Delahunt Remembered For Dedication To District, Bipartisanship

by Tim Wood

CHATHAM – When it came time to formally announce his candidacy for the 10th Massachusetts Congressional District seat, William Delahunt chose to do so at the Chatham Coast Guard Station.

“This station is clearly taking it on the chin,” the then-Norfolk County District Attorney said on May 1, 1996, referring to budget cuts being made by the Republican Congress. The station’s staff was being reduced from 28 to 13, and the former Coast Guard reservist said that would translate to lives lost at sea.

The station’s staffing was eventually restored, but the operations and funding of Station Chatham, and Coast Guard stations throughout his district and nationwide, became a touchstone in Mr. Delahunt’s career in Congress, which lasted from 1997 to 2011. He created a bipartisan Coast Guard caucus with modernizing the agency’s fleet and maintaining funding, especially of small boat stations like those on the Cape. Station Chatham particularly benefited from his support; he helped secure funding for a unique shallow-draft vessel needed during a time of rapid changes in Chatham Harbor.

“Chatham sort of reflected so much of what this district is all about,” said Mark Forest, who worked with Mr. Delahunt throughout his career in Congress and served as his chief of staff in Washington, D.C. from 2005 to 2011. “A fragile environment, a Coast Guard station, the fishing industry, and a sense of community.”

Mr. Delahunt passed away March 30 at his Quincy home. He was 82.

During his legislative career, Mr. Delahunt also worked closely with the region’s commercial fishermen at a time when the industry was being devastated by policies that reduced catch quotes and imposed other restrictions that made it difficult for fishermen to make a living.

In his work with the industry, Mr. Delahunt seamlessly transitioned from his predecessor, Gerry Studds, said Chatham Select Board member Shareen Davis, who was working in the commercial fisheries at the time.

“Around 2002, when the fishing community strongly opposed Individual Fishing Quotas (IQFs) due to concerns about corporatization and its impact on small-scale fishers (Individual Fishing Quotas allocate individual shares in the annual catch of each fish species based on past catch records), Delahunt and his team played a pivotal role in organizing a delegation of community fishing folk to go to the capitol to advocate against them,” she wrote in an email. “Despite our efforts, we were unable to sway the decision. Ultimately, certain interests, rather than the Congressman himself, ceased to challenge the system. It was a privilege to work with him.”

“He was a real champion of the Cape fishing industry at a time when we were really in trouble with our fish stocks, with having a voice at the federal level,” said John Pappalardo, CEO of the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance. Mr. Delahunt was always willing to meet with fishermen in Washington or locally, he added. “He always found a way to interject humor into what was a really difficult time for us, so he will be greatly missed.”

“His relationship with fishermen in Chatham was at the heart of his approach to fisheries management,” Forest said. “Their strong support that he received was instrumental in terms of him going to battle on fishing issues. He knew the fishermen in Chatham had his back.”

When a public outcry erupted after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service poisoned gulls on the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge, Mr. Delahunt intervened.

“He came in and basically told them it was over,” said Forest. After the Fish and Wildlife Service proposed prohibiting commercial shellfishing on the Monomoy refuge, Mr. Delahunt worked closely with the town to ensure that the traditional activity could continue. The town, state and the Fish and Wildlife Service eventually reached an agreement preserving shellfishing rights within the refuge boundaries.

Mr. Delahunt took a bipartisan approach to politics, never shying away from reaching out to Republicans to find common ground, said Forest. But when he felt like he needed to, he was willing to forge his own path, such as the deal he made with Venezuela's Hugo Chavez to provide low-cost heating oil to his constituents on the district.

After he retired from Congress, Mr. Delahunt founded the Delahunt Group, a lobbying firm that he said was an extension of his legislative work. Forest, who was executive director of the Delahunt Group, said Mr. Delahunt worked to help the Mashpee Wampanoags secure gaming rights and was interested in helping to establish electric vehicle charging stations in the region.

If he had to cite one characteristic of Mr. Delahunt, Forest said it would “probably be his big heart. He just loved people, he loved connecting with people, he loved understanding people.”

Congressman William Keating, who won the district seat after Mr. Delahunt retired, said in a statement that they shared three elected positions: Massachusetts State Representative, Norfolk County District Attorney, and Congressman for Southeastern Massachusetts. “So I know how diligently he worked for the people of Massachusetts at home and in DC. As a DA he was a national trailblazer on creating the Norfolk Plan, a domestic violence program way ahead of its time and emulated across the country. Most recently we had been working together to advance peace talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan.”

Added Keating, “Countless colleagues and friends, among whom I count myself, will miss his wit and wisdom. My thoughts and prayers are with his family, who — despite his extensive work and interests — always remained the center of his life. May he rest in peace.”

Gov. Maura Healey called Mr. Delahunt “a remarkable public servant who helped transform Massachusetts — especially Southeastern Massachusetts — at the local, state and federal levels. 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.”

“Bill believed very deeply in the work that he did,” Forest said. “It was almost like the district was an extended family for him. As I tell people, he was our champion on Cape Cod. There was no issue too small for him.”