WHEN MAURA HEALEY takes office in January, it will mark only the second time in 32 years that a Democratic governor and Democratic-controlled Legislature will exercise one-party rule in Massachusetts. The state has had a persistent habit of putting Republicans in the corner office, while giving Democrats supermajorities in the House and Senate.
So will the return of “united” government mean smooth sailing for a shared Democratic agenda? Or could it bring a return of the sometimes acrimonious infighting between governor and lawmakers that characterized the Deval Patrick years – the only period of one-party rule since Michael Dukakis left office?
Though some Democrats minimize the potential for conflict, one-party rule can bring tension over who is the lead player in setting the Democratic agenda – the governor or Legislature.
“I think there is legitimacy to that,” Vennochi said of the somewhat counterintuitive idea that one-party rule can sometimes bring more friction than divided government, where Republican governors and Democratic supermajorities in the Legislature have had a clearer sense of the power dynamics.
Dukakis had a rough go of it with lawmakers during his first term. After losing reelection in 1978, he came back to win two more terms in office, starting in 1982, with a new appreciation for how things work. “He said he started to listen more rather than just talk,” said Vennochi, recalling the good working relationship Dukakis developed with then-Senate President William Bulger and the behind-the-scenes work of Dukakis chief of staff John Sasso to find common ground with lawmakers.
That good working relationship with the Legislature is something that Patrick never quite managed to forge, Vennochi said. “My sense of it was that it was a contentious relationship,” she said. “And that it falls into that category of the Legislature likes to be in charge and so if there’s a Democrat in charge who’s the governor, they sort of have a secondary role and they’re not quite as happy about that. They want to be the main players. And they kind of gave him a hard time. The thing that he was able to achieve, unfortunately, was casino gambling.”
Patrick butted heads with lawmakers more than once on the pivotal issue of taxes – he wanted more of them, they wanted less. But it’s always hard to completely separate policy and personality. “I think it was also a personality thing,” said Vennochi. “I’m not sure that Deval Patrick was that good at listening or playing the game the way they liked to play it on Beacon Hill. And I don’t think they gave him very much.”
Looking ahead to the return of one-party rule on Beacon Hill, Vennochi said even guessing how it will go is difficult because of the snoozer of a governor’s race that Healey just won without breaking much of a sweat – or fleshing out a lot of policy details.
“What struck me about the race first was that there was no race,” Vennochi said, adding that it was nonetheless moving to see the historic moment unfold on election night as Healey was declared the first woman ever elected to the state’s top post. As for how things will go with the Democratic Legislature, “Well, I hate to say it depends, but I think it depends,” said Vennochi. “Another sort of side light of this non-race was that we really don’t have a sense of what kind of governor Maura Healey is going to be. I don’t really have a sense of what her priorities are going to be, what is the first thing that she’s going to tackle, what policy she passionately can’t wait to get behind. So once we have a better sense of that, of what her exact agenda is, we maybe should reconvene and talk about how it will work out with the Legislature controlled by Democrats.”