BOSTON, Mass. (SHNS)–Rep. Joseph Wagner was roughly five years into his 31-year tenure when he experienced “the most uncomfortable meeting” of his Beacon Hill career.
Wagner was relatively new to the scene after winning a special election in 1991 when Thomas Finneran stunned the political world by winning the speakership with the support of a “coalition government,” consisting of less than half of his Democratic caucus plus 34 Republicans.
The time came for Wagner, who had unsuccessfully supported Majority Leader Richard Voke in the behind-the-scenes battle for the gavel, to make a “pilgrimage” to Finneran’s office for a private meeting.
While the conversation started as “easily the most uncomfortable meeting I have had in this building,” Wagner said as time went on, the ice thawed and the pair of Democrats set “a pretty good foundation for moving forward.” But he could not help himself from returning to the topic of that speakership fight.
“I was about to get up and leave and I said, ‘May I say one more thing?’ And he said sure. I said, ‘I will always respect that you won. I will always respect that.’ I said that, because that’s what this is all about,” Wagner told his colleagues. “And I made the unfortunate mistake of finishing the thought with, ‘But I’ll never respect the way that you did it.’ But I thought that honesty was important in that moment and always.”
Wagner’s story, delivered in a farewell speech from the House floor, offered a rare glimpse at the political jockeying and intraparty disagreements that Massachusetts lawmakers so often try to hide from public view.
While some lawmakers have been pushed to the fringes for bucking or challenging party leaders, Wagner managed to avoid too many repercussions. As Wagner noted Monday, Finneran assigned Wagner his first-ever committee chairmanship. The Chicopee Democrat will now wrap up his final term before retirement as second assistant majority leader to Speaker Ronald Mariano.
Eleven outgoing representatives and five departing senators gave their final speeches on Monday, reflecting on the highs and lows of their time in office before others fill their seats and a new term begins Jan. 4.
Rep. Tami Gouveia of Acton, a progressive Democrat who at times has clashed with House leadership, said her “biggest takeaway is that we could be doing a lot more for all of our residents.”
During her year-plus, ultimately unsuccessful campaign for lieutenant governor, Gouveia said, she heard from constituents around Massachusetts about “the hardship and the pain they face in just trying to keep their head above water and accessing basic services.”
“Our residents are scared, angry and disappointed in our political system not only here in our state, of course nationally as well. And quite frankly, many of them are disappointed in us because their experience tells them that their humanity and their dignity are treated oftentimes as less important than special interests and those who have influence and power,” Gouveia said. “As we make our way through the pain of the last three years, we have failed sometimes to support our most economically vulnerable residents. We have failed to engage our young people and our working people by letting same-day voter registration die. We failed to support families of incarcerated individuals by allowing no-cost calls to become a political bargaining chip in the final hour. We cannot continue to fail those who elected us to serve.”
Sen. Sonia Chang-D&?iacute;az, who gave up her Senate seat to launch an unsuccessful bid for governor, looked back at both victories and regrets from her seven terms in office.
Chang-D&?iacute;az, who served as Senate chair of the Education Committee until she was reassigned in 2019, also listed “things that I am expected to regret that I don’t.”
“I don’t regret giving the speech that I gave at the Boston MLK breakfast in 2017, saying that our communities were tired of hearing excuses year after year about why they should wait longer for real criminal justice reform,” she said. “I don’t regret kicking off the campaign for the Student Opportunity Act in 2019 by making it clear that my first loyalty was to students and not to Senate leadership. I know what these things cost: political safety, a committee chairmanship, my position in leadership, probably many thousands of dollars in pension benefits. But I also know what they helped win. I know there are kids in our state whose schools have been able to hire social workers that they never had the budget for before. I know that there are kids who have access to diversion programs instead of incarceration. And I know that I would make those trades again, every time.”
For some departing lawmakers, Monday offered a chance to reflect on how much Massachusetts has changed since they first took office, especially as a result of laws they helped enact.
“When I came to this House in , it seemed like a remote possibility that one day, the commonwealth might recognize my marriage to the love of my life,” said Rep. Liz Malia of Boston, referencing her longtime relationship with her wife, Rita. “So we talked to people who didn’t agree with us. We brought our whole lives and experiences to the table, and we wouldn’t go away. Sometimes, you just have to keep showing up. Eventually, you may find that you persisted long enough to win.”
“We did that here, and not long after, I married a woman whose love and support has enabled all that I’ve accomplished here in 24 years,” Malia added.
For others, the farewells seemed to come just a blink of an eye after they first walked into the chamber as elected officials. When first-term Rep. Jake Oliveira of Ludlow, who next month will join the Senate, stepped to the podium, it was in fact his inaugural speech and his farewell speech simultaneously.
Topsfield Democrat Rep. Jamie Belsito, who won a 2021 special election and opted not to seek a full term after redistricting dramatically reshaped her district boundaries, pointed out the dramatic underrepresentation of women and people of color in the House’s centuries-long history.
“I am the 220th woman to be elected to this chamber out of over 22,000-plus men. I am the only state representative ever elected from Topsfield — please put that under your Jeopardy facts, that will come useful someday,” Belsito said. “I’m the only Arab-American woman ever elected to the House of Representatives and I’m the only Syrian-American woman ever elected to an office in the commonwealth of Massachusetts. Perhaps these facts seem irrelevant to many, but to my community, to my family, to my girls, Rose and Hadia, these facts mean more than words can say because representation matters.”
As is the case in most remarks delivered on the House and Senate floor, the farewell speeches featured effusive praise for top Democrats in both chambers and much more muted compliments for the minority leaders.
Sen. Harriette Chandler of Worcester will depart after wielding the title “Senate President emerita” for the final stretch of her tenure, a reference to her time leading the chamber in 2017 and 2018 after Senate President Stanley Rosenburg stepped down. Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr referenced that turmoil as “perhaps the darkest days that this body has ever faced.”
Chandler, Tarr said, was “someone who put this body and her own aspirations and her own interests aside, and said, ‘Send me.'” She steadied the Senate and carried it into mid-2018, when Sen. Karen Spilka took the gavel.
Chandler, who is retiring after 28 years in the Legislature, offered a series of lessons to the younger generations in the chamber. First among them: “If you ‘wait your turn,’ you’ll never get it. Some of you know that already. Worcester was old-school. To elect a Jewish grandmother, born in Maryland, raised in Delaware, to office in Worcester? That would be unexpected, to say the least,” said Chandler, who was the first woman from Worcester elected to the Senate.
Another of her lessons: “Leadership is inherently lonely.”
Chandler said she took the gavel in 2017 “fully aware of its power and responsibilities” and made it a priority to “right the ship of state.”
“We needed to rebuild trust and we needed to pass laws. Over those months, I lost friends and made enemies. But our work is not for us, it is for the people we were sent here to serve. That’s easy to forget, sometimes,” she said. “… The words we speak are combed for clues, our actions are covered on the news — but selfishness, and clinging to ‘the way things have always been done,’ that is pernicious. It is easy to act in one’s own interest in the names of ideological principles. But leaders know when to push back against their preconceived conventions.”
Rep. Paul Tucker, a Salem Democrat, used his remarks to uncork a story about a colleague’s apparent aviary mischief.
Tucker, who is leaving the House to become district attorney in Essex County, recounted that he and Rep. Joseph McGonagle of Everett were at one point summoned for a meeting with Speaker Robert DeLeo.
DeLeo wanted the duo to attend a leadership conference in Bentonville, Arkansas — an assignment that Tucker would later learn from Mariano fell to them because no one else wanted to go. The speaker pulled Tucker aside before they left with a clear set of instructions, which Tucker recalled in his speech on Monday as, “Don’t let anything happen to McGonagle. Don’t let him out of your sight.”
When they got to Bentonville, Tucker peeled off to go look for some Advil, and in the process he lost track of his fellow state rep.
“I searched those streets for about two hours, dejectedly went back to the hotel not having found him,” Tucker told a rapt audience in the House chamber. “I hit the button to open the elevator, and there was the gentleman from Everett, surrounded by a flock of pink lawn flamingos.”
He paused while attendees in the chamber burst into laughter.
“I said, ‘Joe, I won’t say anything about this as long as you don’t tell the speaker I lost you,'” Tucker said. “He never said a word.”
Attempts to reach Tucker and McGonagle’s State House offices on Monday for more information about the lawn flamingos were unsuccessful.