BOSTON (State House News Service) – In a rare move, a special legislative panel will convene public hearings Friday to take a closer look at two House elections decided by extremely narrow recount votes, a decision that will further delay the inauguration of the certified winners.
The three representatives on the panel — Democrat Michael Day of Stoneham, Democrat Daniel Ryan of Charlestown, and House Minority Leader Brad Jones of North Reading — announced in a joint statement on Monday they would invite candidates in both contests and their attorneys to the State House to discuss the elections.
Testimony will be by invitation only, but the in-person hearing will be open to the public and press, according to a Day aide.
“The Special Committee of the House to Examine the Returns of Votes for Certain Representative Districts today announced that it will hold hearings on the contested races in the First Middlesex and Second Essex Representative Districts,” the trio of lawmakers said in a joint statement. “The Special Committee will invite the respective candidates and their legal counsel to appear to offer testimony and to answer questions from the members of the Special Committee on Friday, January 13, 2023.”
The panel plans to focus on the Second Essex District, which Democrat Kristin Kassner won by one vote over five-term Republican Rep. Lenny Mirra, at 10 a.m., followed by the First Middlesex District, which Democrat Margaret Scarsdale topped by seven votes over Republican challenger Andrew Shepherd, at 2 p.m., the aide said.
House Speaker Ron Mariano announced the night before the start of the 2023-2024 term that the House would delay the swearing-in Kassner and Scarsdale until the special committee completes an examination of the contests.
The House, where Democrats hold a supermajority, voted last week to keep Mirra in his seat until the three-member panel makes a final decision about the contest.
“Both challengers had legal options they were not able to exhaust. I weighed the difference between allowing them to use their legal options to the limit versus the question about whether or not who the winner was,” Mariano said Monday of the House’s moves.
Asked if ordering a new special election in either race was an option, Mariano replied, “It depends on what the committee decides. I would be shocked if that was the case, but who knows.”
All four candidates confirmed Monday that they plan to participate in the hearings on Friday.
Kassner said in an interview that she is “confident in the certified election results” and plans to make that point to lawmakers.
“I look forward to being sworn in and truly hope the delay, as the speaker said, is expeditious,” she said.
Scarsdale, who like Kassner appeared on track to join the House but is now in limbo awaiting the panel’s decision, said she is “heartened to hear that the Special Committee is moving expeditiously toward seating a State Representative in the First Middlesex District.”
“At the hearing on Friday, I look forward to demonstrating what our team has known for the past month since the recounts ended: that this election was conducted transparently and with fairness,” Scarsdale said in a statement. “As we await the culmination of the special committee’s work, I continue to be present and accessible to constituents in all six communities in my district, and I stand ready to advocate for them as a seated member of the House of Representatives.”
Added Shepherd, “All I hope is that we have a quick decision, we can get somebody in the seat and start representing the people of the First Middlesex District.”
Mirra emerged victorious by 10 votes in the original certified election results, but a district-wide recount flipped it to a one-vote win for Kassner.
“We’re confident that once the committee looks at these contested ballots, we’ll prevail,” Mirra said last week.
In the other race, a recount cut Scarsdale’s lead from 17 votes to seven votes.
Republicans in both races filed legal challenges contesting some of the ballots after the Governor’s Council certified the updated results on Dec. 14.
A judge has not yet ruled in Shepherd’s case, while Mirra has so far been unsuccessful in both his initial complaint and subsequent legal appeals. Essex Superior Court Judge Thomas Drechsler wrote in a Dec. 29 ruling that the court lacked jurisdiction and that “the power to pass upon the election and qualifications of its own members is vested exclusively in the House of Representatives.”
Some Democrats are growing frustrated that the House kept Mirra in his seat during the special committee’s review. The Georgetown Democratic Town Committee wrote to Mariano calling the move a “blow to democracy,” according to the Eagle Tribune
Mirra, however, defended the House’s approach as within bounds, referencing language in the state Constitution that declares “the house of representatives shall be the judge of the returns, elections, and qualifications of its own members.”
“It’s not my opinion. It’s not my feeling about it. It’s the Constitution,” Mirra told the News Service. “We tried to settle this without this committee being formed by going to the courts, but they would not even give us our day in court. They would not even review the evidence.”
While they await rulings on whether they can take the oath of office, both Scarsdale and Kassner said they are working in their districts to meet with constituents and get a sense of potential legislation they might file.
A sign outside the House “bullpen,” where new representatives begin their work in a shared hearing room before they receive their office assignments, on Monday listed both Scarsdale and Kassner under the message “WELCOME STATE REPRESENTATIVES.”
But a Scarsdale aide said the Pepperell Democrat has been doing almost all of her work in the district so far and that any decision to allot bullpen space to her was made solely by House leadership, and Kassner said she did not even know her name made that bullpen list.
“I’m very happy to hear that. I was not aware of that, but I’m happy to hear it,” Kassner told the News Service. “It’s another sign that hopefully this is going to be a quick resolution and we can move forward and get to work.”