DeLeo-Kaufman tale pulls back curtain on Beacon Hill ways
Speaker denies a heavy hand, but that’s often how power works
AGAINST THE BACKDROP of the usual State House ways, where lawmakers rise to voice opposition to an amendment offered by “the gentleman from Boston,” or part ways with the view of their “good friend” from this district or that one, a public disagreement that aired this week came in jarringly raw terms.
It started when former state rep Jay Kaufman, in a conversation on The Codcast, said he grudgingly voted for a 2013 transportation tax bill because House Speaker Robert DeLeo told him he’d lose the chairmanship of the Revenue Committee if he didn’t. (Kaufman wasn’t against raising transportation taxes; he thought the bill didn’t go far enough.)
DeLeo not only challenged Kaufman’s version of events, he leveled a harsh personal attack on the former lawmaker, calling Kaufman “a liar” and insisting the threatened loss of his committee chairmanship never occurred.
The unusual public conflict has offered a glimpse of the behind-the-scenes operations on Beacon Hill. But is the exercise of hard-fisted leadership power that Kaufman alleges, and DeLeo denies, that far outside the norms of legislative conduct?
Other current or former House members offered differing takes on whether the scenario Kaufman described “sounds familiar or at least plausible.”
Lots of observers have suggested DeLeo has maintained — or even tightened — the grip on House affairs that his two immediate predecessors, Sal DiMasi and Tom Finneran, put into practice. But former state rep John McDonough, in his 2000 book on the ways of Beacon Hill, Experiencing Politics, offers an insider’s take on how a similar situation played out under Finneran’s predecessor, Charlie Flaherty, in the 1990s.
McDonough, now a professor at the Harvard Chan School of Public Health, was chairman of the House health care committee in 1995 when a controversial tax break for Raytheon was before the Legislature. McDonough, a liberal Jamaica Plain rep, writes that he opposed the measure, viewing it as “corporate blackmail” to keep the company from relocating to other states.
During the roll call, he writes, “I pushed the red ‘no’ button on my desk. Within a minute, the House majority whip, Joan Menard, came over to me and said in her cheery, soft-spoken manner, ‘John, the Speaker wants green from you on this.’”
McDonough looked up to the rostrum, where Flaherty stood “directly eyeing me,” he writes. “He must have been about two hundred feet from me, but I could feel the weight of his stare as though he were two feet away. I walked over to my desk and pushed the green ‘yes’ button.”
McDonough writes that he might actually have voted no had the vote been close. But he was also planning a big health care access expansion bill, “and I fervently hoped that when my turn came, the Speaker would deliver the votes of recalcitrant members as he was now delivering me.”
McDonough then mulls the often murky world of political principles and practice.
McDonough’s message: Chairing a committee carries opportunity to bring forward important legislation, but that clout comes with an implicit — and sometimes explicit — expectation of supporting the leadership position on an issue when asked.
One key difference between the story and Kaufman’s is that the 2013 tax vote came on an issue directly related to the committee Kaufman chaired, yet he says he had no role in the transportation revenue proposal that was hatched by DeLeo and then-Senate President Therese Murray. That hints at a subtler change that has occurred in the dynamics in the House — the waning clout of many committee chairs as power has become more concentrated in the Speaker’s office.“I was the chair of the Revenue Committee at the time, and was not involved in any way in any conversations about revenue,” Kaufman said on the Codcast. “It seems to me that would have been a reasonable thing to do.”
Kaufman claims DeLeo told him about the tax bill, “If you can’t vote for this, I can’t have you as part of my team.” Looking back, Kaufman seems to be questioning how meaningful a role he had on that team.