Catching up with Majority Leader Claire Cronin
Easton rep is the first woman to hold No. 2 leadership position
HOUSE MAJORITY Leader Claire Cronin, a Democrat from Easton, has become a key player in the House this session as the newly elevated majority leader – the number two job in the House, and the role now-House Speaker Ron Mariano previously held before he became speaker.
CommonWealth spoke to Cronin by phone about her new role, her leadership style, and some of the key issues in the House this session.
COMMONWEALTH: You grew up in Brockton and were a lawyer before you ran for state representative. Tell me more about your background and what led you to become a state representative.
CLAIRE CRONIN: I grew up in Brockton, which I always believed really shaped who I am as a person. I always had an interest in politics. I grew up in a family that was very engaged in politics. I’m the third generation in my family to serve in the House of Representatives. My mother’s uncle served in the late 1920s, my mother’s brother served in the late 1940s and went on to become the mayor of Brockton. I got elected in 2012. I really grew up in a family where there was a history of the importance of public service. And work in government was a way to give back to your community and something that I always valued.
CRONIN: My background is as a mediator, so that shaped the way I work to build consensus when working on legislation. It has always been important to me to engage the members of the House, to listen, to hear, and address their concerns and differing views, and that’s a style I think I embraced. I did that through criminal justice reform and other pieces of legislation that I’ve worked on.
COMMONWEALTH: Much has been made of the fact you’re the first female majority leader. Do you think that’s a significant milestone?
CRONIN: Sure. It is a significant milestone. And I’m really honored and humbled to be the first, and I’m sure I won’t be the last.
COMMONWEALTH: Are you looking to be the first female speaker?
CRONIN: Absolutely not.
COMMONWEALTH: What will be different about how the House operates this year compared to past years under speaker Robert DeLeo? Should we anticipate any real changes?
CRONIN: We are still in the middle of the pandemic, so there are concerns that we’re still going to be dealing with. The fact that we were prepared so well under Speaker DeLeo, setting up the systems in place to be able to continue to function remotely has been amazing, particularly in light of the fact that we are a very large body, 160 members. So I think that will continue.
COMMONWEALTH: What role should the Legislature have in overseeing the COVID-19 response, including the vaccination effort and the economic reopening?
CRONIN: We will have a very significant role as we move forward. We are going to keep a very close eye on the administration of the vaccine. Certainly, we are going to be significantly involved in funding of all things that occur as a result of the domino effect of the pandemic.
COMMONWEALTH: With all the attention being paid to racial justice, what are the next steps the Legislature should take on racial justice issues?
CRONIN: First and foremost, we do have a new committee on racial equity, civil rights and inclusion. You’ll see a lot of pieces of legislation directed toward that committee where they can be worked on and addressed in a manner that promotes equity in all of our institutions, whether our educational areas, health care, small business, the list goes on and on. I think those committees will take a look at all of our pieces of legislation through the lens of racial justice and equity.
COMMONWEALTH: There has been criticism that the House operates in a top-down leadership style. Some issues around transparency were raised during the debate over joint rules covering the two branches. Is this a legitimate criticism and do you think the House needs to change its rules to be more transparent?
CRONIN: I don’t think that’s a legitimate narrative. We are a Democratic, majority-controlled Legislature and the rules we put forward were the rules of a Democratic Legislature. And as you saw [Wednesday], we had a very strong partisan vote. There were only eight Democrats who voted for any amendment other than the rules that were presented. And of the eight Democrats that voted for it, five are brand new representatives who have not yet lived the experience of the legislative process.
COMMONWEALTH: You’ve been involved in crafting some of the most significant bills to come out of the Legislature recently – criminal justice reform, police reform, expanding abortion access. What’s your approach toward reaching consensus on these kinds of tricky issues?
CRONIN: I always try to get to yes if we can get to yes, and I’ve always had a very open-door policy. I think that that is something Speaker Mariano, when he was majority leader, he had a very strong open-door policy and I hope to continue that. I think he expects that of his leadership team, and by having an open-door policy it is important to be able to hear all of the concerns of the members and work with the other members in order to get a bill to the floor and get the best bill possible to the floor.
COMMONWEALTH: Since the criminal justice reform law was passed, do you have a sense of what impact has it had, and how can you measure it?
CRONIN: It has had an impact. If you were to look at juvenile justice since the criminal justice reform bill, arrests of juveniles have fallen significantly. I believe the number of custodial arrests has fallen by 41 percent. Applications for complaints decreased by 31 percent, delinquency filings decreased by close to 40 percent. And we know that the sooner a juvenile enters our criminal system, the more likely they are to remain within our criminal justice system so that’s really significant.
If you look at probation since the criminal justice reform bill, Massachusetts ranks as the lowest in the country for reincarceration as a result of probation failures, based on Pew and [Council of State Government] studies. We were low before, now we have the number one spot. With regard to public safety, and the DNA collection of data on felons, we have a 100 percent capture rate [of taking DNA swabs from people arrested on a felony charge].
The one area that will need some work is on the data piece of this. Before we passed the criminal justice reform bill, there was a complete lack of standardized data. We sought to address that in the criminal justice reform bill by requiring a cross-tracking system through the use of unique statewide identification numbers and probation central file numbers. That being said, there has just been a report that says there are gaps in the reporting of the data. It found a lot of the agencies were still not using the tracking system and the data wasn’t consistent. The good thing is we did create that Justice Reinvestment Policy Oversight Board as part of the bill. And the board is certainly aware of the gaps that are occurring, and I believe [the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security] is quite aware of that as well, and we’re going to work to continue to make sure we capture and report accurately the data that has been collected.
COMMONWEALTH: Looking ahead, how will we know if police reform is working and reducing unnecessary force, or conversely if it’s having the consequences that some police officers are warning of in making their job more dangerous and harder to perform?
CRONIN: That will take a little time. It logically makes sense, if our police officers have better training and more standardized training, that consistent training makes for better police officers. For the first time, we are going to standardize the training across the Commonwealth, and to have consistent, standardized, uniform training standards is important, number one. Number two, we did not have a system for accountability before. And I believe with training and accountability, our justice system will be improved.
COMMONWEALTH: Other than the things we’ve already talked about, what are your priorities for this legislative session?
CRONIN: My priorities will be number one, to assist and support the priorities of the speaker. I think he’s made clear some of his priorities. Certainly, we took a very quick step to get the climate change bill back on the governor’s desk, that’s a significant priority.
We’re certainly addressing the public health crisis, that would be our number one concern. We must get vaccines in people’s arms, we must get our kids back in school, we must address inequities that have always been there but the pandemic has illuminated. There are underlying societal issues that are going to be looming ahead. I would predict we’re going to have a looming mental health crisis ahead particularly with some of our kids and teens. I think that’s something we’re going to have to be paying attention to. Another priority stated by the speaker is we want to extend mail-in voting. It’s safe and it encourages participation, and that’s a priority.COMMONWEALTH: What is something about you that your constituents would be surprised to know?
CRONIN: I feel like my constituents know me well. They might be surprised to know that I am a diehard college football fan. I root for Notre Dame in football.