The gathering at the Ag Hall on Saturday afternoon was billed as a community appreciation for two retiring legislators, U.S. Rep. William Delahunt and Mass. Senator Robert O’Leary — to honor them “for their long-time service to Vineyarders.”
It turned into an occasion for mutual admiration, however, as the two honorees turned the accolades right around, thanking Islanders for supporting them, enlightening them, and in some cases challenging them.
After serving seven terms in Washington, Mr. Delahunt decided not to run for reelection this year. Mr. O’Leary, who has represented the Cape and Islands on Beacon Hill since 2000, vacated his senate seat to run for Mr. Delahunt’s seat. He was defeated in the primary last month.
“What a resource Martha’s Vineyard has been for me,” Mr. Delahunt said after hearing several local officials praise and thank him. “You have enriched me. It’s been an education and an experience that I’ll never forget.”
Mr. O’Leary sounded a similar theme, after he cracked up the crowd when he pointed out that he had moved into Mr. Delahunt’s seat, when the latter got up to speak. “I’ll remember how engaged you are as a community, which was an inspiration to me as a senator,” he said. “Thank you for everything you’ve done for me.”
Introduced by emcee Judy Crawford, speakers who came to praise the retiring legislators included Oak Bluffs selectman Duncan Ross; airport manager Sean Flynn; Amy Tierney, from the school superintendent’s office; Christina Brown, chairman of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission; Paddy Moore of the Martha’s Vineyard Democratic Council; county manager Russell Smith; Julia Burgess of Martha’s Vineyard Community Services; June Manning of the Wampanoag Tribe; and Tisbury selectman Tristan Israel.
They spoke of the legislators’ contributions to education on the Island and to its physical infrastructure, and they thanked them for respecting us, for listening to us, for representing us. “Although we are an Island, and some people think we are way out in the ocean, you never treated us that way,” Ms. Brown said.
Ms. Manning, the final speaker, summed up the collective sentiment by saying, “Good luck. Rest, retire and enjoy.”
In his remarks, Mr. Delahunt spoke first of the widespread disaffection for politics recently. “I know there’s a lot of cynicism and skepticism about government these days,” he said, “but time after time in our history we learn — maybe the hard way at times — that public service is a noble pursuit. Of course there are the big, sexy issues, but it is so rewarding, so gratifying to make the local connections.”
It’s hard to imagine a sitting politician ever using the words that Mr. Delahunt used in closing: “You make me feel really good, and really warm, and I love you.”
In an interview earlier in the day, Mr. Delahunt looked back on his relationship with the Island fondly. “People here are passionate — about policy, about quality of life, about community. Oftentimes I would come here to confirm my own views. The people of this Island are very grounded. This is a sophisticated community that gives considerable thought and time to issues — local, state, national, or international. And that’s energizing.”
Global issues demanded his attention as soon as he was elected, but local matters came first, it turned out. “The first scheduling event after I was elected was the Vineyard-Nantucket football game,” Mr. Delahunt recalled. “That was the first experience, and it was wild. I had to sit half on one side, half on the other.”
The first contentious issue to confront the freshman legislator was the fight to save the Menemsha Coast Guard Station. “Remember, funding and personnel were being eviscerated,” Mr. Delahunt said of cuts aimed at the Coast Guard. “But it was so essential, such an integral part of the community. And we got together, and we got it done.”
The ability to work together served Mr. Delahunt well in Washington. “One of my few skills was my ability to work with Republicans,” he said. “You know my politics are pro-left, I’m a liberal. But they did a survey among Republicans in the house, and I was at the top of the list in bipartisanship. But I worry about the forces in Congress today that lack compassion and tolerance.”
When asked about the most stimulating and challenging issue during his tenure in Congress, his response was quick, and blunt. “The war in Iraq,” he said. “I knew early on that the rationale for it was erroneous, and we’re still paying the price today. Even now I’m working with people in Baghdad who are trying to form a government that isn’t dominated by Iran. That’s challenging and stimulating, and it’s something I’ll continue to do because it affects everyone in this room, so it is a local issue.”
As for the future, Mr. Delahunt chuckled at first. “I’ll come to the Vineyard, put a wig on,” he said. Then, “You know what it is? I can run my own schedule. I plan to do some consulting, on national and international issues. And maybe there will be a local issue that will attract my interest, my passion. We’ll see.”
While Mr. Delahunt had to toe the sidelines at a high school football game gingerly, Mr. O’Leary’s introduction to the Island required a different sort of diplomacy.
“When I first got involved in Martha’s Vineyard politics, it was Betty Ann Bryant, and she was a character, and John Alley and that whole crew, and they had their own style,” Mr. O’Leary recalled in a phone conversation late Monday. “This was a place that created its own characters, and they were very involved in their community, and they were very passionate about it. When you’re from outside and coming off the boat, they didn’t embrace you right away. They wanted to see if you’re real and if you’re committed to the issues that are important to them. But once they get you in the big hug, they don’t let go.
“Once you get in close, and people begin to have a certain amount of faith in you, then you begin to realize how much it’s Edgartown versus Oak Bluffs, and it’s Tisbury versus Up-Island. And the two newspapers, which are very different and at each other’s throats a little bit. For a small place, it’s passionately parochial, and I think that’s a really nice quality about the Island.”
Mr. O’Leary, who will return to teaching history full-time at Massachusetts Maritime Academy, won’t forget the Vineyard. “I love the Island, and I regret not settling there myself. Years ago when I went there, I said, this is a place I’d like to live.”