Beware of Rodrigues’s ‘boring middle’

Appointment of new Senate budget chief is alarming progressives

OVER THE PAST few legislative sessions, progressives have looked to the Massachusetts Senate as a beacon of progressive policymaking. Across a range of issues, the Senate has been willing to pass bold and expansive bills that end up watered down—or dead on arrival—in the more conservative, top-down House.

However, Senate President Karen Spilka’s choice of Sen. Michael Rodrigues to chair the powerful Senate Ways & Means Committee should give progressives everywhere pause. Although the Westport Democrat describes himself as part of the “boring middle,” much of Rodrigues’s record locates him squarely on the right.

Immigration: Although our attention often goes to the families being ripped apart at the border, families are being ripped apart in Massachusetts due to Donald Trump’s mass deportation agenda. And Sen. Rodrigues is okay with that.

How else should one interpret his vote last year against key provisions of the Safe Communities Act? He was one of only six Democrats to vote against a set of common-sense public safety measures from the Safe Communities Act, such as prohibiting police from inquiring about immigration status and preventing state and local law enforcement from being deputized to Trump’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE). As the name implies, the Safe Communities Act is about keeping communities safe—making sure that victims and witnesses are not afraid to talk to the police, and making sure that we aren’t destabilizing communities by tearing families apart.

Even worse, Rodrigues also voted for an amendment to undermine the Lunn v. Commonwealth decision, which set limitations on such collaboration, and needlessly and harmfully entangle state and local law enforcement with ICE.

Workers’ Rights. While some politicians try to disingenuously set immigrants and workers (not mutually exclusive categories by any means) against each other, Rodrigues makes quite clear that he is a friend to neither.

In 2013, Rodrigues was one of only four Democratic senators to vote against raising the minimum wage to $11 per hour. The prior year, he even voted to allow managers at fast food restaurants to take part of their employees’ tips, a long-standing priority of his.

After the public voted by a 59-41 margin on the 2014 ballot to guarantee earned sick time for workers, Sen. Rodrigues voted to delay its implementation.

He’s tried to tip the scale against workers in other ways too, such as voting against allowing the attorney general to represent workers affected by wage theft and voting in favor of expanding the use (and thus abuse) of “independent contractor” status in the creative economy.

Civil Rights. In 2017’s criminal justice reform debate, Rodrigues supported numerous efforts to weaken the Senate’s bill. An apparent supporter of the failed war on drugs, he voted to take away discretion from judges by reimposing mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug offenses and for selling drugs in school zones. (The definition of “school zones” is so broad that practically the entire city of Boston counts as one.)  He also voted in favor of continuing to send high school seniors to adult prisons, where they face higher risks of sexual assault and lack the access to educational and counseling services that reduce recidivism.

Rodrigues also supported the expansion of the state’s wiretapping law in what the ACLU called the “biggest surveillance power grab Massachusetts has seen in decades.”

Education. Massachusetts is the birthplace of public schools in the US, and most Massachusetts residents are strong supporters of public education. Indeed, voters defeated an unfunded and unaccountable expansion of charter schools in 2016 by a 62-38 margin at the polls.

Rodrigues does not share their support for our most cherished institution. In addition to being a vocal supporter of the aforementioned ballot question, he also voted in 2014 to rapidly expand charter schools in the state while providing no additional funding to public school districts. Even some who count themselves as supporters of charter school successes understand that the current method of charter school funding is in bad need of reform, as it drains money from districts and wreaks havoc on municipal finances.

As the Legislature considers updating our 26-year old education funding formula, Massachusetts voters should wonder whether or not Sen. Rodrigues will try to attach privatization strings to badly needed funding.

Rodrigues’s appointment wasn’t the only part of the Senate leadership shakeup that should concern progressives. Progressive stalwart Pat Jehlen, Democrat of Somerville. was removed from her position as assistant majority leader. Sen. Mike Rush, a West Roxbury Democrat, who, like Rodrigues, opposed the Safe Communities Act but unlike Rodrigues also opposes a woman’s right to choose, was brought into leadership as majority whip. Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz  of Jamaica Plain, a former teacher and one of only two people of color in the Senate, was removed from her post as chair of the education committee, despite her having worked tirelessly to update our archaic education funding formula.

Meet the Author

Jonathan Cohn

Co-chair of issues committee, Progressive Massachusetts
In addressing her colleagues last month, Spilka proclaimed, “The time for small ideas and incremental change is over.” In light of her recent appointments, a question left on many progressives’ minds is whether these big ideas and bold change will veer to the right instead of the left.

Jonathan Cohn is chairman of the issues committee for the advocacy group Progressive Massachusetts.