House progressives need to cry foul

A Mariano speakership would be culmination of insider politics

MANY AMERICANS were distressed when President Trump, just weeks before the November election, nominated Amy Coney Barrett to the US Supreme Court. When the Senate confirmed Barrett barely a month later, it seemed a cynical power grab that showed disdain for democratic processes. Still, it was not out of character for a majority-Republican, right-leaning legislative body.

Here in Massachusetts, we are seeing a similar cynical power grab in the state’s House of Representatives, a majority-Democratic legislative body with a significant number of progressive members. Robert DeLeo could step down as soon as this week, after 12 years wielding enormous power as speaker of the House. A new Legislature will be sworn in in just over two weeks, but if DeLeo steps down before then, House Democrats are expected to caucus immediately to choose his successor.

The new speaker is likely to be House Majority Leader Ron Mariano, whose backers say he has enough votes to win. Mariano would then become the incumbent speaker, putting him in an unassailable position when the new House convenes on January 6 and elects its speaker for the next two years.

Why would House progressives accept this 11th hour move, which is similar to the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett?

With total inside control of the timing, succession to the speakership can easily be rigged. Assuming this ploy goes forward, it would be the culmination of the insider politics that has come to dominate the Massachusetts House. On this ground alone, House progressives should be calling foul. If enough progressives were to withhold their support, they could deny Mariano the majority he needs. Deferring the vote until the start of the new session would allow time for alternative candidates to emerge. It would also show due respect for the new members being sworn in, and for the voting public.

If, on the other hand, House progressives acquiesce quietly in Mariano’s election, they will be complicit not just in flouting basic democratic norms but also in elevating to the powerful speakership someone whose record shows indifference, if not outright hostility, to progressive values and legislative priorities.

Mariano is well to the right of Robert DeLeo. In his 30 years in the House, he has shown little interest in human services and civil rights (both important to DeLeo), as well as the environment or social and economic justice. Having served many years as chair of the Financial Services Committee, Mariano has consistently sided with big business, big finance, and big health care – often while keeping his fingerprints off these measures. He is the only top House leader to vote against Democrats’ signature progressive tax measure, the so-called “millionaires’ tax.”

Mariano’s record on governance and transparency is also deeply flawed. He voted in 2017 to create more stipended positions for select House members, furthering the centralization of power in the speaker’s office. This session, Mariano voted against giving members 72 hours to read a bill before having to vote on it. He voted against giving municipal officials a vote of approval before their police departments acquire military-grade weapons.

At a time when progressives are demanding diversity and inclusiveness in the halls of power, Mariano’s inner circle is made up almost exclusively of white men. Many of Mariano’s closest allies voted against the recent police reform legislation, depriving Democrats of the veto-proof majority they need to overcome Gov. Charlie Baker’s opposition to measures which advance racial justice and accountability. These are the legislators who can be expected to have the ear of a Speaker Mariano and be given leadership positions by him.

Some progressives who vote to make the majority leader their speaker will be rewarded with committee chairmanships, leadership stipends, and additional staff. They may claim they are working to influence the new speaker’s agenda from the inside. Those choosing this path are likely to find they have a lot of explaining to do when the House refuses to adopt progressive revenue reforms, fund public education equitably, or act aggressively against climate change.

Some may say they’re playing the long game. Rumors are already swirling that Mariano’s tenure as speaker will be brief and his successor will be House Ways & Means chair Aaron Michlewitz, who was an aide to former speaker Sal DiMasi. It was in backing DiMasi that House progressives bartered away their principled commitment to a transparent, participatory legislative process. Having fought speaker Tom Finneran’s top-down, authoritarian style of leadership, they condoned it when DiMasi wielded that same power to push through legislation for universal health care, marriage equality, and a first response to global warming.

Meet the Author

Jonathan Hecht

State representative, Watertown
Meet the Author

Denise Provost

State representative, Somerville
The price paid for these victories was total consolidation of power in the speakership and a culture of utter deference. The House has become the personal fiefdom of the individual in the speaker’s office, where absolute power corrupts absolutely. Under a Speaker Mariano, we can expect that power to be put in the service of a center-right agenda that is out-of-step with the progressive values of many in Massachusetts, including the majority of Democrats in the state Senate.

Some may vote for Mariano out of fear that they and the communities they represent will be punished for failing to pledge fealty to him, as progressives who voted for a revenue amendment in the November 2020 budget debate were punished. They may see a vote for Mariano as a form of damage control. Whatever justifications they may give for it, the fact is that in backing Mariano, progressives are giving up further ground on their legislative priorities as well as on the hope of restoring democracy to the “people’s” House.

Jonathan Hecht is a Democratic state representative from Watertown. Denise Provost is a Democratic state representative from Somerville.