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House Speaker Robert DeLeo rumored to be stepping down, ending 12-year reign

He is the longest-serving speaker in Massachusetts history

Speaker Robert DeLeo has held his House seat since 1991.
Speaker Robert DeLeo has held his House seat since 1991.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Virtually everyone on Beacon Hill sprang into a frenzy Wednesday over speculation that House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo was preparing to leave his post to accept a teaching job at his alma mater, Northeastern University — except, that is, for DeLeo himself, whose office offered a carefully worded denial, while he dodged questions as he left the State House.

“The speaker has had no such talks with, much less does he have any agreement with, Northeastern University,” said Catherine Williams, DeLeo spokeswoman.

DeLeo — the longest-serving speaker in Massachusetts history — had not filed an ethics disclosure form with the House clerk Wednesday afternoon that would be required if he is in negotiations for a job with an outside entity.

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His office was less willing to address whether DeLeo representatives have had discussions with the school. As for Northeastern itself? A senior administrator issued what could be seen as an artfully worded statement, saying “it is premature to comment” on any conversations between DeLeo and the university.

The rest of Beacon Hill didn’t seem to think it was too early to discuss, at least in highly animated hallway conversations and breathless telephone calls from private offices. Speculation roared, not only about DeLeo’s departure, but who would replace him, with most attention focusing on Ronald Mariano, a Quincy Democrat and the House’s majority leader long seen as a potential successor to DeLeo.

Mariano declined to comment through an aide Wednesday night. But Representative Michael J. Moran, a Brighton Democrat and member of DeLeo’s leadership team, quickly threw his support behind Mariano in a potential leadership fight.

“I am 100 percent confident that if and when Speaker DeLeo decides to leave, Ron Mariano will be the next speaker of the House,” said Moran, adding that he had no direct knowledge of DeLeo’s plans. “I don’t have any information. But [the saying] where there’s smoke, there’s fire still is relevant here.”

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DeLeo did not answer questions as he left the State House alongside James Kennedy, the House’s chief legal counsel, on Wednesday night, telling a trailing reporter “no” when asked if he’d stop to talk.

Wearing a yellow baseball cap and a mask, DeLeo silently loaded a bag into his black SUV, saying nothing when asked if he was stepping down or to respond to reports about him leaving to go to Northeastern. He then got into the vehicle and drove away.

If he leaves, DeLeo would be the first speaker in roughly three decades to step down on his own timetable, without the specter of either a criminal investigation or indictment. The previous three House speakers were ultimately convicted of federal crimes.

His departure would come after six terms and more than 4,340 days atop the House and would have a seismic impact on Beacon Hill. He has held a tight grip on which bills flow to the floor, who receives powerful committee appointments and other assignments, and ultimately, what becomes law. He has been famous for rewarding loyalty and punishing members who disagreed with him, publicly or in private.

DeLeo, 70, set the mark in February for longest-serving Massachusetts speaker, a record previously held by a 19th-century Federalist. That sustained longevity made DeLeo both an oddity in a chamber often defined by its turnover and, in political circles, a constant source of speculation about his next move.

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Indeed, whispers have floated through Beacon Hill for years about a would-be DeLeo exit, enough so that DeLeo said as early as October 2019 that he’d seek reelection this year — 13 months ahead of an election in which voters delivered him to a 16th term.

Asked last fall if he ever was going to retire, DeLeo laughed. “I’m not sure if I’m ready to say I’d die on the job or anything like that,” he said.

DeLeo, a Winthrop resident, was unopposed in his reelection last month to the House, a seat he has held since 1991.

If DeLeo resigns, a special election would be called for his House seat. And depending on the timing of his departure, the House could elect a new speaker, including after the new Legislature is sworn in on Jan. 6.

DeLeo took the speaker’s gavel in January 2009, vowing to steady a House upended by the resignation of Salvatore DiMasi, who was later convicted on federal corruption charges.

That included a move to install term limits, and “restore public confidence in the government,” DeLeo said then. But six years later, the House voted to undo the four-term cap after DeLeo said his position had “evolved,” and argued that the House would be better served by an experienced leader.

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.

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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.

Along the way, DeLeo molded how the House functions. He has rarely moved 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. To critics, however, the style has at times meant slow movement, and more often, quashed debate, allowing little dissent to spill into public — or even private — view.

Former representative Cory Atkins, who left the Legislature last year after serving as a committee chairwoman under DeLeo, likened him and his lieutenants earlier this year to those in the White House. “Not as verbose as Trump,” she said, “but they’re just as revengeful.”

His allies have disputed those descriptions, describing a former budget chairman who was popular among members in his rise to speaker, and who often prefers to do things quietly.

When he retires, DeLeo, who earns $169,000 between his leadership stipend and other pay, could be in line to receive a pension worth more than $100,000 a year, given his decades as a public employee.

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Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout. Andrea Estes can be reached at andrea.estes@globe.com. Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.