Speaker DeLeo steps down; Ron Mariano elected Speaker

JANUARY 5, 2021

Last Tuesday, Speaker Bob DeLeo delivered his farewell remarks to the House of Representatives. He stepped down after occupying the Speaker’s chair for twelve years, making him the longest-serving Speaker in Massachusetts history. He left progressives feeling frustrated and disappointed on many key issues, and an attempt to honor him was recently rejected by the Cambridge City Council. But, despite many progressive setbacks during his tenure, his final vote was to override Governor Baker’s veto of the ROE Act — a top priority for myself and other progressives this session.

On Wednesday afternoon, the House met to elect a new Speaker. House Rules call for the election of a Speaker as the first order of business whenever the chair is vacated. It’s the same procedure that’s used in the U.S. House of Representatives, the British House of Commons, and elsewhere. So, while there was some criticism of the timing of the vote, it was based on the current rules and on standard parliamentary procedures.

Just prior to Wednesday’s session, House Democrats met in caucus to hear nominations for Speaker. House Majority Leader Ron Mariano was the only candidate seeking the nomination. He was nominated by Mattapan Rep. Russell Holmes, who had mounted a campaign for Speaker before throwing his support to Leader Mariano. Rep. Holmes raised important points about structural racism, the need for diversity in leadership, and the need for transparency in the House. In turn, Leader Mariano vowed to increase diversity in the ranks of leadership, recognizing the need for more women, People of Color, and progressives in positions of power. He also signaled his support for bringing legislation forward even if the vote will be close (something Speaker DeLeo usually avoided, but progressives have pushed for).

Heading into last week, Leader Mariano had the committed support of about 120 of the 125 members of the House Democratic Caucus. While I have disagreed with him on certain matters during my time in the House, I have also found him to be very accessible and open to new ideas. With no other Democrats seeking the nomination, I decided the best way to represent our district and our progressive priorities was to support Leader Mariano.

In the end, Leader Mariano was elected Speaker with the support of 122 Democrats, including all of the members of the Black and Latino Legislative Caucus and the Chairs of the Progressive Caucus. 2 Democrats didn’t vote, and 1 answered present. The chamber’s 1 Independent voted for Leader Mariano, and all 31 Republicans voted for their Republican Leader.

As your State Representative, I am guided by a core philosophy: I will work with anyone and everyone to make progress for our district, but I will stand up to anyone (including the Speaker of the House) whenever our progressive values are at stake. This is the approach I have taken during my four years in office with Speaker DeLeo, and it’s the approach I will continue to take with Speaker Mariano.

In this election, our progressive values were not at stake because the outcome was essentially a foregone conclusion. While I recognize and appreciate that two or three of our colleagues abstained from the vote for principled reasons, most progressives reached a different conclusion as to the best way to advance our ideals. The question in my mind was what stance would best allow progressives to have a greater voice and more leverage to pass legislation to help our most vulnerable residents.

When it was announced a few weeks ago that Speaker DeLeo was preparing to step down, some asked if it would be possible to elect a progressive speaker. But the reality is we do not have the votes right now to elect a progressive speaker, and we also have relatively few progressives in positions of senior leadership, which means the pipeline of potential candidates is quite limited. These are issues Speaker Mariano has promised to address, and we will need to hold him to his commitments.

Some complained that Leader Mariano was the only candidate running. I appreciate this concern — but in leadership races, it’s not uncommon for informal conversations among members to result in the strongest candidate running unopposed. For example, no other Democrats were nominated for U.S. House Speaker during any of Nancy Pelosi’s successful Speakership elections. As another example, consider how Cambridge and Somerville City Councilors typically have informal conversations in determining support for their chairperson (i.e. the Mayor and Council President, respectively). It’s typical for those conversations to lead to a clear favorite and an uncontested race.

To be clear, none of this is to say the process to elect a Speaker in the Massachusetts House is ideal, or that it couldn’t be improved — it’s just to point out that the process wasn’t particularly different than other related examples, and the outcome isn’t particularly surprising given the overall politics of the body.

There is a lot we can and should do to reform the leadership structure and the processes of the House. As readers of this newsletter know, I’ve been on the front lines of efforts to make the workings of the House more democratic and transparent. But from my vantage point, none of the necessary reforms would be advanced by abstaining from the Speaker election. If anything, the vote for Rep. Mariano in this uncontested race gives us more leverage when we need to call on him to live up to his commitments.

The critics are correct when they say the Speaker has too much power — it’s why I’ve consistently supported reform efforts, from opposing the 2017 pay raise bill that greatly enhanced the Speaker’s power over the members, to supporting a proposal to conduct the vote for Speaker via a secret ballot, to standing up to leadership when they silenced other legislators, to supporting numerous transparency reforms. Taking these kinds of stands can sometimes feel a bit lonely in a body where progressives are still in the minority, but I believe that these are the sorts of tangible steps that can help us build the capacity for real progressive leadership.

At the end of the day, the change we seek isn’t going to be handed to us by a Speaker or any other political leader. We have to organize for it — the same way we collectively organized for the ROE Act, the way we organized for the nation’s strongest eviction and foreclosure moratorium, the way we organized for increases to the minimum wage and a paid family medical leave program, and so many others. Right now, there’s an effort underway by grassroots organizers to reform the rules of the House to increase transparency. I’m proud to say I’m one of a handful of Reps. to fully support these transparency proposals. These are the sorts of efforts that can form the building blocks of change in the House, helping us foster the culture of progressive activism that will in turn help us build the power we need to effectively organize for a progressive Speaker.

A lot has been written about the transition from Speaker DeLeo to Speaker Mariano in the recent days, and with so many gross inequities and injustices happening all around us, I can totally understand why people may look at this with cynicism and outrage. That's why I wanted to take this opportunity to share my thinking with you. Should you have any questions or concerns, please do not hesitate to reach out to me directly.

Yours in service,

Rep. Mike Connolly