A (State)house Divided

BEACON HILL - The Massachusetts House returned to business today, and returning lawmakers and two dozen new members took the oath of office, starting their 191st biennial session, which will last until the end of 2019. Usually these inaugurations are sleepy, ceremonial affairs where school children recite the pledge of allegiance, legislators take their oaths of office, elect a Speaker, and head home.

But this inauguration was more dramatic than most, as eight Democrats voted “Present” — i.e. they refused to cast a vote and simply abstained — rather than support the re-election of Robert DeLeo, the longest serving Speaker in Massachusetts history.

Reps. Nika Elugardo, Tami Gouveia, Jonathan Hecht, Russell Holmes, Patrick Kearney, Maria Robinson, John Rogers, and Angelo Scaccia all voted “present” rather than cast their votes for DeLeo.

Tami Gouveia told State House News she voted against DeLeo because:

“What I kept hearing over and over and over again is the need for greater access and transparency in the government, and I also see across the country, if you look at the way that people voted in the most recent election, that people are really demanding change. And so my vote was about looking forward to what’s the kind of government that we want to have and what’s the kind of government that voters are demanding.”1

Rep. Russell Holmes, one of the “Present” votes, believes he was the victim of political retribution by Speaker DeLeo in 2017, when he lost his committee vice chairmanship after remarks that were perceived as negative towards DeLeo.2

When DeLeo was elected Speaker, in 2009, he supported 8 year term limits on the role of Speaker, that would have forced him to step aside by 2017 at the latest. But in 2015, DeLeo passed a rules change that would allow him to stay on indefinitely. This will be his 6th term as Speaker.

Critics across the political spectrum — from left to right, and on issues ranging from Climate Change, Public Education, Healthcare, Housing, and Taxation— have pointed to the immense unchecked powers of the Speaker of the Massachusetts State House as a major problem for good government and passing meaningful legislation.

In contrast to the disunity in the House, Karen Spilka was elected Senate President with the support of all Democrats, and GOP leader Bruce Tarr motioned to consider the vote unanimous “in the spirit of bipartisanship and collaboration that has always categorized this body and is essential to its future”

Earlier in the day, Rep. Maria Robinson made a motion to reform the election of the Speaker in Democratic Caucus (where Democratic members decide on one candidate before voting in public during formal session). The rule change would have allowed Reps to vote by secret ballot, so as to avoid retribution for voting against the eventual Speaker. The proposal was defeated by a voice vote, so there is no record of who supported or opposed it. According to State House News Service, the following Reps. spoke against the motion: Reps. Thomas Stanley of Waltham, David Linsky of Natick, Ann-Margaret Ferrante of Gloucester, Tricia Farley-Bouvier of Pittsfield, Sarah Peake of Provincetown, Ken Gordon of Bedford, Tackey Chan of Quincy, Alan Silvia of Fall River and Antonio Cabral of New Bedford.3

Act on Mass, Inc. is a 501(c)4 organization that works to promote transparency in the Massachusetts State House and advocates for the passage of progressive legislation. Stay tuned for our website launch later this month with more info on how to get involved.

1 https://www.metrowestdailynews.com/news/20190102/secret-vote-for-speaker-squashed

2 https://commonwealthmagazine.org/back-story/political-payback-and-whatnot/

3 https://www.wbur.org/news/2015/01/29/deleo-defends-push-to-end-house-speakers-term-limit