The paradox of Robert DeLeo
The affable everyman with a vise-like grip on the House he leads
Photographs by Michael Manning
ROBERT DELEO CLIMBED to the rostrum of the House of Representatives one afternoon in late January for what has become a routine annual ritual, but is also a remarkable expression of the power of his office.
It was the seventh time DeLeo stood before the 160-member body as House Speaker to deliver an annual address on his agenda for the coming year.
He said that agenda included comprehensive energy legislation, support for charter schools and early education programs, and the development of regulations for the burgeoning ride-sharing industry. Perhaps most significantly, he said there would be no new taxes or fees in the House budget this year, a proclamation that single-handedly foreclosed any potential for new revenue measures.
It was an audacious move, but one that was fully in keeping with the consolidation of power in the Speaker’s office under Finneran. On Beacon Hill, where things are not always as they appear, the Speaker’s address sends an unambiguous message about the power of one person to set a firm course for a body that is said to be the branch of government “closest to the people.”
An amiable and low-key veteran of the House, DeLeo is known for a big heart, an aversion to conflict, and a cautious, go-slow approach to the business of law-making.
“In the House, consensus drives us,” DeLeo said at the start of the speech. He invoked the term “consensus” five more times in an address that lasted just over 12 minutes. It’s a word he has used often throughout his tenure.
It seems to convey a search for reasonable middle ground in order to gain broad backing on an issue. He has certainly employed that sense of the word when tackling some big issues in recent years, including gun legislation and, recently, the opioid crisis.
But “consensus” has also come to describe a way of operating in the House that scorns debate and freewheeling back and forth on issues, and doesn’t easily abide dissent or disagreement. Consensus often looks like the end result of a forced march to a predetermined end, as DeLeo looks for votes among his bulky 126-member Democratic caucus to be as close to unanimous as possible.
In the process, say many House members, they have been increasingly marginalized and genuine give and take on issues has become rare.
“You need a healthy back and forth,” says Rep. Cory Atkins, a Concord Democrat. “I’ve been here 16 years. There’s been less and less of that. Debate in the caucus preceding votes about complicated bills isn’t what it used to be. Power is more centralized.”
With an understated manner and easy laugh, the 66-year-old DeLeo seems more the avuncular everyman than imposing autocrat. He doesn’t have the piercing intensity of Tom Finneran or the swagger of Charlie Flaherty, who preceded Finneran, or Sal DiMasi, who followed him.
“He’s not a swashbuckling Speaker,” says Peter Ubertaccio, a political science professor at Stonehill College. “I think of the flashier side of politics that Flaherty was pretty good at, or the overtly confrontational side of things that Finneran was good at — neither of those appeal to DeLeo. He’s a quieter figure, not the kind to rush to the television cameras.”
“From a public perspective,” says Ubertaccio, “DeLeo is slower to know than his three predecessors.”
Indeed, he is. After more than seven years in power, DeLeo remains something of a paradox. He comes across as a friendly, affable leader preaching legislative consensus. But his actions are those of a man who likes power and is not afraid to use it. He refused to sit down for an interview to discuss his tenure and his approach to one of the most powerful offices in the state. But interviews with dozens of his colleagues suggest the velvet glove DeLeo shows in public contains an iron fist.
A year ago, DeLeo’s colleagues in the House dutifully tossed overboard a term-limit rule meant to be a check on unbridled leadership power. And after appearing to weather a patronage scandal in the state Probation Department that muddied but did not topple him, DeLeo seems as firmly in control as ever.
He could, in fact, be headed for a singular distinction when it comes to the wielding of power: If he’s reelected as Speaker next January and serves for the full two-year cycle, DeLeo would become the longest-serving House Speaker since the American Revolution.
He may project a more modest bearing than his recent forerunners, but DeLeo seems quite comfortable these days letting people know the worth of his words.
Five weeks after his January address to House members, DeLeo delivered his annual speech to the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, covering a range of issues. During a question-and-answer period after his remarks, Charlie Kravetz, the general manager at WBUR radio, asked him to elaborate on the big news he made in his speech that the House would take up legislation to reform the use of noncompete agreements by businesses in the state. This “seems to be a very big deal,” said Kravetz.
Without missing a beat, and with tongue only partly in cheek, a smiling DeLeo shot back, “Hopefully, everything I said today was sort of a big deal.”
To understand DeLeo, drop in on his hometown of Winthrop. Though it borders East Boston and sits in the shadow of Logan Airport, the community of 17,000 has much more of a small-town feel than big-city edge.
It’s a place of Little League teams and an Elks Lodge. Its town center boasts a handful of unpretentious eateries. An independently-owned pharmacy is still hanging on, where 84-year-old proprietor Lloyd Lyons can recall delivering medicine to the DeLeo household when the future Speaker was a boy.
“He’s an honest, straight shooter,” Lyons says of DeLeo. “Always a man of his word.”
DeLeo lives in the same house he and his sister grew up in: an exceedingly modest 1,200-square-foot brick ranch that sits on a small corner lot, a block and a half from Boston Harbor.
DeLeo’s father Alfred was a dapper maitre d’ at the Turf Club at nearby Suffolk Downs racetrack and also worked at the Statler Hotel, now the Park Plaza Hotel, in downtown Boston. His mother Anna worked in the food services department of the Winthrop public schools.
“He’s very mindful of where he comes from, who he is, and his upbringing,” says Dennis Kearney, who grew up East Boston and attended Boston Latin School with DeLeo.
“He doesn’t carry himself like he’s different or better than anyone else,” says Kearney, a lobbyist who served as a state representative in the 1970s and then Suffolk County sheriff. “I think part of his appeal is when he walks in a room, he doesn’t demand that it be about him.”
DeLeo’s inclination on most issues to seek out a comfortable middle ground fits his political views, which most describe as lunch-bucket centrist. He cares about human services, but is leery of tax increases. He’s changed with the times, supporting a current effort to extend rights for transgender individuals, though he once opposed same-sex marriage.
DeLeo represents a constituency that, by one measure, sits squarely in the middle of the state’s political continuum. In the 19th Suffolk District, which includes all of Winthrop and nine precincts in Revere, Charlie Baker defeated Martha Coakley in the 2014 race for governor by 13 votes.
Kearney and DeLeo were teammates on the Boston Latin School baseball team in the 1960s. Kearney says DeLeo, who played shortstop, was “one of the smoothest infielders” of their era. They alternated batting leadoff and second in the line-up, both of them more singles hitters than power sluggers, and both with good speed on the base paths.
“To this day, Bobby says he was faster than me. I don’t dispute that, because he’s the Speaker,” says Kearney. “He was a great teammate. He wasn’t loud. He was a very, very serious baseball player, and very skilled.”
DeLeo’s high school class was chock-full of future political figures. It also included fellow future Speaker Tom Finneran and Larry DiCara, the class president, who went on to serve on the Boston city council.
DeLeo attended Northeastern University and Suffolk Law School after that, setting up a small legal practice in Revere. After serving a decade on the Winthrop Board of Selectmen, he was elected to the House in 1990, entering office on the heels of the state fiscal crisis of the late 1980s, the same election that brought Bill Weld into the governor’s office.
In 2005, then-Speaker Sal DiMasi tapped DeLeo to chair the powerful Ways and Means Committee, and that put DeLeo in a perfect position to capture the Speaker’s post when DiMasi left four years later under a legal cloud.
At the time of his Ways and Means appointment, the Boston Globe called DeLeo a “little known insider popular with colleagues.” He had mainly stuck to constituent services and local issues, including battling against runway expansion at Logan Airport, a perennial focus for elected officials in Winthrop and East Boston.
While Finneran and DiMasi, and Charlie Flaherty before them, all carried ambition on their sleeve, DeLeo says he did not arrive in the Legislature with any grand designs.
“I really didn’t come here with any expectations in terms of where I’d be,” he says, chatting briefly after his speech to the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce.
Rep. Ellen Story, an Amherst Democrat, entered the House, like DeLeo, when Flaherty was speaker in the early 1990s. “I think with the other three speakers that I served with, as soon as they got to the House as a brand new rep, they looked around and said to themselves, ‘some day, if I play my cards right, I could be in charge of this place,’” she says. “Bob DeLeo did not have that same gut instinct. He looked around and was honored to be a representative. He said, ‘if I play my cards right, I might get a hockey rink for Winthrop.’ And he has kept that way.”
A divorced father of an adult son and daughter, DeLeo lives with his longtime girlfriend, Vicki Mucci, an administrative assistant at the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority.
His son Rob inherited a bit of the political bug, but of a wholly different kind. He is a professor at Bentley University who focuses on public policy theory. Last year, he authored his first book, Anticipatory Policymaking: When Government Acts to Prevent Problems and Why It Is So Difficult.
In the acknowledgements, he suggests there is a big difference between studying such issues from the ivory tower and what it takes to get things done on the ground. Calling insights he’s gained from his dad “invaluable,” the younger DeLeo writes, “few political scientists are lucky enough to have a father who know how politics really works.”
HOW IT WORKS
For DeLeo the consensus seeker, politics works by brokering agreement among often divergent viewpoints. Lawmakers and lobbyists say he has an aversion to conflict and works hard to get all sides to “yes.”
Nobody’s idea of a brainy policy wonk, DeLeo’s thoughts sometimes tumble out in a word salad that doesn’t always cohere. But as with Boston’s longest-serving mayor, whose elocution wasn’t his strong suit, it masks a keen mind for politics.
DeLeo is often moved on issues by things that affect him viscerally before he gets to the drier policy points that may ultimately shape the details of legislation.
In 2014, he was the main driver of nationally-heralded gun legislation that added new background checks on gun buyers and gave local police chiefs power to seek court review of an applicant’s suitability to own a rifle or shotgun. DeLeo made some changes to the bill to mollify gun rights advocates while retaining meaningful provisions to reduce gun violence. The National Rifle Association opposed the bill, but its local affiliate officially remained neutral.
DeLeo was motivated to push for the gun legislation by the 2012 shooting deaths at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. “He saw those 20 six- and seven-year-olds and it moved him to do something,” says John Rosenthal, founder of Stop Handgun Violence, who worked closely with DeLeo on the effort.
“He calls me out of the blue. I didn’t know him at all, never met him before,” says Rosenthal. “He chose what was right versus what was political, even against the advice of his own leadership team. And that says a lot about Bob DeLeo as a human being and a politician.”
Rep. Sarah Peake, one of DeLeo’s floor division leaders, says the gun bill is a good illustration of the Speaker’s approach. “He really is a roll-up-your-sleeves guy who will bring different groups together and hash it out and come up with a good piece of legislation,” she says.
In March, the state enacted groundbreaking legislation to address the opioid crisis. The bill balanced concerns from treatment advocates and health care providers worried about overly restrictive rules on opioid prescriptions.
Two years ago, DeLeo steered through a precursor bill, which increased the requirements on insurance companies for coverage of addiction treatment. He brought everyone to the table, but pushed hard for the insurance change once he made up his mind on the issue.
“The Speaker dealt with a lot of pressure from the insurance community and business community,” says Vic DiGravio, president of the Association for Behavioral Healthcare, which represents 85 organizations that provide addiction services.
Though he heard arguments from insurance leaders against the new mandates, DeLeo held fast in the face of the growing and deadly epidemic, says DiGravio, who says the Speaker told executives at one meeting, “I went to three wakes in my district last week. Whatever we’re doing is not working.”
While he’s shown a knack for brokering agreement on sticky subjects, DeLeo’s affinity for consensus has also come to mean a House where the overwhelming Democratic majority is expected to fall into line behind the leadership’s position. It doesn’t hurt in demanding such fealty that he has more than 50 leadership positions with extra pay to dole out.
His most far-reaching exercise of leadership power came in January of last year, when, after months of dismissing talk that they had any such notions, DeLeo and his top lieutenants brought forward a rule change to eliminate the eight-year term limit on the Speaker’s post.
The rule was first adopted in 1985, under reform-minded speaker George Keverian, who led the only successful toppling of a sitting speaker in recent history when he ousted Tom McGee, a gruff ex-Marine from Lynn.
DeLeo isn’t the first speaker to think better of the idea of limits on his reign. Finneran got House members to toss term limits overboard in 2001.
But after Finneran and his successor, Sal DiMasi, both met the same fortune as Charlie Flaherty before them — convicted on federal felony charges — DeLeo brought back the eight-year term limit when he took office in 2009. He penned a Globe op-ed calling the move part of a series of initiatives, including ethics and campaign finance law reforms, “to restore public confidence in the government.”
By last year, he was apparently convinced that confidence had been restored. Just 11 Democrats bucked leadership and voted to retain the term-limit rule. Only one, Watertown state representative Jonathan Hecht, had the temerity to speak on the issue on the House floor. He was promptly stripped of a committee vice chairmanship.
DeLeo said his position on term limits had “evolved.”
Pam Wilmot, the longtime director of Common Cause Massachusetts, says getting rid of term limits was exactly the wrong direction to go in a Legislature that has suffered from overly centralized power and its stifling effect on debate.
“It was a big mistake,” she says. “It was an important check and balance, because speakers and Senate presidents have so much power. To have so much power concentrated in one place over a long period of time doesn’t make sense. We don’t need a speaker for life.”
The Senate has taken no such step with the eight-year term limit on its leader. In fact, Senate president Stanley Rosenberg has moved in the other direction, looking to distribute power and responsibilities more broadly among the 40-member chamber. That has allowed for sharp — and not always flattering — contrast to be drawn between the two legislative branches.
“If it could be said that Rosenberg, with his shared leadership system, runs a commune, DeLeo, as he enters his eighth year as the House leader, runs a plantation where he calls the shots,” wrote veteran Boston Globe reporter Frank Phillips in January of this year. Phillips said DeLeo’s firm grip was leading to “increased private grumbling over his top-down leadership and avoidance of bold moves.”
DeLeo lashed out at the “plantation” characterization in a statement issued by his office, calling the reference “an incredibly hurtful and painful analogy” that “trivializes our country’s most shameful and egregious moral failure, slavery.”
But DeLeo’s outrage was directed solely at the use of the term plantation, not the message it sought to convey. His statement said nothing about the story’s broader claim about heavily centralized power in House.
The tension between the more open approach being developed in the Senate and the traditional one that DeLeo is sticking to in the House is always present within a legislative body.
“It’s an ongoing debate,” says Ubertaccio, the Stonehill College professor. “How much can a freewheeling Legislature get done? Efficiency might dictate centralization. But that can run up against small ‘d’ democratic norms.”
In Bob DeLeo’s House, it’s efficiency that tends to carry the day.
State Rep. Byron Rushing of Boston says if the House seems to be a less freewheeling place of debate these days, it’s not because views aren’t being shared, but because of DeLeo’s preferred approach to settling differences.
“Bob believes you have to have things resolved before you get to the floor as much as possible,” says Rushing, the House assistant majority leader. “And when you have disagreements on the floor, the best way is to talk about them without debating them.”
Rushing, the third-ranking member of DeLeo’s leadership team, has long been one of the Legislature’s more vocal advocates of reform and a more inclusive, participatory process. In 2003, he led the last open challenge to a sitting House speaker when he waged a largely symbolic run against Tom Finneran, saying rank-and-file members were kept in the dark and marginalized under his rule.
In the run-up to the 2003 speaker’s election, Rushing and some of the 16 Democratic House dissidents who would cast votes for him evoked the protest of Martin Luther by posting a list of principles on the door of the House chamber demanding that members be given greater voice.
That Rushing is now a leadership insider defending the ways of the House goes a long way toward explaining DeLeo’s approach — and the docile nature of rank-and-file lawmakers, who stew privately over the top-down structure, but rarely speak out against it.
DeLeo has sought to include in his leadership team a broad cross-section of House Democrats, drawing in liberals like Rushing as well as more conservative lawmakers such as Ronald Mariano, the House majority leader.
When his predecessor, Sal DiMasi, took over as speaker in 2004, he brought back in from the cold House dissidents like Rushing who had clashed with Finneran and been banished from leadership posts and committee chairmanships. DeLeo has continued that big-tent approach. Members of his leadership team say it means a full range of views is heard when they gather each Monday in DeLeo’s office for a weekly meeting. But it also means there is no real outside pressure on leadership among Democrats who dominate the House.
DeLeo’s preference, as Rushing outlines it, for quieter negotiation over open debate sounds reasonable enough. But it can also mean shutting down discussion on an issue before it’s even begun.
That’s what happened in January when the House took up a criminal justice reform bill. The legislation would have repealed a 27-year-old law that mandated an automatic one-to-five year suspension of the driver’s license of anyone convicted of a drug-related offense, even if it had nothing to do with operating a motor vehicle.
The statute was widely viewed as an ill-considered vestige of the overly punitive war on drugs. Critics said the law only impedes an offender’s effort to reintegrate into society after serving prison time, making it hard to land a job or care for a family — and increasing already high recidivism rates.
The Senate passed a bill to repeal the law last fall, and the House seemed poised to do the same. On the day the bill came to the floor, however, Rep. James Lyons, an Andover Republican, filed an amendment to retain a five-year license suspension for the most serious drug offenders — those convicted of trafficking anything other marijuana.
There was plenty of opposition to the amendment among House members, but after Lyons huddled in the back of the House chamber with two key Democratic committee chairmen, word filtered through the House that leadership was supporting the amendment. The message was clear: There was to be no debate or roll call on the matter.
House members say they got mixed messages from various Democratic leaders who were working to tamp down any objections to the amendment, with some of them being told the carve-out would likely be stripped out of the bill in a House-Senate conference committee, while others were assured it would have little effect, since most traffickers serve at least five years in prison and the suspension clock begins at the time of sentencing.
The amendment was gaveled through on a voice vote without any debate or even a speech by proponents making the case for it. Asked if it is troubling that the House agreed to the amendment with no discussion, one Democrat says, “Troubling? Of course it is. It’s horrible.”
Rep. Liz Malia, the lead House sponsor of the bill and a member of DeLeo’s leadership team as cochair of the Legislature’s Mental Health and Substance Abuse Committee, took the amendment in stride. “I wasn’t happy about it, but it was a compromise,” she says. “That’s how the sausage gets made, I guess.”
Malia and Rushing, who also opposed the idea of the special carve-out for drug traffickers, say a roll call vote on the amendment would have been sensitive for some Democrats who fear being branded soft on drug traffickers.
A chief role the Speaker plays is to “protect” House members from having to cast votes that could imperil their election chances. Compounding that calculus, say members, is the vigilance with which DeLeo protects more moderate Democrats who hold “soft” seats representing districts where they could be vulnerable to a Republican challenger.
Whether lawmakers even needed any protection in this case is unclear. At least 33 states that had similar laws have taken them off the books. And the more conservative Boston Herald and the liberal-leaning Globe both ran editorials encouraging lawmakers to treat all drug offenders the same and get rid of the penalty altogether.
With pressure from the House, the conference committee negotiators wound up retaining the amendment, with a few modifications, so the final version of the bill that came back to both branches in March — and was passed unanimously by each — maintains license suspensions for traffickers.
DeLeo’s heavy leadership hand was also present in debate last November on legislation setting the price solar power developers are paid for the electricity they feed into the regional power grid. The House Ways and Means committee did not release its bill on the matter until the day of the House vote, one day before the end of formal legislative sessions for the year. It meant lawmakers with an interest in the issue and solar advocates had virtually no time to digest a complex piece of legislation.
The bill differed sharply from a Senate version, and solar advocates saw it as a major blow to the industry. Yet House leaders pressured members to quickly pass the measure in order to see whether they might be able to negotiate a fast compromise with the Senate before the last formal session of 2015 the following day.
Lawmakers overwhelmingly obliged, passing the bill 150-2.
In the end, there was no quick agreement reached the next day with the Senate, and the solar legislation spent months stalled in a House-Senate conference committee.
That left plenty of time to mull the potential impact of the House bill. Many cities and towns now have municipally-owned solar installations, and lawmakers heard an earful from local officials in their districts who said the House bill, which reduced the amount of money solar developers are paid for power, would wreak havoc on local budgets.
In March, 100 state reps released a letter they sent to the three House members on the solar legislation conference committee imploring them to, among other things, maintain the higher reimbursement rate for most projects.
The lawmakers, in effect, declared their opposition to the bill they had nearly all voted in lockstep in favor of four months earlier. It left the clear impression that they had either felt pressured to vote in favor of a bill they opposed or hadn’t had time to consider the legislation and its full impact.
Cory Atkins, the Concord state rep, says the bill that was presented to members on the day of the vote had changed significantly from the direction she thought the House legislation was heading. “I was appalled,” says Atkins, one of the leaders of the effort to get legislators to sign the pro-solar letter after the vote.
The legislation needed “a longer period of review by the members” says Rep. Denise Provost, a Somerville Democrat, one of the two votes against the bill.
In April, the conference committee finally reached a compromise agreement, which was quickly passed by both branches and signed by the governor. It landed between the House and Senate bills on the payments to solar generators, but leaned toward the Senate plan of maintaining higher rates. That seemed to show the impact of the letter from the 100 House members who said they didn’t mean it when they voted in November to slash the rates.
“I think the process which the solar bill followed is a symptom of a bigger problem in the House,” says one rep. “Although all of us are treated respectfully by the Speaker, we’re not involved in the process, and oftentimes we’re asked to blindly follow. It would be difficult to describe it as democracy.”
If the House under DeLeo is a place of far less ferment and debate, a good bit of the reason is because it’s been marching in that direction for more than two decades. Ever since the six-year experiment with greater legislative democracy under George Keverian’s reform leadership in the late 1980s, the House has been moving toward increased centralization, say Beacon Hill observers.
“When you become speaker, you inherit the institutional culture, and you shift it and change it only by degree and at your risk, because lots of people don’t want it to change,” says John McDonough, who served in the House from 1985 until 1997. “Culture,” he says, can be best defined as “the way we do things around here.”
“I love robust participatory, full democracy, and I think there’s a huge amount of latent creativity that gets bottled up because the culture of the place is so controlling,” says McDonough, who wrote about the Keverian era for CommonWealth in 2002. But he says there are also lots of legislators who are happy to cede much of the agenda-setting and legislative details to leadership.
They are also happy to have the Speaker provide cover against potential challengers for their seats by having the House avoid tough votes, as happened with the amendment on the driver’s license suspension bill. Indeed, there is almost an unwritten agreement that the Speaker will protect them from tough votes and they will, in turn, hand him control of their vote on most big pieces of legislation.
That bargain seems to be working for more and more lawmakers, who are content to focus on district concerns as the top-down culture draws and retains fewer reps with a big appetite for legislation and policy.
“Half the House has been here less than five years,” Atkins says of the rapid turnover that has taken place in the chamber. “So they don’t know anything else. They think this is the way you do business. They don’t know they were elected to be a leader and they’re entitled to their opinions.”
Hecht, the Watertown rep who spoke on the House floor against scrapping the speaker’s term limit, says there have been times when there has been a healthy airing of proposals and debate on legislation. He cites a major 2010 education law and a 2012 measure on health care cost containment as two examples. But that kind of deliberation, he says, has become more the exception than the rule.
“Even in the seven-plus years now I’ve been in the House, the amount of debate has gone down,” he says. “Often we have little information and little time to meaningfully prepare and meaningfully participate. The feeling that we often get is that debate is a waste of time at best, and at worst it could be viewed as an affront to leadership, instead of thinking of debate as a normal, healthy part of democracy and lawmaking.”
Mariano, the House majority leader, was elected in the early 1990s, just after DeLeo entered the Legislature. “I’ve been here through the speakerships of Charlie Flaherty, Tom Finneran, Sal DiMasi, and now Bob DeLeo, and I have heard the same complaint under all four speakers,” he says of those who say rank-and-file lawmakers are cut out of the process. “I think it’s the nature of the way people view the body and their understanding of the process. I think it’s human nature. You can’t go in 160 directions. Someone has to make decisions, and it’s the leadership, epitomized by the Speaker.”
Asked about last November’s handling of the solar energy bill, Rushing says, “the process is not perfect.” The loyal DeLeo lieutenant is hardly calling for a Luther-like reformation as he did when he challenged a sitting speaker in 2003. But he insists that lawmakers who aren’t happy with the status quo should speak up. “One of the things I say to my progressive friends is, they don’t whine enough,” says Rushing. “We have members who find it difficult to keep pressing the leadership.”
It’s not necessarily a message DeLeo is eager to spread. For him, the way things are done around here is working fine.
[The discussion of solar energy legislation was updated online, following the deadline for the print issue of the magazine, to reflect the agreement reached in early April.]