Holmes one of few reps willing to buck DeLeo

Says House should run differently, hints at run for speaker

IT IS TUESDAY MORNING – primary day – and Rep. Russell Holmes is stirring things up, as usual.

Trash and grit swirl in the air as the Mattapan Democrat, wearing a gas-powered leaf blower, pushes litter into the path of street sweepers due to arrive later in the day. The weekly chore dates back about 15 years to when Holmes first bought a house and moved to Wellington Hill.

“I believe my neighborhood should be clean. I hate coming home to a dirty neighborhood,” Holmes says.

A salesman-turned-financial advisor who says he never misses a community meeting or a Sunday church service, Holmes encounters scowls from neighbors galled by his noisy tidying. In the House of Representatives, where Holmes wants to upend the cliquish power structure surrounding Speaker Robert DeLeo, he meets similar countenances.

“I’m pretty much ostracized,” the 49-year-old says. “Many folks in the building, because of the way the building operates, are nervous just being seen talking to me. I think that’s short-sighted given the fact that things change quite a bit in the building.”

Some change is coming to the House next year. While most House incumbents easily survived Tuesday’s primary, two of DeLeo’s top lieutenants did not. Rep. Jeffrey Sánchez, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, and Rep. Byron Rushing, the assistant majority leader, both were defeated by political newcomers. Sánchez lost to Nika Elugardo, a graduate of MIT and former State House aide, and Rushing to Jonathan Santiago, an emergency room doctor at Boston Medical Center.

Holmes was the first to say that Sánchez and Rushing lost because their constituents felt they were more beholden to DeLeo than their districts. “This is clearly a rebuke of the speaker and the way he’s doing things,” Holmes said on primary night.

At the State House, where egos bruise easily and grudges run deep, it was Holmes’s talk of change that originally caused a rift between Holmes and the Democrats in charge there. Last summer, Holmes called for the Black and Latino Caucus, the Women’s Caucus, and the Progressive Caucus to have a say in selecting the next speaker. Casting about for a successor to the speaker is an infraction, according to the mores of the House. By that standard, Holmes is now committing a major offense.

“I would run for speaker because I would just want to see it run different. You have 160 people who should be treated as equals and not as though there’s a reporting structure,” Holmes says, sitting at his kitchen table.

Holmes is not reckless enough to consider challenging DeLeo himself, and he said there would need to be a groundswell to change the culture of the House after DeLeo leaves. Like many, Holmes believes the most likely successors are Speaker Pro Tem Patricia Haddad of Somerset and Majority Leader Ron Mariano of Quincy, both of whom, he said, appear “less vindictive” than DeLeo.

SOUTHERN ROOTS

Holmes was born in Mound Bayou, Mississippi, where his parents and their forebears grew up. Settled by former slaves who toiled on a plantation owned by the brother of Confederate president Jefferson Davis, Mound Bayou was an all-black refuge in the South after the Civil War. It was also home to a groundbreaking rural community health center, established by Tufts University in the 1960s.

Holmes says he had a pleasant childhood, split between Mound Bayou and Mattapan, where his father moved to study engineering at Tufts. As a youngster, Holmes was unaware that much of the country was both whiter and more affluent than his neighbors in the one-stoplight hamlet and the bustling black neighborhood of Boston.

“Growing up in Mound Bayou, my mayor was black, every teacher was black, every neighbor was black, every police officer was black, every judge was black,” Holmes says. “I saw the world through an eye of thinking the world was black.”

A beneficiary of loans, scholarships, and government food aid, Holmes went to Boston University, and right around that same time his father’s social use of cocaine spiraled into a full-blown addiction. After some hard years, his father is in recovery.

After college, Holmes went to work installing and then selling robotic equipment used to make computer chips around the world, living in an apartment in East Boston. The dot-com bust took a toll on Holmes’s finances, so he scrapped plans to move to a spacious home in Tewksbury and settled in Mattapan. Around that same time, he took a buyout from the robotics company, started attending church regularly after being dragged there during a visit to Mississippi to see his mother, and became a financial planner. Running a singles ministry at Church of Christ in Roxbury, Holmes met his wife, Sheree, who comes from a big family in Worcester.

Amid the Great Recession, Holmes worked on plans for a dedicated bus lane up Blue Hill Avenue, which he said could have brought in $170 million in federal stimulus investment. But the plan was shelved after local reps opposed it.

“Who turns down $170 million for our community?” Holmes asks. A couple months later, in early 2010, his neighbor, Rep. Willie Mae Allen, announced she would not seek re-election, and Holmes won a five-way primary for the House seat.

PALACE INTRIGUE

The question of who will succeed the current speaker arose last summer after Brian Dempsey, who was chairman of the House Committee on Ways and Means and heir apparent to DeLeo, decided he wasn’t going to wait any longer and took a more comfortable perch at the lobbying firm ML Strategies.

After airing his grievances in the press, Holmes lost his vice-chairmanship on the Housing Committee, and Mariano stopped helping him with advice and intel, he said. The new vice chairman, Everett Rep. Joseph McGonagle, apparently took umbrage at Holmes’s claim to CommonWealth that he had been replaced by someone with “less education, less talent, less time in the House.” When Holmes finally reached McGonagle by phone, he says McGonagle hung up on him.

The reception has been different in Holmes’s district, which is around 90 percent black and Latino, according to the website Census Reporter, and far less affluent than other areas.

“Personally, but also in his district, we’re proud of Russell when he demands that the House of Representatives have chairs that are a reflection of the state of Massachusetts, when he demands that those voices be in leadership and not take a back seat,” says Tito Jackson, a former city councilor from Roxbury who ran for mayor in 2017. “We’re proud. That takes courage. But it is absolutely the right thing to do.”

While sidelining Holmes, DeLeo made Sánchez the first Latino chairman of Ways and Means, and later the Legislature passed criminal justice reforms that Holmes said will lift up his community.

“I think my demotion led to him having to think about his vulnerabilities,” says Holmes, who concluded losing his committee post was “worth it.”

Appearing on stage with Holmes and a handful of other pols the day after the primary, DeLeo touted the criminal justice bill, and was oblique about last summer’s dust up with the Mattapan rep.

“I make every attempt that I can to put people in the right position to be part of the House, whether it’s in a leadership position or a particular committee,” DeLeo said after stepping off the stage at the rally.

One consequence of his ouster from State House circles has been a renewed focus on his district, Holmes says.

“It’s the district I need to stay very close to, not the intrigue of the building,” Holmes says over the whirr of the leaf blower.

Meet the Author
The street cleaning ritual serves as hands-on constituent services and roaming office hours where constituents can buttonhole Holmes to raise issues. But unlike at the State House, where he has made a clear mark with his boat-rocking ways, some neighbors have no idea the man in a Villanova basketball T-shirt and khaki shorts is their state rep.

“You are the representative?” Jennifer Wilson says to Holmes after being asked if she knew the man she has seen cleaning her street for years. “You are a very humble person.”