IN A DAY filled with ceremonial pomp – but no suspense — the Massachusetts House on Wednesday selected Quincy Democrat Ronald Mariano to be the next speaker of the House.
In his inaugural address, Mariano laid out a series of major policy goals, while reiterating the philosophy of governance that he has applied until now: a focus on achieving consensus through compromise. “In the reality of governing, we must live in the world of the possible and not make perfection the enemy of progress,” Mariano said.
Mariano, 74, takes the helm of the House after spending 29 years as a state representative, the last nine as House majority leader. Mariano called the election “the culmination of decades of my life in public service.” He also spoke of his family roots, growing up near the Quincy shipyard where his father worked, as the grandson of an Italian immigrant.
Although many members participated remotely due to COVID-19, the House appeared more full than it has been since the start of the pandemic.
Mariano acknowledged the difficulties facing the state due to COVID-19. “Ten months in, we remain in a state of uncertainty,” he said. “All of us have faced challenges, whether it be with at-home learning, providing for the oldest and youngest in our care, or maintaining our own mental health.”
Mariano also paid tribute to the national moment of reckoning on racism – laid bare by the pandemic –– as he pledged to address societal divides. “The great divide between rich and poor, black and white, rural and urban has been made all too obvious,” Mariano said. “The disproportionate suffering of communities of color in particular has exposed the frailty of our safety net and the inequality that has been hiding in plain sight. We must turn this crisis into an opportunity to make lasting positive change.”
Mariano said economic recovery means getting people back to work and using community colleges to retrain workers. He said when people do return, “There’s no reason anyone’s commute should be longer than one hour.” That means investing in transportation infrastructure, but also making sure everyone has broadband internet, he said. “We invested millions in laying cable to reach the rural, overlooked areas of the state, but we failed to appreciate the depth of the digital divide in our most populated cities,” he said.
Mariano stressed the importance of passing meaningful zoning reform to increase the availability of housing – something Gov. Charlie Baker has proposed but lawmakers have failed so far to pass. He talked about the need to create jobs statewide, and to create an “offshore wind energy revolution.” He spoke of the importance of strengthening community hospitals and pledged to address the high cost of pharmaceutical drugs.
“I know how the work gets done,” Mariano said. “By listening first and understanding where people are coming from, only then can we build consensus around legislation that can make the lives of people better and can be passed and signed by the governor.”
The exit of Robert DeLeo, after 12 years as speaker, and Mariano’s elevation were carefully choreographed. As rumors began circulating about DeLeo’s job talks with Northeastern University, Mariano’s supporters announced earlier this month that he had the votes to become the next speaker. A brief long-shot challenge by Rep. Russell Holmes, a Boston Democrat, fizzled when Holmes dropped out. DeLeo resigned, after delivering an emotional farewell speech, effective 6 p.m. on Tuesday. Under House rules, when a vacancy occurs in the speaker’s office, the next order of business in the House must be to elect a new leader for the chamber.
Holmes not only abandoned his bid for the top House post, he nominated Mariano, who was then quickly given the nod by his fellow Democrats by voice vote in a caucus conducted by phone that lasted only a couple of minutes. Mariano was then formally elected by the full House in a roll call vote that started around 12:45 p.m. and lasted more than half an hour, with each member – or a House officer in the case of members voting remotely – saying their choice out loud. House Clerk Steven James read the roll and recorded the votes.
In one of his last acts in his 23 terms as a state representative, Rep. Angelo Scaccia, a Boston Democrat and the dean of the House, presided over the session until Mariano was elected.
During the roll call, all but three of the chamber’s 126 Democrats voted for Mariano while the 31 Republicans voted for House Minority Leader Brad Jones, a North Reading Republican. Susannah Whipps, an unenrolled member from Athol, voted for Mariano.
Before the vote, Mariano tweeted out a photo of the speaker’s gavel sitting on the rostrum in an empty House chamber. When Mariano’s own name was called, he said his name loudly from the rostrum to applause from the gathered representatives.
Rep. Jonathan Hecht, a Watertown Democrat, and Rep. Denise Provost, a Somerville Democrat, wrote an op-ed in CommonWealth criticizing the selection of Mariano as someone who is not progressive, and calling the process that led to his ascension “the culmination of the insider politics that has come to dominate the Massachusetts House.”
Hecht did not cast a vote for speaker and Provost voted present. Neither representative ran for reelection. Rep. Tami Gouveia, a progressive Democrat from Acton entering her second term who has been a strong advocate for greater transparency on Beacon Hill, also did not vote.
Jones, in a statement after the vote, congratulated Mariano and said he hopes they can find common ground to address the challenging times the state is in. “I have known and served with the gentleman from Quincy for many years and I look forward to continuing and building upon the professional and cordial relationship we have developed,” Jones said.
Mariano has earned a reputation over the last decades as a back room deal-maker, who has helped negotiate almost all of the thorniest policy compromises that have come out of the Legislature in recent years. He has particular expertise in health care and insurance policy, but has also worked on major pieces of legislation in other areas, including education, criminal justice reform, and gun laws.
He is a centrist in a Democratic Party that activists have been trying to push to the left. For example, Mariano was one of only a small number of House Democrats to vote against raising taxes on income over $1 million – though he now says he has changed his mind and will support the policy. Although some progressives, many of them outside Beacon Hill, criticized his selection, several of his colleagues say he has earned the respect of more liberal caucus members by having an open mind and being willing to listen.
During his speech, Mariano pledged to maintain an open door. “I will be visible,” he said. “I look forward to our continued collaboration and exchange of ideas.”
Mariano will lead the House through the final week of the legislative session, which concludes next Tuesday. Several major bills, relating to transportation, climate change and economic development, are still in conference committees waiting to be released.