Congressman Delahunt leaves ‘legacy of integrity’

Congressman William Delahunt speaks against the proposed closure of Otis Air National Guard Base, circa 2005 - State House News Service file photo.

Longtime Congressman, social justice activist, and reformist William D. Delahunt passed away on March 31 after a battle with a long term illness. He was 82.

Aside from more than two decades as district attorney for Norfolk, he served as the congressional representative in a district that included the Vineyard for seven terms beginning in 1996.

In honor of the late Congressman, Gov. Maura Healey ordered flags lowered to half staff at all state buildings on Monday.

“Congressman William Delahunt was a remarkable public servant who helped transform Massachusetts – especially Southeastern Massachusetts – at the local, state and federal levels,” Healey said in a statement. “His approach is proof of the progress we are able to make when we bring people together. Congressman Delahunt leaves a lasting legacy of integrity, compassion and collaboration. He will be sorely missed by many, and my thoughts are with his family and all who knew and loved him.”

During his term in Congress, one of the first contentious issues that Delahunt said that he fought for was the preservation of the Menemsha Coast Guard Station. During a visit to the Island in 2010, he said that he worked with bi-partisan support to help the Coast Guard when cuts were being made to the Guard left and right.

He also noted that his first public appearance on the Island after being elected was a Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard football game, which he described as a “wild experience.” He said he sat on both sides of the stadium for each half.

In his remarks, Delahunt also said that the Vineyard served as a grounding experience over his tenure.

“People here are passionate — about policy, about quality of life, about community,” he was quoted in The MV Times after visiting the Island at the end of his tenure as a lawmaker. “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.”

Delahunt was born in July, 1941 in a Canadian-Irish immigrant family in Quincy, Massachusetts; his mother a secretary and his father a salesman.

He began actively pursuing a career in law and politics following his years of education at Thayer Academy, Middlebury College, and Boston College Law School, and as a radarman for the U.S. Coast Guard and Reserve until 1971.

Despite losing the election for Quincy City Counsellor in 1969, he was eventually elected and instated in 1971. One term later, he was elected as State Representative for Quincy where he served from 1973 to 1975 before he served as Norfolk district attorney, a position he occupied for 22 years.

Over his tenure, Delahunt brought forth many “firsts” for regional and national D.A. offices. He spearheaded the first juvenile diversion program and special units for sexual assault and child abuse, and he created white collar and career criminal units. Arguably most influential was his push to make the job of District Attorney full-time rather than part-time, a change that soon spread.

After a closely contested race against state legislator Philip W. Johnston of Marshfield, Delahunt was elected as a congressman in 1996 for the 10th Massachusetts district, which then spanned from Quincy to the Cape and Islands.

During his seven terms, Delahunt’s approach led to many unlikely yet successful bipartisan endeavors. A few examples include: a partnership with North Carolina Republican Senator Jesse Helms resulting in the passage of major United States adoption law reform in 2000 conferring automatic citizenship for tens of thousands of adopted Americans; and a friendship with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez resulting in a CITIGO project providing tens of thousands of low-income U.S. households with heating oil.

After years of dedicated public affairs work and despite his retirement in 2011, Delahunt still remained involved in politics as a respected advisor to local, regional, and national governments, including the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe.

According to a statement from his family, Delahunt passed away “peacefully” at his home in Quincy “surrounded by his family.”

According to the family, a wake is scheduled Friday, April 5 from 2 to 7pm at the United First Parish Church in Quincy. A funeral Mass will be said Saturday, April 6 at 11 am at Saint Gregory Parish in Dorchester’s Lower Mills.