William D. Delahunt, 82

William D. Delahunt, 82, passed away peacefully, surrounded by his family, from a long-term illness on Saturday, March 30, 2024 at home in Quincy, Mass.

William D. Delahunt

Born July 18, 1941, William David Delahunt was a proud son of Quincy, a city bearing the name of Presidents. But Bill Delahunt’s background was far from political aristocracy. His mother worked as a secretary, his father a salesman for U.S. Rubber Company, the family a combination of Canadian and Irish immigrants — fertile turf for generations of Massachusetts politicians.

He attended Thayer Academy, Middlebury College in Vermont (an important part of his life from then on), then returned to Massachusetts to earn a law degree at Boston College, also serving as a radarman in the United States Coast Guard Reserve.

First elected to the Quincy City Council in 1971 (after losing his first try by 28 votes two years earlier), Delahunt served one term before being elected state representative in 1973. At the State House he again completed just one full two-year term before being appointed by Governor Michael Dukakis to become District Attorney in the county Quincy dominates, Norfolk.

At that time District Attorneys served part-time. Delahunt convinced the legislature to create a pilot program to turn the Norfolk DA into a full-time position. He professionalized the office while reducing the budget. This structural reform was replicated state-wide several years later.

Over the course of 22 years, his office created multiple “firsts” for District Attorneys in the Commonwealth and nation: First juvenile diversion program, first special unit focused on sexual assault and child abuse, first program to address domestic violence, first white collar and career criminal units.

As the office achieved a national reputation for innovation, Delahunt continued to emphasize a necessary balance between incarceration and rehabilitation. He would instruct his prosecutors that the measure of their success was not their conviction rates, rather whether justice had been achieved. He built a staff that included social workers as well as lawyers, arguing that victims need support, and for those convicted of crimes, social intervention is the best way to reduce recidivism, thereby better protecting the public. Many of his former Assistant District Attorneys went on to distinguished careers in private practice, and as judges.

In 1996, he was elected to Congress from the tenth Congressional district, a sprawling corner of southeastern Massachusetts reaching from Quincy to Cape Cod and the islands. His first election was determined by less than 100 votes after a recount and Massachusetts Supreme Court decision that validated ballots with what came to be called “hanging chads,” a precursor of the same issue that would result in George Bush winning election over Al Gore years later (when the United States Supreme Court ruled in the opposite fashion).

Having been elected at the age of 55, after already serving a long successful public career, Mr. Delahunt did not enter Congress with overweening personal ambition. He had a tempered self-confidence born of experience, often avoiding the spotlight and notoriety that other Congressmen search out, preferring tangible results. These attributes were noticed almost immediately, as Boston Globe’s columnist Tom Oliphant put it:

“Bill Delahunt is one of my favorite freshmen congressmen, mostly because, at 57, he’s like a freshman in college who has already done a tour in the Marines and spent a couple of years working construction.”

Congressman Delahunt served seven terms in Washington, always on the House Judiciary Committee, never seriously challenged in a re-election campaign. His law enforcement credentials and belief in due process were soon on display during the impeachment of President Clinton in 1998, which Delahunt argued and voted against, unsuccessfully trying to fashion a bipartisan coalition that would have invoked censure instead.

Bipartisan effort was a seven-term theme, a consistent attempt to create alliances and partnerships where few saw those possibilities. His approach achieved some remarkable results, for example joining with arch-conservative North Carolina Republican Senator Jesse Helms to win passage of major United States adoption law reform in 2000: the Intercountry Adoption Act conferred automatic citizenship for tens of thousands of adopted Americans – no additional requirements, no added bureaucracy. His passion for this humanitarian effort emerged in part from personal experience; he and his then-wife Kati had adopted a daughter, Kara, from Vietnam in 1975.

Congressman Delahunt had a lifelong penchant for foreign affairs, serving on that House committee for six terms. He engaged in ways that surprised many: He became friends with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez when the Bush administration saw Chavez as a dangerous enemy, a friendship that resulted in a nationwide program that provided low-cost Citgo home heating oil to tens of thousands of low-income Americans. He also spent many hours in multiple visits with Cuban President Fidel Castro, who would demand to know what the Congressman was going to do about reduced codfish stocks on Georges Bank even as Mr. Delahunt pushed for human rights reforms in Cuba.

As an invasion of Iraq loomed in 2002, Delahunt was one of the earliest and most vocal opponents. He stood in front of a packed crowd of constituents in Falmouth on Cape Cod and announced, “If it costs me the election, so be it … But this authorization coming forward to take on Saddam – it’s wrong. I’m voting against it.” To his surprise, he was greeted with prolonged applause.

As the war continued, Delahunt took a key role in creating what came to be called the Iraq Watch. Invoking Congressional protocols, he and a handful of colleagues took over the House podium on a weekly basis when it was dormant, often after midnight, and talked about what they saw as a misguided and immoral war. The proceedings, broadcast on C-Span, went viral before that notion was popularized.

Mr. Delahunt prided himself on friendships, some of his oldest being classmates from Middlebury who enjoyed each other’s company for the rest of their lives (only his college friends ever used a nickname they had for him, “Delly.”) Among his closest friends and inspirations later in life was Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy. The two spent many hours together in Washington but more often on the Kennedy compound porch in Hyannis, or sailing Nantucket Sound. The Senator would invoke the fact that he was registered to vote in Delahunt’s district, therefore a constituent: “What have you done for me lately?” Kennedy would boom. “Hey, I need someone to cut my grass!”

Delahunt also was close with other Democratic leaders; for multiple terms he shared a multi-story rental within walking distance of Capitol Hill with New York Senator Chuck Schumer and Illinois Senator Dick Durbin, calling them “roomies,” living in something like college dorm fashion. National press nicknamed the place “Animal House.” The strong friendships led to strong political partnerships as well.

After retiring from Congress he remained active in public affairs, a trusted adviser to officials at local, state, and federal levels. He served as a special member of the law firm Eckert Seamans and added his name to a number of non-profit boards. A highlight of his later years was in October, 2022, with the official dedication and renaming of the Norfolk Superior Courthouse, where he advocated for criminal and social justice for decades, as the William D. Delahunt Courthouse.

As the political atmosphere in Washington become more and more polarized, Mr. Delahunt became increasingly concerned about what that would mean for the future of the country. He worried that his career, steeped in bipartisan effort while trying to hold onto fundamental principles and ideals, was not serving as an example for next-generation leaders. Over and over, he would counsel patience – “the wheels of government turn with frustrating slowness,” he would say – as well as the need to personalize people regardless of ideology:

“To make progress, you need to search out and discern the humanity of the other,” he mused. “In some, that humanity is overwhelmed by dark angels. But if you explore long enough, if you listen long enough, if you persist, you can interact with anybody. What’s important to them? What makes them feel right? Let them explain themselves. Accomplishment in the end is a result of this understanding.”

Bill Delahunt was the beloved fiancé of Julie Pagano of Quincy; devoted father of Kirsten Delahunt and John Dunn of Dorchester, and Kara Delahunt Bobrov and Nickolai Bobrov of Milton; loving grandfather to Maya and Alex Bobrov; and former husband to Kati Delahunt of Hingham.

Relatives and friends are respectfully invited to attend the Mass of Christian Burial for Bill Saturday, April 6th at 11 a.m. in St. Gregory’s Church, 223 Dorchester Ave., Dorchester.  Visiting hours Friday, April 5th 2-7 p.m. in the Church of Presidents, United First Parish, 1306 Hancock St., Quincy.

Funeral arrangements are under the care of Hamel-Lydon Chapel and Cremation Service of Massachusetts in Quincy. For more information and online condolences, please visit Hamellydon.com.

In lieu of flowers, please consider making a donation in Bill’s name to the Adams Presidential Center (https://theadamspresidentialcenter.org/donate/) or the ILD Collaborative (https://www.ildcollaborative.org/support).

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