To caucus or not to caucus
Informal coalitions tout common interests, cut across party lines,
CAUCUSES ARE NOT clandestine cabals requiring a secret handshake and special door knock to get into the room, except perhaps for the Democratic and Republican legislative caucuses. In Massachusetts, in fact, most caucuses in the Legislature don’t even have doors. Or offices.
“Because they’re not official, it’s up to the people who join [to decide] how they organize themselves and how they’re structured,” says Senate President Stan Rosenberg. “It is bipartisan, bicameral. There’s a value to that. People form caucuses because they’re looking to connect with other people with similar interests.”
Unlike formal legislative committees, members share a common interest and legislative leaders have no say on who can join. Power within a caucus is not based on party affiliation. Indeed, caucuses operate within the legislative framework while remaining apart from it. Neither the Senate or House clerks or the offices of the Senate president or House Speaker maintain lists of legislative caucuses.
At least 35 states have black caucuses, 23 have women’s caucuses, and 19 have Hispanic caucuses. A growing number of states have ethnic caucuses, including those focused on people of Asian, Jewish, Irish, and Italian-American heritage. The most fun ones look like they’re in Illinois, which has the White Sox Caucus, and Pennsylvania, where lawmakers have formed a Karaoke Caucus, which is required by statute to sing at least once a year.
There are at least 15 caucuses that are loosely active in the Massachusetts Legislature, not including the majority and minority party caucuses. The only two bipartisan caucuses that get office space are the Caucus of Women Legislators and the Black and Latino Legislative Caucus.
Some of the others include the Oral Health Caucus; the TechHub Caucus; the Children’s Caucus; the Caucus on Older Citizens’ Concerns; the Rural Caucus; the Tobacco Control Caucus; the Gateway Cities Caucus; the Boating Caucus; the Parkinson’s Disease Caucus; the Public Higher Education Caucus; and the Nonprofit Legislative Caucus.
One of the more effective and durable caucuses on Beacon Hill is the Oral Health Caucus, launched as the first of its kind in the nation 10 years ago.
Sen. Harriette Chandler, the co-chair of the Oral Health Caucus, says the bipartisan nature of the group has aided in getting bills through the Legislature regarding dental health coverage for low-income people, billing practices, insurance mandates, and increased reimbursements for dentists who take Medicaid.
“So much of oral health has a direct impact on general health,” says Chandler. “The mouth is the window to the body.”In Rosenberg’s case, he came to form the Foster Children’s Caucus nearly 30 years ago when he was in the House. Rosenberg says he, Rep. Gloria Fox, and two other lawmakers who had been foster children formed the caucus more for “inspiration and motivation” for other foster kids. But several deaths and reports of abuse of foster children led the caucus to draft and push legislation to change the state’s oversight of foster children. With Fox’s retirement at the end of this term, Rosenberg will be the last remaining former foster child from the original caucus. He says at least four of the new members are adoptees who have a stake in the issue.
“RTAs were battling for years to get recognition. They are doing the same jobs as the MBTA but getting no traction,” says Rosenberg. “Regional transit authorities finally got enough support through creation of a caucus that they were able to get the people making the decisions at Ways and Means to see that the RTAs needed to get support. Now you don’t have a conversation about increasing the T’s budget without saying, ‘How about RTAs?’”