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Beacon Hill legend was no favorite of leadership

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A Beacon Hill legend from years ago, despised so much by legislative leaders that they redistricted him out of his seat, has died.

H. Thomas Colo, who spent 14 years as a state representative from Athol getting under the skin of the political establishment, passed away Feb. 1.

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“He was totally fearless and independent,’’ said Phil Johnston, a fellow legislative reformer who joined with Colo in the 1970s, challenging the iron-fisted rule of the likes of House Speaker Thomas McGee.

“The leadership resented him, but it was a measure of his courage that it didn’t bother him,’’ Johnston said. “He didn’t mind upending the apple cart.”

Colo, whose oratory skills on the House floor could be dramatic, died at the age of 87, several months after suffering a stroke, his son Chris said.

A Democrat, he went to Beacon Hill in 1965 and immediately challenged House leaders and the good old boy system of governing from smoked-filled rooms. At the time, there were 240 legislative seats, but he always managed to stand out, with his voice booming over the old speaker system that broadcast in every legislative office of in the State House.

The Worcester County lawmaker, with his calls for a more ethical government, served at a time when few dared to take on the Beacon Hill political establishment.

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He pounced on House leaders when they played with the rules, often setting off fierce debates. His critics said his effectiveness was often undercut by what they considered self-righteousness and his focus on mundane parliamentary rules and the details of complex policies.

Colo also took on unpopular causes, frequently aggravating his colleagues — such as the time he led a small coalition to enjoin the state treasurer from paying the House chaplains, who open the daily sessions, Johnston said.

“What I liked about him: He spoke to the substance of the issues at hand and didn’t make it personal, unlike others,’’ he recalled.

When voters mandated that the House shrink to 160 members, McGee’s majority whip (and future speaker) George Keverian created a district for the 1978 elections that assured Colo’s defeat.

Frank Phillips can be reached at frank.phillips@globe.com.



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