The speakership of the Massachusetts House has long been a virtual license for one-man rule. Under Sal DiMasi, it may evolve into something a little less autocratic.

Much of the Democratic Party leadership in Massachusetts may have spent the morning after last month's election hiding under the covers, but Sal DiMasi greeted the day cheerily. Barely a month into his tenure as the new speaker of the state House, he had taken the lead in countering a heavy-handed and often nasty crusade by Republican Governor Mitt Romney to boost the GOP presence in the legislature. Romney's effort didn't work. On Election Day, DiMasi's party actually picked up three seats, giving him a caucus of 138 Democrats to 21 Republicans.

Guessing what the 59-year-old DiMasi (pronounced "De Macey") will do with such a lopsided margin has become a parlor game around Beacon Hill. DiMasi took over the post suddenly, after his predecessor, the powerful Tom Finneran, stunned the state by resigning on September 27. Finneran had been weakened by a federal perjury investigation and unrest in his caucus, although he insisted that he was leaving simply because it was time. He became president of the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council.

As Finneran's lieutenant--he'd been majority leader since 2001-- DiMasi had arrived in office laden with at least a little bit of his predecessor's baggage. During the debate in 2001 over the so-called "Clean Elections" public campaign financing package, for instance, it was DiMasi who sponsored an amendment cutting programs in the districts of six legislators who'd voted in favor of the measure, which Finneran adamantly opposed. Yet DiMasi was also "the guy many of us went to in order to get our thoughts into the inner sanctum," says Jim Marzilli, a House Democrat who was part of the reformist minority under Finneran. "I always found it useful, because Sal frequently understood more quickly what I was saying than others in the institution did."

Indeed, since his swearing-in as speaker--when he hugged pretty much everyone in sight--DiMasi has signaled that he plans to function differently from the more distant and controlling Finneran. One of his first steps was to appoint a committee to look into rewriting the House rules, and he named to the panel four reformers who had been among Finneran's opponents. DiMasi also announced--without prodding-- that he would look at either curtailing or shutting down his private law practice. "That indicates some concern for both public opinion and for the potential conflicts of interest," says Pamela Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts.

Alhough DiMasi has yet to make his legislative priorities apparent, he is widely seen as a liberal on social issues--he is a supporter, for instance, of allowing same-sex marriages--and judging from his inaugural speech, he may well turn out to be one on broader policy questions, as well. In his comments, DiMasi made a point of recalling his childhood in a small flat in Boston's heavily Italian and working- class North End. "I learned a lot about the importance of community, the moral obligation that we share to look out for each other in good times and bad," he said.

The more immediate question for members of his caucus, though, is how they will adjust to a speaker who doesn't run the House autocratically and, therefore, won't always protect them from hard decisions. "I expect," says Marzilli, "that he will allow the committees to function more independently, and that means he's going to call upon members to do more work than they've had to in the past. I think he's going to say, 'Okay, guys, you want some input into this process? Then let's see who's willing to step up to the plate.'"