Massachusetts House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo on Friday filed a much-anticipated ethics disclosure notifying officials he is in talks for a job with Northeastern University, potentially marking the beginning of the end of his tenure as the longest-serving House leader in Massachusetts history.
“I write to disclose that I intend to begin negotiating prospective employment opportunities with Northeastern University,” wrote DeLeo in a letter to the clerk of the House, Steven James.
The terse document — hand-delivered by DeLeo’s chief of staff, and also submitted to the state Ethics Commission — is the first official sign DeLeo is preparing to resign from the top House post he’s held since January 2009. As of Friday, DeLeo said, he had not “personally” had any discussions with anyone from the school.
The document’s filing officially pushed into the open a campaign by DeLeo’s top lieutenant, Ronald Mariano, to succeed him as speaker. Mariano and his backers have claimed he has more than enough support, including to withstand a challenge announced Friday by Representative Russell E. Holmes, a Mattapan Democrat who charged that the succession plan smacks of a backroom deal.
As speculation ran wild about his future this week, DeLeo on Wednesday issued a carefully worded denial that he was in discussions with the college.
Northeastern officials then said it was “premature to comment” on any conversations. But after DeLeo filed the disclosure Friday, spokeswoman Renata Nyul issued a statement, saying: “We are looking forward to discussing with Speaker DeLeo opportunities to welcome him back to his alma mater.”
She did not say what his duties might be or when he could begin, though Northeastern students return from their holiday break on Jan. 4. DeLeo aides also declined to answer questions about his plans, including when the Winthrop Democrat intends to resign, instead referring to a statement that mirrored, nearly word-for-word, his disclosure.
According to his letter, DeLeo said he asked his personal attorney to contact the state’s Ethics Commission on Wednesday to “discuss my status and to ensure compliance” with the state’s conflict of interest law. DeLeo wrote that he is currently not required to file a disclosure, but chose to “out of an abundance of caution.”
DeLeo added that he’s unaware of any bill “presently” before him that would affect Northeastern University.
DeLeo, 70, would be the first House speaker since 1990 to step down on his own timetable and without the specter of either a criminal investigation or indictment.
If DeLeo soon resigns his speakership, his action would allow Mariano, the House’s majority leader, and his supporters to push for a quick leadership vote, which could come as early as next week, according to two Mariano associates.
As soon as word spread this week that DeLeo might be stepping down, Mariano’s allies moved to display a show of force for the Quincy Democrat, framing it as almost a fait accompli that Mariano, 74, will become the next speaker.
His allies said he had at least 100 pledged votes — 20 more than he needs. There are currently 158 members in the House, 126 of whom are Democrats. DeLeo’s would-be successor would need a simple majority to be elected.
Mariano’s supporters have said they would prefer the vote to come before the end of the year when more than a dozen new state representatives — many of whom are more progressive than Mariano — are sworn in.
Until Friday, no opponent had emerged. Then Holmes, 51, critical of an apparent move to ordain Mariano, said he will challenge the majority leader — adding a new dimension to what was shaping up to be a quiet, bloodless transfer of power.
First elected in 2010, Holmes said he had begun making phone calls to fellow state representatives, though he acknowledged he faces an uphill task. He said some lawmakers he’s spoken to indicated they had committed to Mariano “years ago.”
“I don’t want another backroom deal, which is DeLeo now handing this off to someone else,” Holmes told the Globe on Friday. “None of us really have been a part of the conversation. . . . I fundamentally disagree with the way the building is run. I feel it’s run with a concentration of power all around one person. That’s bad for democracy.”
In his first public comments since speculation surfaced about DeLeo’s future, Mariano acknowledged in a statement Friday that he’d seek the speakership should DeLeo resign, while praising the speaker for his years of leading the House. Mariano, first elected in 1991, has been part of House leadership since 2009, first as assistant majority leader and since, as the number two Democrat in the chamber.
“I believe I have earned the trust and confidence of my colleagues and that I have gained their support to lead the House forward,” Mariano said.
He added that, even amid the uncertainty about the House leadership, the House “must remain focused” on passing key bills, and lobbed criticisms directly at Governor Charlie Baker, saying the Republican sought to “dilute” closely watched policing legislation and “weaken a woman’s right to choose.”
The House on Wednesday rejected an amendment Baker pushed for a Legislature-passed measure expanding abortion access in Massachusetts. Mariano had voted for the original measure, while Holmes voted against it.
Holmes has regularly clashed with DeLeo, criticizing the speaker for the tight grip he’s held on the chamber. Holmes, who is Black and one of 14 members of the Massachusetts Black and Latino Legislative Caucus, has bemoaned the lack of people of color in positions of power, including within DeLeo’s immediate leadership team, which is entirely white.
No person of color has ever been elected Massachusetts House speaker, nor has a woman.
“The most important demographic group for the Democratic Party — Black people — are just not respected” within the House, said Holmes, adding that he wants to bring more parity and empower committee chairs to make decisions.
It was unclear, however, if the message would gain traction, including among the chamber’s more progressive members who operated for years under DeLeo’s and Mariano’s centrist leadership.
The cochairs of the House Progressive Caucus — Tricia Farley-Bouvier of Pittsfield and Jack Patrick Lewis of Framingham — both said that, upon DeLeo officially leaving, they would back Mariano to replace him. They said they were speaking for themselves, not the caucus, and Farley-Bouvier bristled at Holmes’s suggestion that the speakership was being decided in closed-door negotiations.
“I can tell you my situation isn’t a backroom deal. There’s nothing backroom about it,” she said. “It’s important that we have a smooth and steady transition.”
DeLeo’s expected departure will come after six terms and more than 4,340 days atop the House. 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 set the mark in February for longest-serving Massachusetts speaker, a record previously held by a 19th-century Federalist. That longevity made DeLeo an oddity in a chamber often defined by its turnover and, in political circles, a constant source of speculation about his next move.
DeLeo 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. Already, one potential candidate emerged in Juan Pablo Jaramillo, a Revere Democrat and a member of the state Democratic Committee, who set up a fund-raising committee for the seat Friday.
The only other known potential candidate for speaker, Representative Patricia Haddad, has told her supporters they should support Mariano, according to the person close to Mariano.
Deirdre Fernandes of the Globe staff contributed to this report.