Rodrigues, a ‘boring middle’ Dem, named Senate budget chief

Westport lawmaker headed Ethics Committee during Rosenberg investigation

SENATE PRESIDENT KAREN SPILKA handed out leadership assignments on Thursday, shaking up some committee posts and giving the job of Ways and Means chair to Sen. Michael Rodrigues of Westport, a self-described moderate Democrat.

Spilka did not come out of her office to talk to reporters after her leadership slate was approved by a Democratic caucus. Rodrigues, however, said he lobbied for the position, which is often viewed as the second most-powerful job in the Senate and considered a stepping stone for those who aspire to be Senate president. It also comes with a $65,000 stipend on top of the base legislative salary of $62,547.

He oversaw last year’s Ethics Committee investigation into sexual harassment allegations against the spouse of former Senate president Stanley Rosenberg. That investigation found Rosenberg violated no Senate rules but nevertheless failed “to protect the Senate from his husband, whom he knew was disruptive, volatile, and abusive.” Rosenberg stepped aside as president in December 2017 after the ethics investigation began and resigned as a senator following the release of the Ethics Committee report in May 2018.

It was during that long period of turmoil that Spilka assembled the votes to move from her position as chair of the Ways and Means Committee to become Senate president.

“The ethics investigation last year showed that I’m able to take on a difficult responsibility and keep in mind as a top priority the institution and the integrity of the institution,” Rodrigues said on Thursday after stepping out of a Democratic caucus where all of Spilka’s leadership appointments were approved. “When it comes to chairing the Ways and Means Committee, it’s not just the operating budget but there’s so much other policy that flows through that committee that it’s really about the institution and the priorities of the Senate as a whole.”

As the Senate’s makeup has shifted more and more to the left, Rodrigues has hewed more to the political center.  He supported the tax on millionaires (which was blocked from appearing on the ballot because of a Supreme Judicial Court decision) and several senators noted he authored the expansion of the earned income tax credit, which benefits low-income people.

A Senate court officer monitors the hall outside the back door to Senate President Karen Spilka’s office. (Photo by Bruce Mohl)

But even the 59-year-old Rodrigues, who served from 1996 to 2011 in the House before moving to the Senate, acknowledged he is a moderate on most issues. “I’m in the boring middle,” he said.

Sen. Jamie Eldridge, a leading progressive who was named Senate chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said he would try to convince Rodrigues to support new revenues. “I am someone who is a very strong advocate to raise revenue and I’ll surely be making my case to him that in this session we need to raise revenue and not just look to pass the millionaire tax in four years,” Eldridge said, referring to an effort to revive the tax proposal.

Asked if he thought Rodrigues would be receptive to that pitch, Eldridge suggested his point of view has growing support in the chamber. “The Senate Progressive Caucus, we’ve really grown our numbers, so there’s a growing discussion around can we agree on a revenue package,” he said.

Rodrigues acknowledged there are revenue pressures facing state government in the areas of education, transportation, and health care, but he declined to say where he stood on raising taxes. “I’m not saying yes and no to anything right now because I don’t know what to say yes and no to,” he said.

The members of Spilka’s inner-circle leadership team are Sen. Cynthia Creem of Newton, who continues as majority leader, and Sen. William Brownsberger of Belmont, who replaced Sen. Marc Pacheco of Taunton as president pro tempore. Sen. Harriette Chandler of Worcester is continuing as president emerita. The Senate has three assistant majority leaders – Joan Lovely of Salem, Michael Barrett of Lexington , and Sal DiDomenico of Everett. The majority whip is Sen. Michael Rush of Boston and the assistant majority whip is Julian Cyr of Truro. Cyr and Lovely are new to their leadership positions.

Lovely said she had expressed interest in the Ways and Means job, but was happy with her new position in leadership and her role as chair of the Senate Rules Committee.

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Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

All of the top leadership positions come with stipends that augment the base salary of the lawmakers. Chandler’s emerita position, created last year, gives her $35,000 extra. The Ways and Means chair earns a $65,000 stipend, the majority leader is paid $60,000 extra, the president pro tempore makes $55,000 more, and the other leadership positions all come with $35,000 stipends.

Andy Metzger contributed to this story.