Ashland Democrat Karen Spilka has led the Massachusetts Senate since 2018, and after a 32-6 vote by her fellow senators Thursday, she’s able to hold on to that position indefinitely.
For almost 30 years, the state Senate president has been subject to a term limit of no more than eight consecutive years. Senators scrapped that maximum as they set their internal rules Thursday.
Sen. Michael Rodrigues, who proposed lifting the term limit, cast it as a way to keep the Senate — and the policies senators want to pass — on equal footing with the rest of Beacon Hill. The governor, House speaker, and Republican minority leaders in the House and Senate are all able to serve in those positions as long as they’d like, assuming they keep winning elections.
“The Senate is at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to legislating and advancing our members’ priorities with the governor’s office and the House, when any Senate leader gets anywhere close to that deadline,” said Rodrigues, a Westport Democrat. “When our Senate president sits at a negotiating table with other leaders, and with that date approaching, surely that … deadline could be a negative factor.”
Under the previous term limit, Spilka would have been able to hold the presidency for this full two-year session, then hit her eight-year maximum on July 26, 2026 — just five days before the end of formal lawmaking business for that session. Those final days are typically a period of intense negotiations among legislators trying to get their priorities over the finish line.
Rodrigues also made the case that the jockeying to succeed Spilka in the influential and high-paying post — Spilka’s total pay landed at more than $178,000 last year — could overshadow “productive dialogue” as her last day neared, saying leadership fights are “not pretty.”
No one argued on the Senate floor against lifting the term limits. Three Democrats — Sen. John Keenan of Quincy, Sen. Becca Rausch of Needham and Sen. Walter Timilty of Milton — joined the Senate’s three Republicans in voting to keep the limit.
Rausch said later that she understands the arguments around the president’s strength in negotiations.
“But as a matter of policy and principle, I believe term limits are really important to small 'd' democracy and serve a really important function to helping to advance new approaches to the work and new visions to the role,” she said.
Spilka took the reins of the Senate at a time of turmoil in the body, becoming its third president in a single session after a sexual assault and harassment scandal involving the husband of former Senate President Stan Rosenberg.
A lawyer and mediator by trade who got her start in politics as a school committee member, Spilka has served in the Senate since 2005. Like many other past presidents, she chaired the Senate’s budget-writing Ways and Means Committee — the post Rodrigues now holds — before stepping into her current role.
Senators approved their term limit in 1993, during the nearly two-decade reign of their longest-serving president, South Boston’s William Bulger. The policy went unchanged since then, while the House undertook its own series of term limit debates.
The House struck its speaker term limit in 2001, then reinstated it in 2009 under Speaker Robert DeLeo. DeLeo presided over the elimination of the term limit in 2015, and stepped down in 2020 after a record-setting 12 years atop the House.