MUCH HAS been made of the fact that Rep. Silvio Conte, who died here on Friday at the age of 69, was a multiple-minority. The child of Italian immigrants, he grew up in a part of western Massachusetts that was dominated by Yankees. He was a Republican in an overwhelmingly Democratic state and at a time when power in the House was held by an unbroken line of Democrats. And within his party, he was part of that dwindling cadre of moderates that has been losing power and influence since the mid-'60s. Yet in spite of these circumstances -- or perhaps actually because of them -- he was the consummate insider, a master of the legislative machinery, a man with friends and allies on both sides of the aisle and a representative who was beloved by his constituents and unusually effective on their behalf.
A great deal of his success was a result of his personality. He was a man with strong convictions, no pretensions and a straightforward style. He was merry. If he could make a point by putting on a pig mask to protest pork-barrel politics, he would. He led the House Republican softball team and wrote poems to celebrate victories and taunt opponents. When he really got going, he could have the whole House happily shouting out the punch line as his rhetoric climbed to a crescendo. Throughout his 32 years in the House Mr. Conte gave every appearance of having a great time.
With all this, he was a serious and effective legislator. He believed the government had responsibilities -- particularly to the poor -- and he was willing to assume them. Even as a member of the minority party, he had great power on the Appropriations Committee, and he used it to promote education, housing and low-cost fuel for the poor. The needs of New England, and in particular his own district, were given a high priority, but his vision was not parochial. He believed in this country's leadership role in the world and was a strong supporter of foreign aid and the United Nations. As his seniority grew with his circle of friends, he accumulated clout and contacts and used both to good effect.
Silvio Conte was a master politician and an ebullient personality, cherished by colleagues and constituents. He will also be missed by countless others in this city who admired his accomplishments and delighted in his company.