretched from Cape Ann to Newbury in the state Senate during the 1960s and '70s.

Saltonstall died Friday night at home of an apparent heart attack. He was 81 years old. One of his last public appearances was at Harrington's funeral in early December.

Both politicians were nearly the same age and came from families steeped in public service — one on the Democratic side, the other Republican.

Saltonstall's father, Leverett, served as governor and U.S. senator, back when the GOP was still a force to be reckoned with in the Bay State. Indeed, Bill Saltonstall's loss to Michael Harrington (Kevin's cousin) in the 1969 special election for Congress in a North Shore district long dominated by the Republican Bates family of Salem, was an early indicator of the party's fading fortunes.

But both Bill Saltonstall and Kevin Harrington came from an era when party affiliation and ideology took a back seat to principle and pragmatism. Harrington was often more conservative fiscally than many of his Democratic colleagues; while Saltonstall was often at odds with his fellow Republicans, particularly on social issues, and more frequently as the party came under the sway of the Christian right.

Newly enacted financial disclosure rules prompted Saltonstall not to seek re-election in 1978. While he himself had nothing to hide, much of his money was tied up in complex family trusts. He told reporters he could not sacrifice his relatives' privacy rights to his own political ambitions.

Though out of the spotlight, Saltonstall's public service hardly ended with his departure from the Statehouse, as he remained active in many charitable and social causes and continued to participate in town and party affairs.

Fortunately for the region, the high standard Saltonstall set for the holder of the 1st Essex and Middlesex Senate seat has been upheld by his successors, Bob Buell and, currently, Bruce Tarr of Gloucester. It might be the reason it's one of the few legislative districts in Massachusetts the majority Democrats have yet to crack.