Silvio Conte: The Last of the Massachusetts Republican Legacy

Silvio O. Conte - Wikipedia

Massachusetts was getting more and more liberal and Democratic after World War II and this helped propel John F. Kennedy to the national scene. The Bay State had a long history of Republican leadership, including abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner, Senators George Frisbie Hoar, Henry Cabot Lodge Sr., and Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., as well as Speakers of the House Frederick Gillett and Joe Martin. Calvin Coolidge had been Governor of Massachusetts when tapped for the vice presidency in 1920. Democrats used to mostly be elected from Boston in the state. In 1936, Massachusetts had been FDR’s worst performing state that still voted for him. However, as the politics of the state grew more liberal, so did the Republicans in turn. Lodge Jr. was far more moderate than his grandfather Lodge Sr., Martin’s voting record began to shift to the center in the 1950s and starting in the 1940s Republicans who succeeded previous Republican incumbents were as a rule more liberal. Massachusetts’ 1st district, for instance, had been represented by the anti-New Deal Allen Treadway during the Roosevelt Administration, but his successor was the Rockefeller Republican John W. Heselton. His successor, Silvio Ottavio Conte (1921-1991), would prove even more liberal and would ultimately be the last Republican representative from a district that had been represented by them since 1857. In his first run in 1958, he was elected by over ten points over historian James MacGregor Burns, who would later write a Pulitzer prize winning biography of FDR, Roosevelt: The Soldier of Freedom (1971).

Although Conte initially was an Eisenhower Republican as he often voted to uphold his vetoes based on spending concerns while supporting increases in foreign aid, his record shifted more to liberalism in the 1960s and he backed many Great Society programs, including the Social Security bill that included Medicare and Medicaid and the War on Poverty’s flagship legislation, the Economic Opportunity Act. He was also a strong supporter of civil rights legislation, federal aid to education, and a strong minimum wage. Conte also differed from President Richard Nixon and the Republicans on their Vietnam War policies. One issue, however, that he was distinctly conservative on was abortion. As a devout Catholic Conte routinely voted to restrict it.

At the start of the Reagan Administration, he decided to back Reagan’s budget and tax cuts but he would later clash with him on many issues, including budget cuts. This was troublesome for the Reagan Administration as Conte was the ranking Republican on the Appropriations Committee, and he came to call Reagan’s budget director, David Stockman, “The Young Slasher” (Hunter). On September 9, 1982, Conte played a central role in persuading 80 Republicans to vote to override President Reagan’s veto of the supplemental appropriations bill, which had included aid to the Caribbean that Reagan had pushed him to include. His MC-Index (Mike’s Conservative Index) average score during the Reagan years was a mere 18%, indicating solid liberalism in this period. On October 6, 1983, Conte made headlines by wearing a pig mask in Congress in protest of pork barrel spending, his reaction to the House approving $119 million for 43 new water development projects. Although he often fought pork barrel spending, Conte brought home a good deal of federal money to his district. As Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill said of him, he was opposed to such projects “unless Massachusetts gets 50 percent” (Diamond). And O’Neill knew Conte better than anybody in the House, as he was his best friend in Congress and they and their wives would have a weekly bridge game. As his time in Congress continued, his district changed from a Republican stronghold to a solidly Democratic area, but Conte could always count on reelection.

On January 12, 1991, a dying Silvio Conte cast one of his last votes against the use of military force in Iraq, being one of only three House Republicans to do so. He died of complications of prostate cancer on February 8th at the age of 69. His lifetime MC-Index score was a 28%, with him having scored the highest in his first session at a 63% with his lowest being during the 99th Congress with a 10%. Conte’s DW-Nominate score is a -0.023, indicating a centrist record by that standard but quite liberal for a Republican. The district on the Cook Partisan Voter Index is D+12, which happens to be the same as the state of Massachusetts itself. This final departure you might say was the true end of the old Republican legacy in the state, as when Conte first took office in 1959, the state had one Republican senator and Republicans held six of fourteen House seats. By his death, he had for eight years been the only Republican representing the Bay State, making this the first time since 1857 that no Republicans represented the state. Since Conte’s death thirty years ago, Massachusetts’ delegation to Congress has been entirely Democratic for all but seven years.


Diamond, J. (1991, February 8). Long-Time Congressman Silvio Conte Dies. Associated Press.

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Hunter, M. (1982, September 29). Bay State Republican With an Independent Streak. The New York Times.


Kenworthy, T. (1991, February 10). Popular Massachusetts Rep. Silvio Conte Dies. The Washington Post.

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Photos: Today in History, October 6. (2018, October 6). The Metro West News.

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