Beacon Hill will miss Republican Parker's calm authority and wit

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WHEN the Massachusetts legislature begins its 1989 session next January, things just won't be the same in the Senate. The recent ``this will be my last term'' decision by John F. Parker, the chamber's veteran Republican floor leader, could sharply reduce the number and length of debates there. Much will depend on his current GOP colleagues. Will they rise to the occasion and see to it that the pros and cons of controversial measures are aired? Although it is no easy task to block or reshape proposals backed by the Democratic leadership, that is hardly an excuse for not trying.

Throughout his two decades as Republican leader, Senator Parker has been much more than just a frequent voice of partisan dissent. He has raised important questions about the merit of certain bills, including measures increasing spending. He does his homework. Even when those pushing a particular bill have plenty of votes, few lawmakers, including the sponsors, choose to debate him.

Whatever his frustrations might be, Parker never loses his cool, never uses personal attacks or sarcasm.

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Unlike many fellow lawmakers, in both parties, the Taunton Republican has limited the number of bills he has filed. But when he gets what he considers a good idea, he doesn't quit. It took him five years to sell colleagues on requiring a price tag on all bills involving increased public spending recommended by the Senate or House Ways and Means Committee.

While that in itself has not always proved effective in thwarting action on costly and less-than-essential new programs, it has surely helped individual senators and representatives cast more fiscally informed votes.

Parker's voluntary retirement will not only close out a political career that has spanned more than half a century, but it could further shrink GOP ranks, from eight to seven, in the 40-seat Senate.

That has to be a prime concern to state GOP chairman Raymond Shamie, who is bent on rebuilding the party by electing more legislators.

Although Parker's district has changed shape several times during his 36 years in the Senate, it continues to include heavily Democratic Taunton, his home city. It's where he launched his elective career on the local school committee in 1934, when the nation was in the throes of the Great Depression.

He later served as mayor, a post he held when first elected to the Senate in 1952.

GOP efforts to retain his seat could be frustrated by the candidacy of 10-term Democratic state Rep. Theodore J. Aleixo Jr., another former Taunton mayor.

Whoever succeeds Parker is bound to have him looking over his shoulder, and at times none too quietly. After having spent most of the past 54 years in public office, he knows the workings of state and local government as well as anyone in the commonwealth.

Few, if any state lawmakers are more highly respected. The second-generation Irish Roman Catholic senator has always worked smoothly within Bay State Republican ranks, even when the Yankee Brahmins dominated the Massachusetts GOP.

For 18 months in the 1960s he served as state GOP chairman. He was at its helm in 1966 when his party captured all four key statewide offices: John Volpe was reelected governor; Francis Sargent became lieutenant governor; Elliot Richardson, attorney general; and Edward Brooke, US senator. Parker credits those victories to having the right candidates and right issues. The decline in Republican officeholders he blames substantially on the decline in registered GOP voters, in a state where Democrats now dominate about 3 to 1.

But he is not about to write his party off, although the rebuilding effort has a long way to go.

One of his greatest strengths has been an ability to see and understand the humorous side of things. It has kept him from becoming just another shrill partisan of whom there are all too many in both parties.

The Parker wit is bound to be missed, even by the opposition. On Beacon Hill and elsewhere he may be best remembered for two published collections of political humor: ``If Elected I Promise'' and ``The Fun and Laughter of Politics.''

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