JAMES VALLEE. CHARLEY Murphy. John Rogers. Jonathan Hecht. To that list of past and present lawmakers, you can add state Rep. Russell Holmes as someone who has crossed House Speaker Robert DeLeo and paid the price.
Holmes, a four-term legislator with a background in financial planning, was removed earlier this week as House vice chairman of the Joint Committee on Housing and replaced with second-term state Rep. Joseph McGonagle, the owner of a construction company in Everett.
Holmes’s ouster by DeLeo happened to come less than a week after the Mattapan Democrat made comments about coalescing behind a progressive candidate for speaker after Rep. Brian Dempsey, the consensus successor to DeLeo, announced he was resigning his seat. Coincidence? Holmes thinks not.
“Any criticism is not well taken in the building,” said Holmes, who still hasn’t been told by DeLeo that he has been replaced. (With the loss of his leadership post goes $5,200 in extra pay.) “It has been the culture of the building. Anything that causes the ripple, a small pebble thrown in the ocean, it feels like it’s a wave to the speaker.”
Holmes said losing his position in light of his education and experience is “an insult.”
“There is no meritocracy in this building,” said Holmes. “I have an engineering degree from Boston University, a master’s [in business administration] from Northeastern. I have the highest level of education. I still work in the financial industry. To be replaced by someone with less education, less talent, less time in the House, that’s just an insult.”
DeLeo, whose office did not respond to a request for comment, told reporters earlier this week that the switch was made based solely on the House’s need, a claim that is difficult to fathom since little else has changed within the House (except for the replacement of Dempsey as Ways and Means chairman) since the speaker made Holmes a vice chairman in February. While some House members shifted posts (Rep. Jeffrey Sanchez, for example, took the helm of House Ways and Means), no one else lost a chairmanship or vice chairmanship or the stipend that went with it.
“You have to look at this as a holistic approach, and you have to look at the team as a whole in terms of putting the best team together that you see, and fitting people into places with their expertise and whatnot,” DeLeo said.
Holmes isn’t buying the posture, saying DeLeo is creating his own reality, comparing him to another high-profile elected official.
“A lot of people have told me they don’t buy it,” Holmes said. “It would be better if he just came out and said exactly what happened, just told the truth. He thinks he can do anything he wants to do here and
say anything he wants. It’s just a sad state of this country. I believe there are several things in the way he responded that are very similar to [President] Trump. A lot of people up here have drunk the Kool-Aid and he can get away with anything.”
It’s a recurring theme that few will challenge DeLeo openly. Even those who have felt the wrath of the speaker-for-life and have little to lose are unwilling to talk out loud. Murphy and Vallee were both ousted from the DeLeo leadership team for daring to challenge DeLeo or exploring a potential run to succeed him if he left. Neither returned a call for comment. Those who did talk would only do so without attribution, fearing payback and whatnot from a man who has learned to wield the heavy stick of his position.
“Absolutely, this is DeLeo cutting [Holmes’s] balls off,” said one former longtime lawmaker who served under three speakers. “At least come up with a plausible plan of why you tossed him out rather than the absurd stance he took.” DeLeo’s retributions leave him looking less like the reformer he held himself out to be. He outmaneuvered and outmuscled Rogers for the gavel at a time Rogers said he was the anointed successor. Rogers was relegated to toiling on the back benches in committees that had little consequence.
DeLeo pushed for term limits for the speaker upon assuming the post and then, three terms in, pushed to abandon those same limits after he got a taste for the office. Everyone thought the House would be different, even if not dramatically so, under DeLeo than it was under his iron-fisted predecessors.
“We all did,” said the ex-representative. “I think everybody thought that would be the case.”
The former legislator said DeLeo’s skin has grown thinner through the years and his leadership team is made up of people dependent on him for their livelihood.
“No one is willing to say, ‘Hey, Bob, you’re the speaker of the house, get over it,’” said the one-time representative. “That is the mindset of the House. It used to be somewhat of a debate society. It changed under [former speakers Thomas] Finneran and [Sal] DiMasi. It’s just a bunch of people not being willing to step up, and that includes Republicans.”
Holmes concurred, saying DeLeo uses assignments as leverage to get his way. Holmes said when the House was voting on the pay raises earlier this year, DeLeo refused to let anyone know what posts they would get in order to force them to support the hikes on the chance they could land a plum appointment and the extra pay that went with it. Holmes admitted he was one of those people. He said the same thing happened when DeLeo sought to eliminate the four-term limit on serving as speaker, withholding prime offices and positions until he got the measure passed.
“He held it over my head, he held it over everybody’s head,” said Holmes. “He also held the vote of all of us potentially getting raises. He got a much more substantial raise than any of us.”
This also isn’t Holmes’s first run-in with DeLeo and he admits his demotion may be the cumulative effect of several episodes involving a man who doesn’t often give second chances. Two years ago, when DeLeo made his leadership appointments, Holmes took note of the heavy representation of white males and labeled it a “whitewash,” which got him an audience with DeLeo. Holmes said the two had a “candid and contentious” meeting.
“He said I called him a racist,” said Holmes. “I made clear I didn’t call him a racist. I told him, ‘don’t ride our backs [to victory] and then hop off our backs and say we won.’ We [minorities] expect to be appointed to key policy posts to advocate for our constituents.”
Unlike Murphy and Vallee, Holmes said he has no intention of leaving. He also said he has no intention of shutting up. He said he’s had some colleagues call to privately offer their empathy but he understands why, publicly, he’s a pariah.
“I don’t see myself quitting,” said Holmes. “I will not be silenced. I’ve tried my best not to put my colleagues in a bad position. Most folks are not willing to speak out because this is the message that was sent. They make it clear they are supportive but they also are concerned about what might happen to them.”