BOSTON (SHNS) – With the imminent departure of House Speaker Robert DeLeo seemingly assured, questions about the timing of the transition have inflamed some House progressives, while other legislators say they look forward to a smooth hand-off whenever that happens.
DeLeo stayed silent on Monday after filing notice before the start of the weekend that he intended to enter into negotiations with Northeastern University for a post-politics job that would precipitate the first change in power atop the House in 12 years.
The shakeup could come as this week at a time when the Legislature, like other institutions, is navigating life during a pandemic, and trying to finalize major legislation, including police reform, before the end of the session on Jan. 5.
“It’s happening Tuesday or Wednesday, is what I’m hearing. Everything that I’m hearing is that they’re trying to get it done before Christmas,” said Rep. Russell Holmes, a Mattapan Democrat who threw his hat in the ring to succeed DeLeo on Friday.
Holmes, 51, is running against Majority Leader Ron Mariano, 74, a Quincy Democrat and 30-year veteran on Beacon Hill who, according to supporters, already has enough votes locked up to be elected speaker if DeLeo resigns. The House has formal sessions planned both Tuesday and Wednesday before breaking for the Christmas holiday, and the speaker’s office had no updates Monday on DeLeo’s status.
For some, the changeover can’t happen quick enough, like ripping off a Band-Aid.
“If the speaker leaves, we need to elect a new speaker and so be it. Let’s do it and get it over with. Let’s move forward and let’s get the things done we need to get done before Jan. 5,” said Assistant Minority Leader Brad Hill.
Hill, an Ipswich Republican, suggested that Republicans aren’t interested in trying to help play kingmaker, which was a role the minority party played when former speaker Thomas Finneran needed them as a voting bloc in 1996 to overcome his rival for the post.
“The Democratic caucus will elect their new leader and we’ll just continue on as we have been, and hopefully in a seamless way,” Hill said Monday.
Holmes said he spent the weekend on the phone talking to colleagues, and acknowledged that many House lawmakers are already committed to Mariano. He said he did reach out as well to Republicans, but did not sense much interest in helping forestall a quick victory for Mariano.
“Everything that I’ve heard from them is that they’re still deciding what they’re going to do, but they’re pretty much going to stay out of this fight unless I can roll in with 60 votes,” Holmes said. Asked if he had that many votes, Holmes said, “No, not yet.”
Still, Holmes, who is Black, vowed to fight on.
“This is my lunch counter,” he said. “We’ve come a long way from me not being able to sit at any lunch counter or me not being able to ride on any bus, but in this moment and for my generation this is what it looks like. This is me getting in your face and saying we’re pleased with the progress that has happened in the past, but we still have farther to go.”
Holmes said the COVID-19 pandemic has only highlighted racial inequities throughout society, and his candidacy is about forcing those issues to the forefront.
Mariano would need 81 votes to become the next speaker. There are currently 158 members of the House, including 126 Democrats, 31 Republicans and 1 unenrolled legislator. Two seats are vacant.
Another bloc of votes that could complicate Mariano’s path to the speakership would be the Progressive Caucus, a group of 60 lawmakers who, with the Republicans, could prevent Mariano from getting to 81 votes.
The two leaders of the House Progressive Caucus – Rep. Tricia Farley Bouvier and Rep. Jack Patrick Lewis – are supporting Mariano, but at least two members of the caucus see that as a betrayal of the values progressive Democrats stand for on Beacon Hill.
Reps. Jonathan Hecht and Denise Provost, both of whom did not seek reelection this year, wrote a blistering op-ed published in CommonWealth Magazine on Monday urging their fellow progressive to band together and prevent the House from electing Mariano speaker before the new session begins on Jan. 6.
Likening the possibility of a quick vote to what the Republican-controlled Senate did in Washington to rush through the appointment of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, Hecht and Provost called it a “cynical power grab.”
“Assuming this ploy goes forward, it would be the culmination of the insider politics that has come to dominate the Massachusetts House. On this ground alone, House progressives should be calling foul,” Hecht and Provost wrote.
Holmes called the arguments laid out in the op-ed “very much in alignment with my beliefs.”
Hecht and Provost described Mariano as a right-of-center Democrat and someone who is politically “well to the right” of DeLeo, who himself is viewed as a centrist.
The two lawmakers accused Mariano of consistently siding with “big business, big finance and big health care,” and noted that the Quincy Democrat was the highest ranking Democrat to vote against the so-called “millionaires’ tax” in 2017, though two years later he supported putting the tax question on the 2022 ballot.
Before joining the higher ranks of leadership, Mariano chaired the Financial Service Committee and has been the go-to lawmaker in the House on health care reform legislation, with a mixed record on compromising with the Senate. He also helped negotiate a landmark criminal justice reform law in 2018, and fought a years-long battle to extend the statute of limitations for victims of clergy sex abuse.
Lewis said he was supporting Mariano because he believed at a time of great uncertainty with the pandemic his constituents could benefit from a steady and experienced hand.
“We need a strong leader. We need someone who will be a partner. And for me, that is Leader Ron Mariano,” Lewis said.
Other Democrats said they would also be happy to support Mariano when DeLeo steps aside, describing him as fair and a good listener.
“I’ve enjoyed working with him. I think he’s been a mentor to many people in this building. I believe he’s fair and always open to anyone’s perspective and I have a great deal of respect for him for that,” said Rep. John Lawn, of Watertown.
Rep. Antonio Cabral is a classmate of DeLeo and Mariano’s, entering the House as a freshman from New Bedford in 1991. He said he used to sit next to Mariano in the chamber.
“I think he’s the right person to lead the House at this moment and I think he’ll do an excellent job. He knows the members well, takes time to talk to folks in the chamber, to spend time with folks, and to get to know them,” Cabral said.
Cabral said legislators who think their politics might not align with Mariano’s should not worry about being sidelined.
“I truly believe he’s very respectful of people’s opinions and differences. And I’m sure if and when he becomes speaker I believe he will conduct his leadership in that manner,” he said.
House Ways and Means Chairman Rep. Aaron Michlewitz serves as a top deputy to DeLeo and is expected to remain in that post under Mariano.
“His leadership and experience is going to prove very vital. So I’m very excited to see how this goes,” said Michlewitz. “I think that he is ready to take the job on Day One, which is something that is very critically important in these difficult times that we’re facing.”
On his way into DeLeo’s office to give the speaker “a rundown on what we’re doing” with budget veto overrides on Tuesday, Michlewitz said Mariano’s support runs deep among Democrats in the House.
“I think you will see strong support from across the board,” he said. “Every sector of our constituency will be well-represented in Leader Mariano’s attempt to be speaker. … You’ll see progressive members, you’ll see moderate members, you’ll see newer members, you’ll see longtime members, you’ll see men and women joining.”
Despite the lack of diversity in the top ranks of leadership in the House currently, Holmes said some legislators he spoke with over the weekend suggested that members of the Black and Latino Caucus might fare better in a new leadership structure.
“I believe that they will do better now that I have run,” Holmes said.