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‘We can’t just have another back-room deal,’ says Russell Holmes, a long-shot candidate for Mass. House speaker

Representative Russell E. Holmes said he plans to challenge Ron Mariano for the speakership of the Massachusetts House.
Representative Russell E. Holmes said he plans to challenge Ron Mariano for the speakership of the Massachusetts House.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Representative Russell Holmes isn’t a gadfly, but he’s never been afraid of a fight, either.

Throughout his career he has been a persistent critic of business as usual at the State House, never particularly concerned about how it might affect his own standing in the building.

So it didn’t come as a complete surprise that the five-term representative from Mattapan is running for speaker of the House, a job that has been all but guaranteed to Majority Leader Ron Mariano, who could be chosen as early as Monday.

Holmes has almost no chance of winning. In a way, that’s exactly his point.

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“I’m trying to make the entire constituency of this Commonwealth aware that we can’t just have another back-room deal where the decisions are made to have the next speaker in place — and probably the next speaker, [Representative Aaron] Michlewitz — in place after that,” Holmes said Friday. “That’s not how this game is supposed to work.”

Longtime Speaker Robert DeLeo set the wheels of succession in motion by disclosing that he is negotiating to accept a post at Northeastern University. The departure of DeLeo, the longest-serving speaker in state history, comes as a mild surprise; after all, he was just reelected to the House by his Winthrop constituents.

Holmes and DeLeo have their own tortured history. They had a very public falling-out years ago, after Holmes ripped DeLeo’s newly announced leadership team for its lack of diversity. Backbenchers don’t publicly criticize speakers — especially on such sensitive grounds as race — but Holmes never backed down.

They made peace, sort of, earlier this year to work together on potentially landmark police reform legislation that is currently pending in the House.

“With police reform, we got in the room and said, ‘Let’s agree to work together,’ ” Holmes said. “We’ve been much more cordial over the last six months.”

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The succession plan appears to have been crafted long ago. Mariano, a member of House leadership since 2009, has been a speaker-in-waiting for years. And now Michlewitz — who began on Beacon Hill as an aide to then-speaker Sal DiMasi — is about to be anointed as the next speaker-in-waiting.

If it all sounds a bit insular, as though a handful of white guys run the House, there’s a reason for that. That’s exactly what’s going on here.

“We arrive here as equals, we should have a voice in who our leadership team is, we should have a voice in how legislation is drafted, we should have a true voice in the budget,” Holmes said. “None of those things today exist, but for a few people.”

Why, I asked Holmes, do so many reps play along? His answer was pretty simple. It’s about leadership positions, which come with substantial pay hikes. It’s about perks. It’s about ego.

“They get the money, they get better offices, they get better parking spots,” Holmes said. “But that’s all about me, me, me. Which is the opposite of what we should be doing.”

Holmes didn’t try to sugarcoat the long-shot nature of his bid. His “campaign manager” is John Rogers, who lost to DeLeo in his own bid for speaker back in the day. After that, the Holmes coalition is vaguely defined.

“I’ve got some progressives, I’ve got some angry white dudes, I’ve got some people in the Black and Latino Caucus,” he said. “It’s not many. But that doesn’t mean I’m not going to go at it.”

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Win or lose, Holmes is making an important point about whose voices get heard at the State House. Demands for change, and equity, have reverberated all over the country in 2020. But they remain a faint echo on Beacon Hill. There, entrenched insiders rely on the belief that hardly anyone knows who the speaker is, and that dissenting voices can easily be brought in line.

They may be right (again). But Holmes is pleading with us to understand what’s at stake.

“When we allow the voice of a limited few people to be the ones that run this place, it suppresses the voices of the people who sent us here,” Holmes said. “And that to me is unacceptable. The people in my district are equal to people in the speaker’s district, they’re equal to people in the majority leader’s district, and they should never feel that they’re unequal.”


Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at adrian.walker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.