A deal-making new House speaker
Mariano is no progressive, but his fans say he’ll listen to everyone
IT WAS SEVERAL DAYS before the end of the 2018 legislative session, and Ron Mariano and Jim Welch were in difficult negotiations over a health care bill.
Mariano, the House majority leader, and Welch, then-Senate chair of the Health Care Financing Committee, were the lead negotiators in a conference committee trying to reach agreement on how to stabilize community hospitals. Mariano made a proposal related to the size of a potential new fee, and Welch was prepared to agree. But for negotiating purposes, Welch planned to keep Mariano waiting for an hour.
Welch went to Senate President Karen Spilka’s office to update her. When he walked out her back door, Mariano was there waiting.
“It was classic. He knew what I was doing, he knew that I was going to try to make him wait from a negotiations standpoint, but he decided that he was just going to come over,” Welch said.
On Wednesday, Mariano’s skills at negotiating and relationship-building will pay off as the 74-year-old Quincy Democrat is poised to be elected to a position he first sought more than 13 years ago: speaker of the Massachusetts House. A short-lived bid by Rep. Russell Holmes to vie with Mariano for the job ended when the Mattapan lawmaker threw in towel, clearing the way for the Democratic caucus to elect Mariano without opposition.
Mariano, who had been Speaker Robert DeLeo’s No. 2 deputy for the last nine years, is a smart backroom operator who has been involved in many of the most significant pieces of legislation the House crafted during the last two decades. Colleagues say he is skilled at negotiating deals and reaching compromises on thorny policy issues, particularly in health care and insurance. He is similar to DeLeo in his penchant for achieving consensus. He often remains behind the scenes, pulling strings, giving advice, and forming relationships with colleagues. But lobbyists who interact with him also say Mariano can come off as aloof, arrogant, and sometimes inaccessible, a man who is blunt about his opinions and does not suffer fools.
A former elementary school history teacher in Quincy, Mariano was first elected to the House in a December 1991 special election. From 2001 to 2009, he chaired the Joint Committee on Financial Services, where he was among the key architects of the 2006 health care reform, later referred to as Romneycare, which provided near-universal health insurance coverage in Massachusetts. He was a major proponent of the 2008 shift to a more competitive auto insurance market, which allows insurers to set rates rather than having them established by the state.
In 2007, when it seemed like then-Speaker Sal DiMasi might leave office, Mariano, DeLeo, and Rep. John Rogers were all viewed as likely contenders for the speaker’s job, and Mariano tried to gin up votes. By the time DiMasi resigned in January 2009, however, it had become clear that Mariano did not have enough votes, and DiMasi and Mariano had thrown their support – and in Mariano’s case, his supporters – to DeLeo.
From then on, DeLeo and Mariano have been staunch allies. When DeLeo took the speakership, he appointed Mariano as assistant majority leader. Two years later, DeLeo elevated him to majority leader, a position Mariano has held until now.
DeLeo has had unwavering trust in Mariano’s ability to negotiate landmark pieces of legislation. Gov. Charlie Baker, at a recent press conference, referred to Mariano as “the key voice in the House on health care issues.” But Mariano has also been the go-to leader in the House on a wide range of other issues.
Mariano served on conference committees for the 2010 education bill that established school accountability standards, 2010 and 2012 health care cost containment bills, the 2017 bill revising the ballot question that legalized recreational marijuana, and the 2018 criminal justice reform bill that took steps to reduce incarceration. He helped negotiate an update to gun laws in 2014 and a law regulating ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft in 2016.
Over the years, he has been a strong proponent of offshore wind energy and an influential supporter of the film tax credit.
During the pandemic, Baker named Mariano to a vaccine advisory committee. DeLeo made Mariano chair of a House committee on “resilience and recovery,” which crafted a telehealth bill that was released from a conference committee, of which Mariano was also a member, and passed by the Legislature last week.
The telehealth bill marked yet another victory for Mariano, with the heart of the bill adopting much of the House’s approach on whether to pay for telehealth services at the same rate as in-person care. The compromise bill created permanent pay parity for behavioral health services and more temporary parity in other areas of medicine, giving regulators time to study the impact. The final compromise bill received mainly praise from insurers, hospitals, and a consumer group.
Rep. Thomas Golden, a Lowell Democrat who chairs the Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy, said in addition to having “a wide range of knowledge” on complex policy issues, like health care, insurance, and energy, Mariano is good at figuring out how to balance competing interests to reach an agreement. “He’ll never call himself an expert in any area, but he’s definitely a trusted adviser to many chairs like myself when it comes to trying to figure out how to get to the next level on a particular issue,” Golden said.
“He’s definitely the type of person you have to go to a meeting with prepared,” Golden said. “He’s going to ask the honest questions, be direct, and he’s always looking for how do we get to yes, how do we solve this problem on behalf of the Commonwealth.”
As majority leader, Mariano was among the House gatekeepers who helped DeLeo decide what bills to take up. Rep. Ruth Balser, a Newton Democrat who chairs the Elder Affairs Committee, worked for years on a bill to end gender discrimination in disability insurance, which insurers opposed. She talked to Mariano about it because of his experience with insurance issues, and Mariano helped make it a priority in the House. “His support was important in advancing it to something that we would move on,” Balser said.
Because of his leadership role, Mariano has been able to easily fundraise from those with pending legislative interests. He currently has $466,000 in his campaign account.
With a dispute between beer distributors and brewers swirling around the Legislature for years, and a compromise bill still pending, top officials at several alcoholic beverage companies gave Mariano a total of $14,000 this year. Boston Beer Company founder Jim Koch, the creator of Samuel Adams beer, gave Mariano the maximum allowed $1,000 annually from 2016 to 2018.
With Mariano taking the lead on negotiating the recently passed health care bill, numerous health care officials – heads of hospitals, nursing home operators, and insurance companies – gave Mariano large donations this session. One provision in that bill would let optometrists treat glaucoma, resolving a long-standing dispute between optometrists and ophthalmologists about who has authority to prescribe medication. Since 2019, eye doctors have given Mariano at least $10,000. Mariano has also gotten support over the years from health care workers. The politically active health care and social service workers unions 1199 SEIU and SEIU Local 509 have both made political expenditures on Mariano’s behalf.
With a bill pending that would lower the threshold for approving certain zoning decisions, several real estate development professionals donated $1,000 each. With lawmakers in a position of deciding whether to legalize sports betting, top officials at the Boston-based sports betting company DraftKings have given Mariano $5,000 since 2016.
A number of progressives – many of them outside of Beacon Hill – opposed Mariano’s ascension to the speakership, both because he is DeLeo’s handpicked successor and because he does not espouse a progressive ideology.
In a recent CommonWealth op-ed, outgoing Reps. Jonathan Hecht, of Watertown, and Denise Provost, of Somerville, noted that Mariano voted against the “millionaire’s tax,” a constitutional amendment that would raise the tax rate on income over $1 million, and was the only top Democratic House leader to do so. He also voted against rules that would have given members more time to read a bill before voting on it, voted for creating more positions with stipends that the speaker can dole out, and voted against giving municipal officials a vote before police departments can acquire military-grade weapons.
“He once told me he thought debate was overrated and didn’t change anyone’s mind,” Provost said in an interview. “I think that’s a shocking statement from anyone who aspires to be the leader of a deliberate legislative body.”
Jonathan Cohn, issues chair of Progressive Massachusetts, a liberal activist group that has been critical of House leadership, said he believes Mariano was one of the driving forces opposing the passage of the Safe Communities Act, which would restrict state law enforcement officials’ ability to cooperate with federal immigration agents. Cohn said Mariano is “often doing the bidding of industry,” citing as an example a debate over drug pricing policy where Mariano took a pro-pharmaceutical company position.
Some Democratic activists outside Beacon Hill launched a petition opposing Mariano, voicing concerns about the process that let Mariano sew up the speaker’s post long before DeLeo stepped down and calling for more democracy and transparency. Several signers said they disliked Mariano’s selection because he received a D+ on a legislative scorecard published by Progressive Massachusetts.
Jack Clarke, an environmental lobbyist for 40 years who recently retired from Mass Audubon, said his last interaction with Mariano was when Clarke testified about climate change at a hearing run by a committee Mariano led that was looking into how Massachusetts should respond to the actions of the Trump administration. “I was extremely disappointed in not only his lack of attention during the hearing but his failure to put forth any kind of progressive legislation for Massachusetts to deal with climate change issues,” Clarke said.
At the same time, Reps. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, of Pittsfield, and Jack Lewis, of Framingham, who co-chair the House Progressive Caucus, support Mariano for speaker. Farley-Bouvier said Mariano is willing to listen to progressives, even if he is not one of them. “I don’t have to have a progressive as a speaker. I need a speaker who will listen to all viewpoints and keep lines of communication open,” she said.
Farley-Bouvier said the Democratic Party includes lawmakers with a broad range of opinions, and Mariano is “a person who could take a lot of people’s varied viewpoints and pull them together to be able to pass legislation that is consensus legislation.”
Mariano has taken progressive votes. During the 2004 same-sex marriage debate, Mariano supported gay marriage at a time when the Legislature was deeply divided and many constituents in his region were not supportive. Arline Isaacson, a lobbyist and long-time co-chair of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus, said she was “shocked” at Mariano’s vote at the time. “I didn’t expect he would be with us,” Isaacson said. “It was a really big deal and a very gutsy position to take back then.”
Mariano also supports abortion rights.
For many young legislators, particularly young men, Mariano has been a source of institutional knowledge. David Torrisi, a former state representative who now advocates for the cannabis industry, said Mariano was like “a gregarious older brother or gregarious uncle who could be stern when he needed to be but had a lot of wisdom and insight into how the State House worked.” He said Mariano is good at building relationships with his colleagues. He takes an interest in understanding who legislators are, what is important to them, and what challenges they are facing, in the building and in their district.
“He’s got a lot of respect among the members because he’s very affable, he’s approachable, he always wants to help if he can,” said Moran, the longtime Mariano ally.
Mariano, in pre-pandemic times, would often host social events for lawmakers and staff, and his campaign expense reports are filled with catering and dinner costs. For example, a campaign expense reports list a $2,000 “annual members social gathering” at Arya Trattoria in Boston on January 13, 2020, followed two days later by a $700 post-session dinner with legislators at Ruth’s Chris Steak House. On November 18, 2019, he spent $2,000 on a staff farewell lunch at Mooo Restaurant, a pricey Beacon Hill steakhouse, and a staff farewell celebration at Emmets, both down the block from the State House.
Mariano faced token Republican opposition this year – defeating his challenger by more than a 2-1 margin for the second election in a row – yet his campaign paid $30,000 to the strategic communications firm Liberty Square Group for political consulting. Liberty Square Group is run by Scott Ferson, who is now Mariano’s media spokesperson.
Mariano maintains a personal touch, tapping his campaign account to send condolence flowers and making frequent charitable contributions within his district.
Yet Mariano can also come off in public as gruff and dismissive. Retired environmental lobbyist Phil Sego said every time he had an appointment with Mariano, he was met by staff instead. When he buttonholed Mariano in the hallway to ask about bills, Sego said Mariano would respond that he knows all about the bills, and Sego should meet with his staff. “I was really appalled at how dismissive, arrogant, and aloof he was,” Sego said.Some newer, progressive lawmakers have been pushing for reforms to make the House more transparent. When DeLeo was reelected as speaker in 2019, some legislators pushed for a rules change that would allow future speaker votes to be done by secret ballot, rather than in public. DeLeo has typically shot down these type of rules changes, and observers say Mariano does not seem inclined to adopt them either.
Clarke, the environmental lobbyist, said Mariano has done well working his way up in the current House culture. “He played his cards well and over the years lined up his loyalists so that as majority leader he would be next in line,” Clarke said.