TWO YEARS AGO, I wrote a piece in CommonWealth on how the Massachusetts House really works, an account of the “old boys’ network” and exactly how it stifles all bills and amendments that the House Speaker doesn’t personally like.
While lobbying on behalf of a recycling bill, I broke an unspoken but absolutely firm rule among lobbyists: never criticize the State House political system. “Let me be clear,” I asserted. “Don’t confuse what goes on in this building with democracy.”
Throughout my tenure lobbying for environmental bills, I was always optimistic that my target bills would pass. I lobbied, educated, organized, and cajoled – but always knew that while I could gather an overwhelming majority of the members’ support, if I didn’t get the support of the speaker, I had nothing.
My tenure covered two speakers –– Sal DiMasi and Bob DeLeo. Both were highly autocratic.
DiMasi was quite progressive at heart. I had hoped that DeLeo would follow in his predecessor’s footsteps, but also knew that he was significantly more conservative. I didn’t expect that his compulsion to rule would cover everything; there was no bill too minor to escape his attention. Unlike even Tom Finneran’s dictatorial reign, every single bill and amendment, without exception, required the speaker’s review and approval.
I had hoped that after four years of Trumpism and 12 years of DeLeo’s absolutism, our 160 elected state representatives would choose their next speaker carefully, finding someone who actually believed in democracy and who pledged to at least listen to the members’ concerns.
It appears my hopes have been dashed, and that the House is moving in lockstep to confirm Rep. Ron Mariano as the next House speaker, without any meaningful debate or consideration of other candidates.
This raises so many concerns, not the least of which is the lack of a process for each representative’s voice to be heard in the selection of leadership. But Rep Mariano raises specific concerns. Mariano is known to be a very conservative Democrat, or more commonly, as a DINO (Democrat in name only). He doesn’t represent the politics of most of the House. So why is there no real process to choose a successor to Speaker DeLeo?
Simply, it about power and access. Opposing a speaker will strip you of your desired committee assignment. You’ll be given an assignment that’s boring and tedious or totally insignificant. You’ll lose resources and your budget will be stripped down to one staffer (who can barely keep up with constituent services). Your office will be in the crowded poorly-ventilated windowless basement room – or worse.
Any bill that you sponsor will be automatically dead on arrival. Your district will be bypassed for state funding for special projects. And you’ll be in constant fear of having the speaker sponsor someone to run against you in your district. This is the reality of Massachusetts politics today, with the speaker holding total power over how the House and its members operate.
But if you just go-along and get-along, maybe you’ll be given some breadcrumbs.
In spite of the risks, Rep. Russell Holmes is opposing Mariano for speaker. Holmes asks questions and actually listens to the answers. He is committed to a process in the House that actually reflects democracy, not dictatorship. Last but certainly not least, after centuries of electing only gray-haired white men, Rep. Holmes’s candidacy offers the possibility of reaffirming our commitment to diversity
2020 has been a year where we’ve seen democracy undermined in so many ways. I understand the risk each member of the House takes if they “step out of line.” It requires courage and vision to stand up for change. It’s time for our lawmakers to elect a speaker who possesses these traits. I urge all 160 members to vote for Holmes.
Phillip Sego was an environmental advocate with the Massachusetts Sierra Club. He retired in 2015.