AMID RUMORS that House Speaker Robert DeLeo may be stepping down from his position, multiple House members said Majority Leader Ron Mariano would have enough votes to be elected the next speaker if DeLeo departs.
“When and if Bob DeLeo decides that he is going to leave, I am very, very, very confident that Ron Mariano is going to replace him,” said Second Assistant Majority Leader Michael Moran, a Boston Democrat.
Mariano, a 74-year-old Quincy Democrat who has spent 29 years in the House, has been DeLeo’s top deputy for the last nine years, after two years as assistant majority leader. Supporters say the House under Mariano would likely look similar to the House under DeLeo. While DeLeo has faced criticism from some House newcomers and progressive members for what they characterize as his “top-down” leadership style, Mariano’s supporters say continuity of leadership is exactly what the Legislature needs should DeLeo leave during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“What I think would end up happening with his type of experience is it will be a seamless transition,” said Rep. Thomas Golden, a Lowell Democrat who chairs the Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy. “We need continuity right now, in a very difficult time with everything going on.”
Golden said Mariano can be “a steady, trusted reliable hand,” as Massachusetts copes with the pandemic.
DeLeo used similar logic in 2015 when he pushed successfully for the elimination of an eight-year term limit on the speaker, a restriction he pushed for in 2009. DeLeo at the time said his thinking had evolved over the interim six-year period and allowing him to stay beyond eight years would allow him to serve out the remainder of the term without lame-duck status.
Mariano has been soliciting support for an eventual speaker run for years. One House member said Mariano was telling representatives at least three years ago that he had enough votes to be the next speaker, should DeLeo leave. Rep. Russell Holmes, a Boston Democrat and frequent critic of DeLeo, said he believes that Mariano has the votes “because they’ve been working on getting those votes for six years.”
Golden said he could not comment on how long Mariano had been seeking votes. But now, he said, “if and when Speaker DeLeo decides to leave, I firmly believe that Majority Leader Mariano has the necessary votes to become the next speaker.”
Golden described Mariano’s style as honest, direct, and pragmatic. “He’s definitely the type of person you have to go to a meeting with him prepared,” Golden said.
Mariano, who has retained Scott Ferson of the Liberty Square Group as his spokesman, declined to be interviewed.
Several House leaders who support Mariano say the majority leader has earned a reputation as someone who is knowledgeable on a range of complex policy issues, particularly health care, insurance, education and energy. Before he became assistant majority leader, Mariano chaired the Committee on Financial Services, which oversees banking and insurance issues. He has a master’s degree in education from UMass Boston and spent 18 years on the Quincy school committee.
In the last two decades, Moran said, no major health care bill has been done for which Mariano was not the author or a lead negotiator in a conference committee – including the state’s 2006 health care reform that led to near-universal health insurance coverage. As chair of the energy committee, Golden said he often calls Mariano for advice on tough policy issues.
Rep. Claire Cronin, an Easton Democrat who chairs the Judiciary Committee and served on a criminal justice reform conference committee, said, “You name an issue, he’s fluent on it.”
Cronin said DeLeo and Mariano are both “workhorses,” not “show horses.”
“They are both strong leaders and share many of the same – what I believe are very good – qualities,” Cronin said. “They both enjoy widespread support among the membership, they are both consensus builders, they’re both hard workers.”
Calls to numerous progressive and newer members of the House were not returned. Several lawmakers declined to comment for this story, since DeLeo still has not told members if he is leaving. NBC10 Boston cited unnamed sources in reporting that DeLeo intends to take a job at Northeastern University, but DeLeo’s spokesperson denied the speaker was taking a job at the school.
From her conversations with members, Cronin said she believes Mariano has strong support among women, progressives, and both longstanding and newer members of the House.
Several members said they have not heard about anyone else challenging Mariano, although that does not mean someone will not step up once the speakership is open.
Holmes, a strong advocate for minority communities, said he likes Mariano, who is white, but there is a need for more diversity. “The time has come for the Democratic Party to send people into the building that reflect the people who elect them,” he said.
Several long-serving House leaders are committed to Mariano. Rep. Ruth Balser, a Newton Democrat who chairs the Elder Affairs Committee and worked with Mariano on health care and insurance issues, called Mariano “someone we count on for policy expertise and leadership.” Balser said Mariano has been “the go-to person” on all major issues in the House, from health care reform to criminal justice reform, and she is “quite confident” he has the support to become the next speaker.
If DeLeo were to leave, House Democrats would select their nominee for speaker by majority vote in a caucus meeting, after which the full House would vote. There are 127 Democrats in the 160-member House.
The next two-year legislative session begins in January.
CommonWealth reporter Sarah Betancourt contributed reporting.