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Robert DeLeo is longest-serving House speaker in Massachusetts history

House Speaker Robert DeLeo
House Speaker Robert DeLeoJohn Tlumacki/Globe Staff

He’s described as both a deliberate consensus builder and a power-collecting micro-manager. A humble everyman and a shrewd political operator. To some, he’s a Tom Menino-like figure; others say they’re reminded of Donald Trump.

The portrait of House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo is a muddled one, fueled by a vacuum — self-created to a degree — filled with contrasts, conjecture, and above all else, time.

As of Saturday, the Winthrop Democrat has served 4,029 days as leader of the House of Representatives, the longest tenure in state history and a record previously held by a 19th-century Federalist. That sustained longevity makes DeLeo both an oddity in a chamber oft-defined by its turnover and, in political circles, a constant source of speculation about his next move.

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DeLeo says that’s to the ballot box.

The 69-year-old (he turns 70 next month) said in October that he’s running for reelection to his seat this fall, which would all but ensure he captures a seventh term as speaker in January.

After he and his deputies successfully pushed to revoke the office’s eight-year term limit in 2015, abolishing a measure DeLeo himself had earlier championed, there’s little that would stop his record-setting run atop the chamber he controls.

Several close allies say they’ve never heard DeLeo talk succession plans, even if privately some lawmakers believe majority leader Ronald Mariano or Speaker Pro Tempore Patricia Haddad would have the inside track should DeLeo step away. Whether DeLeo’s next term — his 16th in the House — would be his last is also unclear.

“There’s speculation that it will be,” said Representative Paul Donato, a Medford Democrat and a longtime member of DeLeo’s leadership team. “Among the leadership, there are those who have aspirations to be speaker. But I think that [discussion] will come after the speaker’s reelection in January and he makes a decision if that’s his last term. And that’s his decision to make.”

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DeLeo declined an interview request for this story, and often skips opportunities to discuss his approach and tenure. Asked by reporters Wednesday about surpassing Timothy Bigelow as longest-serving speaker, a claim Bigelow held after presiding for roughly 11 years between 1805 and 1820, DeLeo said having the support to get there is “quite a nice feeling” but that he’s more focused on the issues in front of him.

It left others to hash out what has been a complicated reign. DeLeo took the gavel in 2009 vowing to steady a House upended by the resignation of Salvatore DiMasi, who would become the third straight speaker convicted of a federal crime.

That vow included installing term limits, which were later undone, and pledging to “restore public confidence in the government.” DeLeo’s name came up repeatedly in the state probation department corruption trial in 2014, though he was never charged in the matter and lashed out at federal prosecutors who labeled him an unindicted co-conspirator.

(An appellate court overturned the convictions of three probation officials in the case, ruling in 2016 that while their actions were distasteful, they did not violate state law.)

In the years before and since, DeLeo’s fingerprints have been on nearly every major piece of legislation. A hotly debated 2013 transportation revenue package, laws targeting the state’s opioid crisis, and last year’s overhaul of the state’s school funding formula all advanced with his guidance. The state legalized casino gambling under DeLeo — DiMasi had opposed it — and early in his first term as speaker, raised the state sales tax for the first time in decades.

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He then drove a gun control bill into law in 2014 that John Rosenthal, a developer and founder of Stop Handgun Violence, said made Massachusetts “the national leader on gun violence prevention.”

“And in Massachusetts, it’s Speaker DeLeo,” Rosenthal said Thursday. “His leadership team abandoned him [on that bill]. And he single-handedly made it happen.”

Along the way, DeLeo remolded how the House functions. He rarely moves bills to the chamber floor without clear signs of passage, preferring to lean on backroom discussions with lawmakers to build broad support. It’s an approach that’s compressed floor discussions, compared to those of his predecessors, turning what was a weeklong debate of the budget, for example, into a two- or three-day affair.

Representative David P. Linsky said that’s allowed DeLeo to “negotiate a lot of land mines and a changing membership." And since DeLeo is a centrist Democrat working alongside a moderate Republican governor in Charlie Baker, his sway over the State House has seemingly only grown stronger.

“Oftentimes, he’s set the pace of the building,” said Thomas Finneran, a former House speaker whose own push to eliminate term limits during his eight-year tenure earned him the title of Speaker for Life. It’s a label Finneran, now a lobbyist, both laughs at and calls unfair, for him or DeLeo.

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“[The House] is probably the only place in the world where experience is discounted as a negative," he said. “I think the duration and the durability of the speaker is something to almost — this might not be the word for it — but I’m almost in awe."

To critics, however, the style has at times meant slow movement, and more often, quashed debate, allowing little dissent to spill into public view. And when it has, they say, retribution isn’t far behind. Former state representative Jay Kaufman’s public claims last year that DeLeo threatened him with losing his chairmanship if he didn’t support a 2013 tax package drew a swift rebuke from the speaker, who called him a “liar.”

After DeLeo’s budget chairman, Brian Dempsey, widely considered to be DeLeo’s heir apparent, announced in 2017 he was resigning, Representative Russell Holmes called on various caucuses “to be strong and united in our selection of the next speaker.” Days later, DeLeo shuffled Holmes from his post as a committee vice chairman.

Holmes, a Mattapan Democrat, said that in building his record tenure, DeLeo is “very reminiscent to me of the president of the United States," with a team molded, he said, through “fear and intimidation.”

“We, as a House, have become complacent,” Holmes said. “Essentially, we all have kind of bowed.”

Former representative Cory Atkins, who left the Legislature last year after serving as a committee chairwoman under DeLeo, also likened him and his lieutenants to those in the White House. “Not as verbose as Trump,” she said, “but they’re just as revengeful.” Atkins was among those who voted to lift term limits in 2015 but described it as a “calculated survival decision," adding: “I just thought it was going to be for one term.”

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“DeLeo did not start out this way,” the Concord Democrat said. "He put in more reforms than had been passed in the previous 25 years. He put more women in chairmanships. He restored term limits for the speaker. He passed pension reform.

“I don’t know what happened when, but he turned a corner. And he’s not the speaker that I signed on to elect.”

It’s a description DeLeo’s supporters roundly deny. Donato, one of his second assistant majority leaders, said DeLeo has never turned down ideas from lawmakers. “He tells us,” he said of DeLeo’s leadership team, “that the most important thing is to get input from the members and bring that information back to him.”

Plus, former lawmakers say, blow-back to any long-term leadership style may be unavoidable.

“Somebody has to make the hard decisions and lead in a certain direction,” said Dempsey, now a lobbyist. “It’s very difficult to lead an institution for as long as he has, with new members, new issues, controversies. He’s been a steady hand during some difficult times."

DeLeo, a former budget chairman himself who was popular among members in his rise to speaker, often does things quietly, his allies say. He rarely seeks out media coverage, and in one-on-one conversations, is prone to dote on his grandchildren and prognosticate on the Red Sox’s World Series chances.

Rick Sullivan, a onetime chief of staff to former governor Deval Patrick, said even in times his boss was locked in tense disagreements with DeLeo, the speaker would leave notes of appreciation at the corner office. “Dropping off a cigar and saying thanks for what you do,” Sullivan recalled.

DeLeo may be the most powerful person on Beacon Hill, but political ambition, his friends say, isn’t what drives him.

“The closest person I can draw similarities to is Tom Menino,” Representative Michael Moran, a Brighton Democrat, said of Boston’s late and longest-serving mayor who never sought higher office.

“He’s still Bob DeLeo for Winthrop. He was a selectmen and a baseball player on the [Boston] Latin School team,” Moran said. “There’s always the other side that will tell you what a bad person he is and members who are not happy. But if you know him, he’s a very humble guy.”

On Thursday, DeLeo spent part of the morning in a fourth-floor conference room speaking to the League of Women Voters. He spouted off an array of laws the Legislature has passed to elevate women — a pay equity law and one to protect pregnant women from abuse in the workplace — before addressing what drew them all there: The League, too, was celebrating a historic milestone, in its case, its 100th anniversary.

“Everyone — everyone — in this room should be proud of this amazing accomplishment,” he said.

And with that and a photo opp, DeLeo was off to a meeting. As he was ushered from the room, an aide told a waiting reporter that DeLeo didn’t have time to talk.

Material from the State House News Service was used in this report.


Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout.