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‘NOTHING FAZED ME ’
The force behind Melanie’s Bill personifies persistence
Patriot Ledger State House Bureau
Ron Bersani was at Furnace Brook Middle School in Marshfield when he decided he had a job to do.
It was January 2004. Bersani’s granddaughter, 13-year-old Melanie Powell, had been killed by a repeat drunken driver the previous July.
Now Bersani and Melanie’s grief-stricken parents, Tod and Nancy Powell, were speaking to students at Melanie’s old school. They had been invited to speak at a sixth-grade DARE graduation, and it was the first time they had publicly opened up about their loss.
“We looked out and there was a sea of 12-year-old kids - boys and girls,” Bersani said. “We realized that a year before, Melanie would have been in the audience. It just hit home.”
Bersani said it just made sense that his late granddaughter would want him to do something to prevent similar tragedies.
For starters, as a student at Furnace Brook, Melanie enjoyed getting to know the local DARE officer, Bob Quigley.
“Melanie absolutely loved the DARE program,” Bersani said. “She would come home and tell Nancy about what she had learned.”
Nancy Powell told Bersani what he had already been thinking - that something should be done to protect other people from similar fates.
So began a crusade to put what would become Melanie’s Bill - far-reaching legislation to crack down on repeat drunken drivers - on the books.
Bersani started to do research and learned that Massachusetts did little compared to other states to keep repeat drunken drivers off the road.
By October 2004, when driver Pamela Murphy was sentenced to 2½ years in jail, Bersani had become expert in what other states were doing to discourage drunken driving. And he was regularly writing letters to elected officials, prodding them to do more, and sending letters and op-ed columns to newspapers. It didn’t hurt that as a former English teacher at Marshfield High, he knew how to write.
Fortunately, Bersani already had some acquaintance with state government. As executive director of the Talking Information Center - a reading service for the blind that grew out of WATD in Marshfield - Bersani knew how to fight for state funding.
“That was a phenomenal advantage,” Bersani said. “Nothing fazed me. I knew you had to be persistent, and detail-oriented, and you had to be a nice guy. You couldn’t walk in screaming.”
Bersani’s longtime friend, Phil Johnston - whose wife, Beverly, is a longtime board member of the Talking Information Center - offered to help. Johnston, the chairman of the state Democratic Party, arranged a meeting over the winter with Bersani and House Speaker Sal DiMasi.
Bersani walked in with a long list of proposals to combat drunken driving, and made his case to the speaker.
“Ron’s been a hero,” Johnston said. “He and his family wanted to make something positive out of the terrible tragedy they suffered. As horrible as her loss is, Melanie may have inadvertently protected the lives of a lot of other people.”
Then last May, Bersani’s frequent letters to Gov. Mitt Romney were answered in spades. The governor’s office called the Powells to ask if they could put Melanie’s name on an omnibus package of anti- drunken driving bills.
“The governor wanted to take a personal approach,” Bersani said. “We went in and looked at the bill, and we said wow, they took a lot of good ideas and put them together. We were absolutely on board.”
And then the roller coaster began.
Bersani and the Powells - with the help of a scheduler from the governor’s office - sought to set up meetings with all 200 state legislators. Some granted an audience, some didn’t, but Bersani became a regular presence in the halls of the State House, often with the Powells in tow.
“He was almost like a teacher again,” said Rep. Frank Hynes, a Marshfield Democrat. “He met with virtually every legislator on the House and Senate side, and carried with him a folder with lots of facts and figures on repeat drunk drivers. The guy is so professional, and so matter of fact, and presents his case so well.”
Hynes credits Bersani with getting Melanie’s Bill as far as it has gotten to date. So does Ed Melia of Quincy, who also began stalking the halls of the State House after losing a great-granddaughter last August in an accident allegedly involving a repeat drunken driver.
“He’s articulate, he’s focused, he’s very determined,” Melia said. “How many people do you know could last that long? He’s been at this for so long, and he’s still going strong.”
Added Beverly Johnston, “What he’s done is virtually unprecedented. I’ve seen a lot of ardent people for a lot of difference causes, but I’ve rarely seen that combination of politeness and doggedness, steadiness and energy.”
Bersani spent all of Wednesday and Thursday at the State House, as the House and Senate passed what many consider a watered-down version of Melanie’s Bill. He will return next week, when Romney is expected to return the bill to legislators with an amendment restoring some of the provisions that were dropped.
He remains confident.
“If the people who oppose this bill think they’re going to wait us out, they better bring a lunch, because we’re not going anywhere,” he said.
Tom Benner may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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