On Politics
4:00 pm
Mon August 18, 2014

Congressman Fernand St Germain Dies At 86

Fernand St Germain
Fernand St Germain
Credit Wikipedia

Former U.S. Rep. Fernand  "Fred"' St Germain, who rose from modest roots in French-Canadian Woonsocket to become one of the most powerful politicians in Washington, D.C., only to meet defeat in 1988 among allegations of ethical misconduct, has died. He was 86.

St Germain, a Democrat, first elected in 1960 with President John F. Kennedy, was known for paying vigorous attention to constituent services and bringing federal programs, especially housing for the elderly, to Rhode Island.

In nearly 30 years in the House, St Germain vaulted from back-bencher to become chairman of the influential House Banking Committee. He was instrumental in promoting legislation in 1982 that deregulated the savings and loans industry. While that made him popular with banking interests  and their lobbyists, it was later viewed as contributing to the 1980s Savings and Loan crisis by allowing what were once neighborhood banks dedicated to home mortgages to expand their lending activities into risky commercial ventures.

The S&L mess left taxpayers on the hook for billions of dollars when some of those banks failed.

``Congressman St Germain was a soldier, accomplished lawyer and distinguished public servant,’’ said U.S. Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., who holds the district St Germain represented for 28 years until his 1988 defeat at the hands of Republican Ronald Machtley, a Portsmouth lawyer who is currently president of Bryant University.

``The son of a millworker from Woonsocket, Congressman St Germain was a strong voice for middle class families in Congress,’’ said Cicilline in a statement. ``For nearly three decades he devoted his life to public service and faithfully served the people of Rhode Island in the United States Congress.’’

Said Gov. Lincoln Chafee, in a statement: ``He was a life-long Democrat and a Woonsocket native who fiercely fought for the rights of the working and middle classes.''

St Germain, who served as a Rhode Island state representative before election to the U.S. House,  was remembered today as an effective lawmaker who moved the levers of power in Washington to get things done, particularly in the realm of housing for the low-income and elderly. ``Freddie was a superb legislator.  He knew what he wanted to get done and how to accomplish it. He was grounded in Woonsocket politics,’’ said Tom Hughes, who was a top aide to Sen. Claiborne Pell, D-R.I. for many years.

A liberal Democrat, St Germain was a believer in the New Deal and Great Society programs that helped the les well off.  ``Whether it was social security, Medicaid or Medicare, Freddie really believed that government was an instrument to help people,'' said Paul Quinn, a longtime Washigton lobbyist and St Germain ally. ``He was very committed to his constituents. And he really understood politics and ...how to move legislation.''

M. Charles Bakst, longtime political columnist for the Providence Journal, recalls that St Germain’s office took great pride on helping constituents with such federal bureaucracies as the Social Security Administration  and in helping on immigration matters.

Bakst recalled St Germain as more inside operator than publicity-seeking House member. He had a stellar staff where members, such as Rick Maurano in Washington and Joe Scanlon in Rhode Island, served for many years.

The S&L crisis eventually came home to hurt St Germain late in his long career. By the start of the 1988 election cycle, various investigations, including an extensive one by the Wall Street Journal, depicted St German as a Washington insider who became too cozy with banking lobbyists  and financial industry interests.

Other allegations swirled around his personal finances, particularly how a politician from such a humble background had gotten to become a multi-millionaire while serving in Congress.

By 1988, the disclosures had taken their toll. St Germain fended off a stiff primary challenge from Democrat Scott Wolf but lost the general election to Republican Machtley, who campaigned with a pig he called Les Pork.

Machtley served three terms in the House before returning to Rhode Island in 1994 to run unsuccessfully for governor.

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