Former state Rep. Dave Vigneault was an unassuming ‘foot soldier in the army of democracy’

Feb. 20, 2019 | G. Michael Dobbs

SPRINGFIELD – At first glance if you didn’t know the late David Vigneault, you might have wondered about the apparently eccentric Springfield resident.

Usually clad in a suit with several campaign stickers on the jacket if an election was looming Vigneault didn’t look like a political insider with deep ties to Democratic Party leadership, but he was.

Those who knew him will all quickly attest to his keen political mind, his dedication to the Democratic Party and his willingness to campaign long after his own career in politics was over.

Vigneault died last week at the Holyoke Soldiers Home from cancer. He was 82. His death spurred multiple tributes on social media.

Former State Rep. Paul Caron considered Vigneault his close friend and mentor. He told Reminder Publishing that Vigneault called him “a foot soldier in the army of democracy.”

Caron continued, “He was the most unassuming, unpretentious person ... he was motivated by his belief in the goodness of his fellow man.”

Vigneault approached this reporter years ago at a political event, introducing himself. Vigneault was an avid newspaper reader and he apparently enjoyed reading this newspaper. Caron noted that Vigneault would carry the newspapers he read in a black garbage bag.

He was a Springfield native and Army vet who served in the Massachusetts House of Representatives from 1960 to 1972 in Springfield’s 11th Hampden District.

Congressman Richard Neal issued this statement about Vigneault: “Dave Vigneault was a legendary figure in western Massachusetts politics. Born in Springfield in 1936, he attended American International College and the University of Massachusetts. For 12 years he served in the state legislature with distinction representing the Indian Orchard and Pine Point neighborhoods of Springfield. Dave had a well deserved reputation as a sincere and thoughtful public servant who made constituent service one of his top priorities.I found him to be an engaging and well informed individual who never lost his passion for local politics. First elected in 1961, Dave was inspired by John F. Kennedy, and was a regular presence at the annual remembrance of the 35th president in Forest Park every November. He was a good friend and a loyal supporter who will be greatly missed in the Pioneer Valley and beyond.”

Political consultant Anthony Cignoli told Reminder Publishing, “Vigneault had incredible impact, not just in the House but in the numerous campaigns that he volunteered and guided from the 1960s to 2018. Vigneault was a fixture in presidential politics. He could be found knocking on doors with candidates from Sen. Alan Cranston to Michael Dukakis in New Hampshire. Vigneault was no stranger to Iowa or Ohio either, wherever a campaign needed him.”

Cignoli witnessed how people thought about Vigneault. He recalled, “When Sen. Gary Hart was running for president he visited Springfield College. He was running late, with the national media and a huge crowd waiting. As his advance team rushed him to the podium, Hart saw Dave in the middle of the crowd and dove in to embrace and speak with him. They had worked in the McGovern for President campaign together.”

Cignoli also recalled driving Sen. Ted Kennedy around Springfield to events and Kennedy saw Vigneault walking down the street. Kennedy had Cignoli stop the car and pick Vigneault up. “Ted Kennedy once stopped a car I was privileged to be in when he saw Dave, walking to a political rally. He and Dave had a grand chat. Pointing out the window Dave said, ‘Teddy, I remember seeing Bobby (RFK) right over there.’”

Cignoli said that Kennedy directed him to drive Vigneault whenever he wanted even if it meant being late for his next appointment.

Vigneault was a progressive Democrat before that label even existed. “Dave had brass. He took on a corrupt Massachusetts House along with House colleagues like Mike Dukakis and Barney Frank. Dave was arrested in Mississippi when he fought for voting rights and access for black Americans. His friend, former Rep, Beryl Cohen, took up an emergency collection on the House floor to raise his bail. Dave could be a bi-partisan cause; US Attorney General Bobby Kennedy and the Massachusetts Republican Gov. John Volpe fought for his release and safe return,” Cignoli said.

Caron added more details about the arrest explaining that Vigneault was registering African-Americans to vote when he was arrested at 8:30 in the morning by a sheriff’s deputy who had been part of the group that the previous year had been arrested for the murder of three civil rights workers – the basis of the film “Mississippi Burning”

Caron said that Vigneault recalled who the deputy said, “We’ll let him out at 11 at night and let the night riders [another name for the Ku Klux Klan] take care of him.”

Caron added, “It was a real threat.”

Caron said that Vigneault paid for his convictions in his 1966 relection bid which he narrowly won. A polarizing moment for Vigneault was having his mother who was holding a sign for her son at the polls be the object of insults because of Vigneault’s beliefs.

Burnt out after 12 years in the House, Vigneault went to Washington D.C. for several years. When he returned in 1978, newly elected Massachusetts Senate President William Bulger gave Vigneault a job on his staff, Caron noted.

Despite his accomplishments, Vigneault had “no political ego, no inflated sense of importance,” Caron said.

He was involved in many community issues and mentored many young candidates. Staying active in politics “recharged his battery,” Caron said.

City Councilor Jesse Lederman posted a tribute on his Facebook page: “The city of Springfield has lost a true friend and public servant in the passing of former State Rep. Dave Vigneault. Whether he was holding a sign for his candidate, knocking on doors, or sharing with young organizers the tales of his years in the legislature or registering voters during the civil rights movement. Dave never missed an event, nor did he have trouble finding a ride home. “I’ll never forget his words of farewell each time he stepped out of my car: ‘Keep punching.’ Dave never did stop punching.”

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