The more things change, etc.
So say hello to your new, all-powerful speaker of the Massachusetts House! Almost exactly the same as the soon-to-be former, all-powerful speaker of the Massachusetts House! You think 2020 has been a long year? Well, it’s been 1900 in our Legislature forever: old-school, white guy speakers stretching back as far as the eye can see.
We’re closing out one of the most cataclysmic years in this country’s history. The pandemic laid bare so much that ails us: massive inequality; crises in housing, child care and health care; the desperate need for long overdue racial justice, and for radical action on climate change. It’s past time our leaders better reflected the people they serve, which means more women, people of color, and younger folks ascending to power.
But for years, it has been clear that Quincy Democrat Ron Mariano, 74, would be the next speaker. By the time word got out that current Speaker Bob DeLeo would be leaving after 12 years in the top job, the ascension of his fiercely loyal deputy, a fellow centrist, was already a lock.
God forbid the job should finally go to a woman, or a person of color. Or, heaven forfend, that it should be somebody from outside the confines of a narrow circle of men who have been tight for eons. Saints protect us from an actual contest, where members could vote freely without risking political suicide.
Bless Mattapan Representative Russell Holmes, who announced Friday that he would be running for the top job, too. I am in violent disagreement with Holmes’s anti-choice positions, but the Democrat, who is Black, has repeatedly drawn attention to the autocratic ways of his chamber, and to the dearth of diversity in its top ranks.
Holmes has no chance of besting Mariano, however. Mariano has been pulling legislators into line behind DeLeo for nine years, and with considerably less civility than his boss, according to some who have dealt with him but didn’t want to invite his ire by speaking on the record. He’ll do it this time, too.
Naturally, there’s talk Mariano’s new job will be made official in the next few days, before newly-elected legislators take their seats, which makes sense. We wouldn’t want to leave time for real opposition to form, or serious public scrutiny of the heir apparent. Nor would we want a vote to include the idealistic freshmen and -women who will be seated in January, some of whom have not yet been disabused of the fantasy that they can change the way business is done on Beacon Hill.
And Mariano seems pretty attached to the old ways of doing business. In 2007, WCVB reporter Janet Wu asked Mariano about the fact that he had been spending campaign funds on lavish meals at Boston restaurants, including a $1,000 lunch at Capital Grille. He countered, as if this made it better, that his steaks were funded not by ordinary constituents, but by banks and insurance companies seeking influence.
“The committee I’m chairing is very active. It has a lot of financial bills. So, people want access and think that coming to fundraisers gives them access,” Mariano said, according to the article, dug out by progressive commentators Blue Mass Group.
“And does it?” Wu asked.
“Sometimes,” Mariano said.
Oof. Points for honesty, I guess? The thing is, I took a quick spin through Mariano’s recent campaign finance reports and it seems he learned little from that embarrassing episode. He still appears to enjoy the high life, courtesy of his campaign donors. For example, the reports show charges for a $1,300 dinner with legislators at The Palm, and a staff farewell for $780 at Mooo, another steakhouse. There is also a $2,225 charge for lodging at the super swish XV Beacon hotel during last year’s budget negotiations (and in previous years, too).
But hey, maybe this old-schooler will change now, given that lots more people will be watching him. Perhaps the new speaker will signal he’s more in tune with the times by moving more women and people of color into powerful positions. He could even agree to some of the transparency measures reformers have been pushing for years, to show his good intentions.
We can hope. Then again, we’ve been doing that for decades.