BOSTON (State House News Service) – Take a deep breath. It’s almost over.
There was so much news in 2017 that if you didn’t have your head on a swivel, you probably didn’t just miss one story. You missed several.
With major ramifications at home, Massachusetts watched as Republicans in Washington tried and failed to repeal Obamacare, passed tax reform, and fought over immigration reforms that Bay State leaders view as critical to the long-term success of the state’s academic, health and technology strengths.
More locally, lawmakers passed laws protecting pregnant workers and banning a little-known device called a bump stock that was used to inflict maximum carnage in a Las Vegas concert shooting. U.S. News and World Report named Massachusetts the best state to live in the country, and hurricanes ravaged U.S. territories in the Caribbean prompting states to rally to the aide of places like Puerto Rico.
Yet none of those stories cracked the top 10.
Neither did the long-awaited indictment of former state Sen. Brian Joyce, who faces scores of federal corruption charges for what prosecutors described as the Milton Democrat running his office as a “criminal enterprise.” The FBI’s probe of Joyce clocked in at number eight last year.
The top story of 2016 – the legalization of marijuana – continued to make headlines and delivered again this year as lawmakers scrambled to figure how to control the pot market. And there was no escaping the gravitational pull of news emanating from now President Donald Trump.
This year, Beacon Hill also said goodbye to two sitting legislators – Sen. Kenneth Donnelly and Rep. Gailanne Cariddi – who passed away while still in office. And the News Service mourned the loss of its long-time former editor and publisher Helen Woodman.
With a couple days left in the year, we realize something could very well happen before the ball drops that would shake this list up. In fact, it would be true to form for 2017. But that’s the risk we’re taking.
The following are the top 10 political stories of 2017, as voted on by many of the state political reporters who write and report daily on the people and issues that occupy Beacon Hill.
Counting down the top 10:
The announcement may not have been entirely expected, but it came early enough that no one was caught flat-footed. U.S. Rep. Niki Tsongas, after a decade in Congress, decided she would give up her seat on the shuttle to D.C. and retire from the House of Representatives after 2018. The widow of the former Sen. Paul Tsongas made her mark on Capitol Hill focusing on military issues, particularly sexual assault in the military. The August announcement gave prospective candidates interested in the rare opening in the state’s nine-member Congressional delegation plenty of time to measure their chances in the race, and measure they did. The field started filling up quickly, and still hasn’t stopped. Thirteen Democrats have declared so far, and the more crowded the field grows the more the math seems to make sense for people to step forward. After the last round of redistricting, Republicans are also feeling like they have a chance and three GOP candidates are running so far, led by Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance founder Rick Green.
Few governors get to put their stamp on the Supreme Judicial Court as quickly as Gov. Charlie Baker. After putting three new justices on the top court in 2016, Baker, a moderate Republican, added two more this year, accomplishing something it took his predecessor Gov. Deval Patrick eight years. Justices Elspeth Cypher and Scott Kafker joined the SJC bench this year, and Baker likely will have to win re-election next year if he hopes to get another pick. Justice Barbara Lenk is the next justice due to hit mandatory retirement age at 70 in 2020. So far, Baker has preferred to elevate from within the Massachusetts judicial system, tapping experienced judges for the highest court rather looking outside to lawyers or academics.
A routine police call to respond to a car crash on Interstate 190 set in motion a chain of events that led to the resignation of the top cop in the State Police and sparked multiple investigations that are ongoing. The episode came to light when Trooper Ryan Sceviour filed a lawsuit alleging that superior officers ordered him to scrub an accident and arrest report of embarrassing details related to the arrest of Alli Bibaud, the daughter of trial court judge. During her arrest for driving under the influence, Bibaud reportedly mentioned her judge father and offered sexual favors to get out of trouble. Those details were later removed from the report, and former State Police Col. Richard McKeon admitted to having them removed because he did not feel the details were relevant to the case again Bibaud. McKeon and his deputy would eventually quit (officially they retired) but the State Police have brought on former Public Safety Secretary Kevin Burke to fully investigate how the order to alter the report came down, and Attorney General Maura Healey is also probing. Gov. Charlie Baker has denied that his public safety chief Daniel Bennett had anything to do with it, but has largely left the investigations to others.
Lawmakers may come and go from Beacon Hill. But it’s not every day that the presumed speaker-in-waiting packs up his office and leaves. That’s what Haverhill’s Brian Dempsey did this year, decamping from his powerful post as chairman of the budget-writing House Ways and Means Committee and taking a senior position at the lobbying firm ML Strategies. Dempsey’s tenure in the Legislature started when he was in early 20s and lasted 26 years, a span during which he wrote six state budgets and played an integral role in drafting the state’s expanded gaming law. His departure upended the conventional wisdom about the power structure in the House and left a void that House Speaker Robert DeLeo filled with Jamaica Plain Democrat Jeffrey Sanchez. Sanchez will get his first crack at preparing a state budget next spring, but his elevation has already been seen as a boon for House progressives. He is also the first Latino to hold the Ways and Means post.
When voters elected President Donald Trump in 2016, people knew the country was in store for something a little different. Still, it could not have been entirely foreseen how brightly the new commander in chief’s presence in the White House would color 2017 on Beacon Hill. From the Women’s March on Boston Common in January to the debates over Obamacare, tax reform, and immigration, the liberal leanings of Massachusetts put it on the forefront of the resistance. Attorney General Maura Healey has a growing pile of lawsuits against the Trump administration, and Gov. Charlie Baker has distanced himself from the GOP at virtually every turn. The House even created a committee just to monitor what was happening in Washington and prepare for necessary counter responses, and the Senate sent a team of lawmakers to D.C. to try to wrap their heads around how Massachusetts might be impacted by the flurry of change. Legislation was even passed in the House to ban sheriffs from sending inmates to the border to help build a Mexican border wall, and Baker signed a law protecting access to free birth control at no out-of-pocket expense. With 2018 now around the corner, Trump’s electoral impact will become an even bigger story as Baker begins his re-election campaign and Republicans try to break into the ranks of the state’s Congressional delegation.
Over the years, legislators have bitten off criminal justice reform in small chunks. Attempts at broader overhaul often got bogged down in emotional debates over punishment versus compassion and certain decisions were punted to a later date, preferably not close to election time. That date came this year when House and Senate leadership made good on a promise to tackle the subject in a comprehensive manner, not piecemeal. Both branches managed to pass bills that addressed the elimination of mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug crimes, restrictions on the use of solitary confinement, the expungement of juvenile records and strengthened laws against fentanyl trafficking, among other things. Advocates hoping to reduce prison populations and improve recidivism rates didn’t get everything they wanted, but by and large were pleased by the scope of the effort. But it’s not done yet. Negotiators in the House and Senate have just begun trying to iron out their differences and will need to push through a consensus bill during an election year.
The national reckoning over sexual harassment in and out of the workplace started in Hollywood and eventually made its way to Boston. Men in the local worlds of politics, media and music were forced to answer for their past behavior toward women. Driven in large part by the reporting of the Boston Globe’s Yvonne Abraham, the male-dominant culture at the State House came under heavy scrutiny after a dozen anonymous women detailed for the columnist instances of sexual harassment on Beacon Hill that prompted a renewed focus on policies for prevention and reporting. The House and Senate have initiated policy reviews that could lead to enhanced sexual harassment training in the workplace, and the building has been on pins and needles for weeks waiting to see if names attached to the stories in Abraham’s piece will become public. And that doesn’t even cover the biggest story to come out of this thread.
Much of the establishment on Beacon Hill opposed the 2016 ballot question legalizing the adult recreational use of marijuana, but voters overruled them. Blocking the will of the electorate would have been an untenable position for lawmakers, but didn’t mean they couldn’t bend that will to suit their own preferences. After voting around this time last year to delay implementation of key aspects of the new law, lawmakers spent much of the first half of the year contemplating how to regulate pot. The resulting law put control of the industry under a new Cannabis Control Commission, set tax rates for the sale of marijuana and marijuana products and devised a process by which cities and towns could ban dispensaries from opening in their communities. The “Triple C” is now up and running under the leadership of Baker appointee Steve Hoffman, and heads into Christmas with a 108 pages of new regulations awaiting public comment with the goal of licensing the first pot shops for marijuana sales next summer.
The tone for the year was set early when the Legislature kicked off its two-year session by ramming through a package of pay raises for itself, constitutional officers and judges that will continue to be an issue in 2018 as re-election campaigns kick into gear. The $18 million package was approved despite a veto by Gov. Charlie Baker, who declined the raise, as legislators worked around their inability to hike base salaries without a constitutional amendment by doling out hefty pay increases that came with leadership and committee chairmanship stipends. Some lawmakers worried the pay structure would further solidify the power of the speaker and Senate president, who get to decide assignments. Other critics, as policy initiatives languished, questioned whether the raises were deserved. Leaders, however, defended the adjustments as “overdue” and necessary to make public service a viable career to qualified professionals. Voters will get to weigh in next year whether they agree, and legislative leaders are hoping by then the furor will have fully subsided.
The story of the Legislature giving itself a healthy pay raise was on track to be the top story of the year, but was supplanted by the fast-moving fall from power of Sen. Stanley Rosenberg. The Amherst Democrat, three years into his presidency, was forced to give up the post this month after allegations surfaced that his husband, Bryon Hefner, had harassed and sexually assaulted at least four men who work on Beacon Hill. The stories of unwanted groping and kissing, exposed again by Yvonne Abraham, were accompanied by claims from the victims that Hefner also boasted about his influence over Senate business. What made it worse was this is not the first time Hefner has been accused in print of meddling in his husband’s work. Within days, Rosenberg relinquished his position, and his colleagues selected Majority Leader Harriette Chandler to take over as president with the possibility still on the table that Rosenberg could return. For that to happen, a Senate Ethics Committee investigation, being conducted by three high-powered Boston attorneys, would have to exonerate Rosenberg of knowing what his husband was up to or allowing Hefner to interfere in the workings of the Senate. Guessing whether Rosenberg can, or will, return has become something of a parlor game, fueled by the background maneuvering of four Democrats – Sens. Linda Forry, Eileen Donoghue, Karen Spilka and Sal DiDomenico – to be in position to succeed Rosenberg full-time if he’s unable to make a comeback. Attorney General Maura Healey and Suffolk District Attorney Dan Conley are also probing the criminal side of the allegations against Hefner, and the Globe has reported that the FBI is also taking a look.