Massachusetts House Speaker Robert DeLeo's nearly 12 year tenure leading the chamber has come to an end. GBH State House reporter Mike Deehan discussed DeLeo's departure and his anticipated successor, House Majority Leader Ron Mariano, with GBH All Things Considered host Arun Rath. This transcript has been edited for clarity.
Arun Rath: DeLeo is resigning to take an unspecified job at Northeastern University. That's where he went to college. Why is he leaving right now?
Mike Deehan: For a number of reasons. Anybody who's been inside the State House bubble, so to speak, knows that it's long been rumored that DeLeo was going to depart at some point. It feels like for at least the latter half of his 12 years as speaker, those rumors have been going around, and different jobs have been stated. Northeastern was always one of them. He has a great fondness for his alma mater, Northeastern, and we're still not sure what kind of a job he's going to have there — whether it's going to be teaching or leading something. But he does love the Huskies, so we know that that's why he's going for that.
Why now is because it really is towards the end of the legislature's work for the year. The big thing that they got done was the budget — and override votes to override the governor's vetoes from the budget, I should say. So that was really the window of opportunity that gave DeLeo the sign that now it is OK, we've done enough this session that he can depart. There's really not much else going on.
There are some major bills that are still being worked out. But because the succession from DeLeo to House Majority Leader Ron Mariano seems to be going so smoothly, there'll be very little lack of continuity. So whatever work is needed to be done between now and Jan. 6, when the new legislature comes in, they will have the ability to get it done without getting bogged down.
Rath: It sounds like he might have left sooner had these things not dragged on through the fall and into the winter.
Deehan: Yeah, it really was the COVID-19 pandemic that kept him in office. These rumors came up in March. And then, when the pandemic hit, they kind of went away again. Now that that budget situation is done and things really are kind of taken care of, at least legislatively right now, it was a window of opportunity, and DeLeo took it.
Rath: DeLeo is 70, and he's likely to be replaced by fellow Democrat and House Majority Leader Ron Mariano, who's 74. Like DeLeo, he's a white man. It doesn't feel like a generational shift. Is it strange that in the context of these times that there's not some younger, more diverse challenger?
Deehan: Right. I know a lot of progressives and advocates in Massachusetts really did want to see the House go in a different direction. But right now, during this pandemic, because of this rather dire budget situation, I think that the House members definitely wanted to go with stability. Mariano represents, for them at least, stability and continuity right now. The 160 members of the House are the only voices that matter right now when selecting a speaker. Yes, there are some people that wanted to go for more diversity, or younger, or really anything other than an older white man, which is what all the speakers have been generally.
I spoke to Marianao today, and he did say that he has diversity in mind. He says that that is a necessary thing for his leadership team, so he's going to try to put together the most diverse team he can. But this is where the House members are. They are comfortable with Mariano. He is very popular. Everyone tells me he has an open door policy that really appeals to everyone. Conservatives and progressives and moderates and everything in between all do kind of like this guy, even though there has been some criticism that he's DeLeo's number two and he's been kind of handed off the power here. So that's where Mariano's support comes from. Again, he's 74, so there's speculation that he might only be in the job for a term or two, though he's not putting any kind of a cap on how long he serves. I'm sure there'll be plenty of talk about what direction the speakership will go after that, but we're getting ahead of ourselves.
Rath: It's interesting, hearing almost echoes of national politics, considering the criticism of Joe Biden's cabinet choices as not being progressive enough.
Deehan: Right, exactly. Again, this is 160 members who have relationships with this guy, and they want to keep him around as their leader. There's plenty of time for someone of a different background or different stance politically to maybe make a move and become popular, but you don't get the fairly moderate Massachusetts House of Representatives to make you the speaker unless you're a fairly moderate representative yourself. So it would be kind of a longshot for a true progressive liberal to become the speaker. You really have to work a long time and play the game, so to speak, before you can get that kind of support.
Rath: I remember reading your reporting that Rep. Russell Holmes of Mattapan was going to put up a challenge for the speakership. What happened with that?
Deehan: He pulled back. He dropped out of the speaker's race. He did announce earlier that he was going to formally challenge Mariano, but even he admitted that he was not going to actually win this race. It was a symbolic gesture to do this run. Now he says he's dropping out because he doesn't want to complicate things. He wants the transition of power to be as smooth as possible, and he feels that he made his point by announcing it. He did tell me that he had a few people that were going to vote for him, but he didn't really want to damage them on the way down, so to speak. But he did talk to Mariano. They don't agree on everything, obviously, but Holmes did tell me that he will support Mariano on Wednesday when they meet to vote for the new speaker. So it's really a unified front among the Democrats right now, and that is kind of what the speaker's job is — to bring people in line like that and be on the same page.
Rath: Pulling back and taking a wide view of DeLeo's very long tenure as speaker, tell us a bit about what you think his legacy is going to be.
Deehan: When it comes to Speaker DeLeo, over those 12 years, basically everything state government did, DeLeo had a hand in one way or another — or at least every law that was written. I've been describing it as incremental progressive legislation. That's kind of the DeLeo M.O. He demanded wide support from virtually every Democrat before he would bring something to the floor. So everything was worked out behind the scenes. Everyone knew it was going to pass by a huge margin. The floor votes were never in doubt, and it was pushed through that way. Everybody was satisfied, at least. But if everyone's satisfied, that means that some folks aren't as happy as they would have been. Some people said that this caused weaker legislation, watered down legislation to appeal to progressives or to appeal to moderates or conservatives, to get everyone on that same page in order to keep the system going. He had a very tight grip on the membership. His team of chairmen and leaders really did enforce discipline when it came to these votes and that kind of search for consensus.
By the same token, people say that DeLeo was always open behind closed doors. He was open to speaking with everyone and really getting to what the membership wanted. Again, it's a moderate body, and it's going to have moderate results. So those kind of compromises were necessary to get things through. When it comes to specific issues, things like casinos — gun control was a huge DeLeo priority. Bringing transgender rights, that was something that came incrementally over those 12 years, a bill here and a bill there as members of the House were ready to take on changes like that. There were a few tax hikes over the years, the sales tax and the gas tax. But generally, DeLeo was seen as having pleased the employer base of the economy and employers. That employment rate is really where DeLeo's focus was. Ambitious legislation and reforms could only come after the functioning of the economy, from his point of view.