For DeLeo, slow, steady — and firm — were the watchwords
Long-serving speaker maintained an orderly House, to praise and scorn
THERE WAS NOT a lot of flash to Robert DeLeo’s tenure as Massachusetts House speaker. Rising from amiable constituent-focused Winthrop lawmaker to one of the most powerful positions in state government, DeLeo had an understated everyman bearing and brought a deliberative, consensus-oriented approach to many issues.
But what he lacked in outward swagger, the 70-year-old Democratic leader made up for with a clear understanding of the power dynamic on Beacon Hill. He leveraged those insider skills deftly, becoming the longest-serving speaker in state history — and the first in 30 years who is not leaving under indictment or the threat of one.
With DeLeo’s expected exit for a post at Northeastern University – he announced Monday that he will resign as speaker effective Tuesday at 6 pm — he leaves a legacy that includes major health care reform, gun control legislation, and a sweeping rewrite of the state’s education aid formula. But his tenure will be known equally for further solidifying the centralized grip on power in the speaker’s office. That has now become a hallmark of the Massachusetts House, a trend that critics say cuts hard against the grain of the bold experiment in democracy that John Adams envisioned in drafting the state Constitution 240 years ago.
“I think he’s going to be remembered as a very powerful speaker, who kept the House on the same path it was on, maybe even more so than previously,” said Shannon Jenkins, a professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.
Once he took power, DeLeo sought to avoid the fractious infighting among Democrats that can come with enjoying a super majority in the 160-member House that covers a wide ideological span (the party currently hold 126 seats). Though his impulses were decidedly moderate, DeLeo sprinkled his leadership team and committee chair appointments with enough liberal legislators to prevent open rebellion from his left flank from ever taking hold during his 12–year reign. It marked a continuation of the approach taken by DiMasi, who was able to smooth over the battle lines that had formed when his predecessor, Tom Finneran, openly clashed with liberal reformers.
If DeLeo also continued the march toward tighter rule by speakers over the House, he did it with a much lower public profile than the trio of speakers who preceded him — before Finneran, in the early 1990s, was Charlie Flaherty — all of whom were temperamentally more drawn to the limelight.
“He’s much less well-known to the public than his predecessors,” said Peter Ubertaccio, a political science professor at Stonehill College. “He has both continued the tradition of a strong speaker, but has done it in a way that is less public and less visible than his colleagues.”
Not an artful speaker, DeLeo often seemed uneasy in spontaneous exchanges with reporters. He rarely granted one-on-one interviews — refusing to sit down to talk for an in-depth profile four years ago — and aides were quick to cut off questions during hallway press encounters in the State House.
But he came to dominate the business of state government, the one constant over a period that saw two governors and four Senate presidents as his governing counterparts.
DeLeo generally resisted the idea of broad-based new taxes, a stance that often put him in sync with Gov. Charlie Baker and at odds with the more liberal Senate. But House members are quick to point to his willingness earlier this year to support new transportation revenue through a hike in the gas tax, a measure the Senate was reluctant to take up even before the pandemic upended the conversation on revenue and taxes.
DeLeo said his thinking on the issue had “evolved” as the House voted 109-45 to scrap the term-limit rule, with just 11 Democrats bucking the speaker. The handful of critics who were willing to speak out said the move snuffed out what little remained of freewheeling give and take in the House.
Former state representative Byron Rushing, one of the liberals DeLeo brought into leadership, said he worked to convince progressive lawmakers, who were among the strongest backers of the term-limit rule, to do away with it. “It wasn’t a hard lift, because they felt they were getting enough stuff from Bob,” he said, highlighting the transactional ways of the State House, where a focus on the legislative product can often trump concern about process.
Whether it was getting enough “stuff,” or simply fear that a vote to retain term limits would leave them out in the legislative cold going forward, nearly all Democrats went along.
If DeLeo had a governing principle, said Rushing, it was “to protect Democratic members above all else.” That often frustrated more liberal Democrats, as DeLeo worried about how a vote might hurt Democrats in more conservative swing districts.
“There was no knee-jerk liberalism about him,” Rushing, who served as an assistant majority leader, said of DeLeo. “But I don’t think there was a knee-conservatism, either. There was a knee-jerk middle-of-the-roadism.”
But Rushing said DeLeo’s impulse to protect members from tough votes was tempered by another trait. “He really listened to people,” said Rushing.
That meant DeLeo might come to conclude that an issue was not that threatening to Democratic lawmakers, after all, despite misgivings they might express. That happened on several occasions when he pushed bigger change, including a 2014 tightening of the state’s already stringent gun control laws and a 2016 measure to extend anti-discrimination protection to transgender residents.
DeLeo was also sometimes as likely to respond to a personal story as a fine-grained policy argument.
Rushing said issues affecting transgender people were something DeLeo knew nothing about. “He had no clue,” said Rushing. But a group of House supporters of transgender rights arranged a meeting with the speaker and a transgender state official DeLeo had dealt with. “We said, we want him to sit down with this guy,” said Rushing. “He didn’t know him well — it was a bureaucrat he had done some business with. But it had a big effect.”
“Consensus” became DeLeo’s favored term for describing the way the House operated. That could frustrate those who thought the pace of change was sluggish. It also came to mean an approach in which differences were almost always ironed out behind closed doors.
An inveterate inside player, DeLeo was not always comfortable with the hurly-burly of public advocacy and debate. Rushing said that tension played out three years ago when the Legislature was considering criminal justice reform legislation.
A review of state laws by a national policy organization had recommended fairly narrow reforms, focused mainly on programming for inmates being released from incarceration. Baker filed a bill that largely followed that path, but advocates began pushing the Legislature to go much further. In April 2017, they rallied outside the House chamber, where a succession of speakers, including Rushing, urged them to keep up the pressure on DeLeo and House leaders.
“Why are they treating me like this? I haven’t made up my mind,” Rushing recalled DeLeo saying to him afterwards. “I said, it’s because you haven’t made up your mind.”
The House wound up embracing much broader reforms, which Baker ended up signing into law.
Rep. Alice Peisch, the House chairwoman of Legislature’s education committee, said DeLeo has been unfairly characterized as ruling by fiat.
“From my vantage point he is someone who has always been open to hearing different points of view,” she said. “Contrary to some of the comments you may hear or see, I have never viewed him as a top-down person. I view him much more as someone who reflects the sentiments of the membership than trying to impose his views on members.”
That is a far cry, however, from the way others see the House, where decision-making largely takes place out of public view, dissenters often face swift punishment, and even majority support is not enough to advance an issue without the speaker’s blessing.
“It’s a very hierarchical process and he has continued to consolidate power among a few people,” said Rep. Russell Holmes, who called the speaker a shepherd and House members the “sheep” who dutifully follow. “You get to the building and people become silenced,” he said of a culture of quiet deference that new lawmakers quickly submit to. “It’s astonishing to me that people work this hard to get these jobs and then get here and become sheep. It’s counter to everything our democracy tells us the State House should be.”
Holmes, who was stripped of a committee vice chairman’s post three years ago after he said minority lawmakers, women, and progressives should have a role in selecting the next speaker, has become the most vocal critic of DeLeo’s centralized rule in recent years. But the Mattapan rep, who announced — but then dropped — a long shot bid for speaker against DeLeo’s anointed heir apparent, Rep. Ronald Mariano, is simply the latest in a string of lawmakers who have spoken out, often to the detriment of their standing in the House.
Rep. Jonathan Hecht of Watertown delivered an impassioned speech six years ago on the House floor against ending term limits for the speaker, arguing that it would be an unhealthy stripping away of all checks on the House leader’s power. He was promptly sacked from his position as vice chairman of the elder affairs committee.
Reflecting on the term-limits showdown a year later, Hecht said it was part of a broader withering of democratic vigor in the House. “Even in the seven-plus years now I’ve been in the House, the amount of debate has gone down,” he said. “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.”
While DeLeo has wielded power mainly out of view, his influence on everything the House does is sometimes cast publicly in sharp relief, and at times to comical effect.
Soon after taking power in 2009, DeLeo pushed to usher in the state’s casino era, reversing course on the opposition to casino gambling that prevailed under DiMasi. Scores of lawmakers seemingly had a sudden awakening to the benefits casinos. All told, 64 House members flipped from voting against casinos when a bill came up under DiMasi to suddenly embracing the wisdom of expanded gambling when it had the backing of a new speaker.
In 2015, House leaders released a complicated solar energy bill the day before the end of formal sessions for the year and got members to adopt it nearly unanimously without even understanding its details. As negotiations with the Senate extended into the following spring, 100 state reps signed a letter urging that the final bill not include a provision they had voted for in the House version.
“I think the process which the solar bill followed is a symptom of a bigger problem in the House,” one rep said at the time. “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.”
It is perhaps a mark of low public expectations for the Legislature that DeLeo is getting notice for being the first speaker since 1990 not to leave under indictment — or the cloud of potential criminal charges — after his three immediate predecessors wound up convicted of felonies.
But his tenure was not without legal controversy. DeLeo found himself embroiled in a wide-ranging patronage scandal involving the state Probation Department. He was never charged in the case, but was deemed an unindicted co-conspirator by federal prosecutors, a charge he bitterly denounced as an unfair attack on his character that he could not disprove in court. The 2014 convictions in the case of three top Probation Department officials were ultimately thrown out by a federal Appeals Court, which ruled that a patronage-driven hiring system in the department may have been bad public policy and unseemly, but wasn’t illegal.
DeLeo may have initially been underestimated in much the same way as late Boston mayor Tom Menino, another Italian-American pol who also followed more flamboyant figures but showed more staying power than anyone to hold the office he held. Menino served for 20 years, the longest run of any Boston mayor.
Neither man was known for a silver tongue, but what they lacked in gifts of elocution, both made up for in tenacious focus on the job they had. “Certainly their stars didn’t seem to shine as brightly as their predecessors’,” said Ubertaccio, the Stonehill College political science professor. “Yet they outlived them, politically speaking, and that’s a big deal.”
Some of the secret to their longevity may have come from never taking for granted the political success they enjoyed.
“I really didn’t come here with any expectations in terms of where I’d be,” DeLeo said several years ago when asked whether he ever imagined becoming House speaker.
Former state rep Ellen Story, who entered the House, like DeLeo, in the early 1990s, said his approach contrasted sharply with the string of speakers before him. “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, ‘someday, if I play my cards right, I could be in charge of this place,’” Story said in a 2016 interview . “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.”“I think that he will be remembered as someone who was steady at the tiller, whether it be after the snowmageddon of 2015 or on a whole bunch of other issues,” said Larry DiCara, a former Boston city councilor and classmate of DeLeo’s at Boston Latin School.
“He’s not a flashy guy,” said DiCara, comparing DeLeo with former Senate president William Bulger, who enjoyed hobnobbing on the board of the Boston Symphony or Boston Public Library. “That’s not Bobby’s style. I don’t think he’s very different from the guy I knew when we were in high school together. He is a down to earth person. I think basically he’s happy going home to Winthrop every night.”