It’s a time of diminution on Beacon Hill. Governor Patrick is a lame duck whose last year is ending more with a limp than a bang. Frustrated in her search for a comfortable post-politics perch, Senate President Therese Murray is in the midst of a long goodbye.
But while power is ebbing away from those two, House Speaker Robert DeLeo is seeing his stature grow. In part that’s because he’s the only one of Beacon Hill’s big three who will be there next year, a reality DeLeo had some fun with at Sunday’s St. Patrick’s Day breakfast.
After noting that Patrick had left the event, DeLeo quipped: “Boy, am I sorry to see him go.” Turning to Murray, the speaker declared he’d be sad to see her leave as well — and then added a little mock praise for a trait that’s not her trademark: “Your warmth . . .”
Even Murray threw her head back in laughter.
Like his punch line, DeLeo grows on you. Among Beacon Hill’s top trio, he combines the smallest ego with the thickest skin and the greatest willingness to listen. That’s made him a refreshing change from his two predecessors, Tom Finneran and Sal DiMasi, both of whom strived to be the State House’s dominant force — and ended up in trouble as a result of their hubris and, in DiMasi’s case, greed.
DeLeo’s more reasonable sense of himself has made him a far better leader for the institution itself. After the control-centralizing tendencies of Finneran and DiMasi, he has actually re-empowered the committee chairs, telling them to take more initiative on their own.
“As speaker you have to be careful . . . that you are not a House of one,” he says.
Mind you, there’s still considerable distance to go; the pendulum hasn’t made it all the way back to the happy balance Speaker Charlie Flaherty struck between entrusting authority to talented committee chairs and providing an overall sense of direction. Several of DeLeo’s lieutenants, meanwhile, have a reputation for leaning hard on rank-and-file Democrats in their pursuit of party discipline. And the House certainly needs more debate.
Still, the difference from the last two speakers is both noteworthy and praiseworthy. Trusted chairs actually take the lead in developing legislation, and legislative oversight committees are working energetically and constructively, probing problems at the Department of Children and Families and grilling the Patrick administration over its slipshod process for awarding provisional marijuana dispensary licenses.
A methodical moderate, the speaker has also become Beacon Hill’s go-to leader on business-climate concerns. Indeed, he’s taking the political point in pushing to pair a minimum-wage increase with some reforms in the state’s expensive unemployment-insurance program.
Whether he can get meaningful reform in the face of labor opposition remains to be seen. That said, it was DeLeo’s determination on municipal health care changes that largely drove the 2011 legislation credited with saving cities and towns more than $200 million a year. Under DeLeo, the House has also played an instrumental role on a range of other difficult matters, including a tougher ethics law, pension reform, and the 2010 round of education reform. Meanwhile, last year’s House push to raise University of Massachusetts funding enough to allow the university to freeze tuition and fees for in-state undergrads was an overdue investment in higher education.
Among the speaker’s upcoming concerns: legislation on guns and domestic violence, economic-development help for regions outside Interstate 495, and efforts on mental health and substance abuse.
DeLeo brushes aside the notion that he’s become the big figure on Beacon Hill, but says, with a combination of pride and modesty, “I feel like I’m sort of hitting my stride in terms of being speaker.”
Consider that stride hit. DeLeo is an everyday guy who has risen to the occasion by changing the imperial speakership rather than letting it change him.
■ Clarification: In my March 14 column, I quoted Secretary of Education Arne Duncan as saying that 40 percent of Massachusetts high-school graduates take remedial classes when they go to four-year universities. Actually, in 2012, 35 percent of state public high-school graduates enrolled in Massachusetts public institutions of higher education — a category that includes community colleges and state universities but not the University of Massachusetts — took at least one remedial course. The rate was 21 percent at four-year institutions, 64 percent at community colleges.