Politics

What to know about the race to be the next Massachusetts House speaker

State lawmakers appear on the verge of handing off leadership to a new speaker. But some representatives are crying foul at the continuation of "insider politics."

Massachusetts House Speaker Robert DeLeo speaks at a 2016 bill signing ceremony at the State House in Boston. Elise Amendola / AP

Massachusetts House Speaker Bob DeLeo still hasn’t officially said he’s leaving.

But don’t tell that to the two state representatives who have already declared their candidacies to replace him.

News last week that the 70-year-old Winthrop Democrat is looking to potentially take a job at his alma mater Northeastern University swiftly set off a intra-party race between Quincy Rep. Ron Mariano, a DeLeo ally, and Boston Rep. Russell Holmes, a DeLeo critic.

After nearly 12 years of DeLeo as speaker, it’s a rare opportunity for a change in leadership in a chamber dominated by Democrats for more than half a century.

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The question is how different lawmakers think that leadership should be.

Mariano, who as House majority leader is the second-ranking Democrat in the chamber, has been DeLeo’s right-hand man since 2011. And at least according to his supporters, the 74-year-old has already locked up the votes he needs to win.

But according to Holmes, that type of predetermined outcome would be emblematic of the problem he sees with Beacon Hill politics.

“The problem in the building is the way power is concentrated,” the 51-year-old Mattapan lawmaker told Boston.com in an interview.

Rep. Russell Holmes during a briefing on police reform at the State House this past summer.

“Much of the building just waits to see how the speaker votes on whatever piece of legislation is moving,” Holmes said. “It’s like a shepherd leading the sheep.”

In anticipation of a potential pre-Christmas speaker’s race vote this week, Holmes has been trying to convince fellow representatives to back his more open vision for the House of Representatives, in which power is centered in committees, more legislation gets up-or-down floor votes, and lawmakers don’t face repercussions for voting against leadership. He has called the current structure “a dictatorship.”

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“I would like to see the speaker vote last,” Holmes said. “Folks go, they vote red or green, whatever they think is best for their district, and then the speaker at the last minute votes, so that folks can truly feel like like they’re not influenced and potentially could have repercussions if they vote ‘off the speaker.'”

Holmes says the current system — where the speaker, through committee assignments, can decide everything from a representative’s staff size to their salary to their parking spots — creates a structure where self-interest can sway members to vote in accordance with leadership.

“Those things taint the water,” he said.

First elected in 2010, Holmes himself was stripped of a housing committee vice chairmanship in 2017 after he encouraged a discussion about who should replace DeLeo.

And he thinks a Mariano speakership would amount to a continuation of the “backroom politics” dating back to former House Speaker Sal DiMasi, who left the position in 2009 shortly before being indicted on federal corruption charges (the prior two speakers had also left office amid criminal investigations). After Mariano, a former DiMasi aide, Rep. Aaron Michlewitz is next in line for the speakership.

House Majority Leader Ron Mariano during a media-only briefing in February.

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Holmes, who is Black, also notes that there is not one person of color on the current House leadership team, which he says had led to communities like his going overlooked and certain bills — from raising the capital gains tax to prison reform — not getting consideration.

“The least reliable Democratic demographic group in the entire country, white men, want to go and lead a building that is heavily Democratic,” he said, describing the status quo as “structurally racist.”

Progressives in deep-blue Massachusetts have long complained about DeLeo’s leadership (case in point, a perfunctory Cambridge City Council resolution thanking DeLeo, somewhat remarkably, failed Monday).

Still, not all Democratic lawmakers — even Holmes’s fellow progressives — think a leadership shakeup is necessary, especially in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mariano announced his potential candidacy for the speakership Saturday, a day after DeLeo officially disclosed he was in talks with Northeastern.

“His leadership and experience is going to prove very vital,” Michlewitz said of Mariano in an interview Monday with the State House News Service. “I think that he is ready to take the job on Day One, which is something that is very critically important in these difficult times that we’re facing.”

Praising the speaker’s “steadfast leadership,” Mariano argued that the House has “enjoyed an unprecedented period of progress” under DeLeo, from a 2012 health care cost containment law to criminal justice reform in 2018. He also pledged to continue the chamber’s current work on the economic recovery from the pandemic, transportation, police reform, and abortion rights.

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Last week, the State House News Service reported that Reps. Tricia Farley-Bouvier and Jack Patrick Lewis, co-chairs of the House Progressive Caucus, are also backing Mariano, emphasizing the importance of continuity.

“In this time of great uncertainty, with so many issues in our commonwealth and with our constituents struggling through this unimaginable pandemic, we need a smooth transition,” Lewis said. “We need a strong leader. We need someone who will be a partner. And for me, that is Leader Ron Mariano.”

However, other progressives are calling for a stand.

In a Commonwealth magazine opinion piece Sunday, Reps. Jonathan Hecht and Denise Provost argued that Mariano is “well to the right” of DeLeo and would advance “a center-right agenda that is out-of-step with the progressive values of many in Massachusetts, including the majority of Democrats in the state Senate.”

As the former Financial Services Committee chair, Mariano “consistently sided with big business, big finance, and big health care” and was the only top House leader to vote against the so-called “millionaires’ tax” in 2017. The two Democrats also said Mariano’s record demonstrated support of “furthering the centralization of power in the speaker’s office,” including a vote to create more stipend positions for House members and a vote against a proposal to give members 72 hours to read a bill before voting on it.

In fact, Hecht and Provost argued that the timing of a vote this week to appoint Mariano — before new members are sworn in and before alternative candidates get a chance to make their case — “would be the culmination of the insider politics that has come to dominate the Massachusetts House.”

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“On this ground alone, House progressives should be calling foul,” they wrote.

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