He is nothing if not ready.
For more than a decade, state Representative Ronald Mariano has played the role of loyal deputy to House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo, negotiating the politics and details of most complex legislation, corralling votes from members, and quietly helping reshape Massachusetts law.
Along the way, Mariano, the House’s majority leader, has also built a constituency for himself — steadily amassing support among the House’s mercurial membership, positioning himself for the day that DeLeo decides to step aside — and he has done so without threatening the speaker’s hold on the chamber.
The number two Democrat in the House, Mariano has long imagined the day when he would be number one.
At a commencement speech at Quincy College last year, Mariano, a Quincy Democrat, ribbed the school’s then-president, saying that if Mariano had to call the former lawmaker “President,” he should be called “Speaker Mariano.”
“As long as he doesn’t tell Bob DeLeo,” Mariano quipped. “Please, please don’t tell Bob DeLeo.”
Now the day for which Mariano has been patiently waiting may be near. With DeLeo preparing to leave Beacon Hill for a job at Northeastern University, Mariano’s supporters say he has more than enough votes lined to succeed the Winthrop Democrat.
At 74, the longtime House insider would be among the oldest speakers in Massachusetts history, and is four years the senior of DeLeo, who has led the House for a record 12 years.
“He’s very ready for this,” said former state representative Brian S. Dempsey, who himself was seen as a potential heir to DeLeo before he resigned in 2017 and became a lobbyist.
“It’s not so much going out and trying to [be the speaker],” Dempsey said. “It’s other members saying, ‘You’d be good at the right time, when the time comes.’ That’s certainly what has happened in Ron’s case.”
But Mariano’s long path to the speakership — made possible through alliances built over years of dinners and closed-door talks — has chafed some progressive Democratic lawmakers. Representative Russell Holmes, a Black Mattapan Democrat who is mounting a longshot challenge for the post, calls Mariano’s expected ascension the latest example of leadership being passed by insiders from “white guy to white guy to white guy to white guy.”
In its 240 years, the House has never had a person of color serve as speaker. Nor a woman.
Still, for many of Mariano’s supporters, including some progressives who don’t often align with the more centrist Mariano, they say he’s earned the job after showing loyalty to his colleagues, and to a long line of speakers.
“I committed 15 years ago,” said state Representative Michael J. Moran, a close Mariano ally. “There never was a moment where Ron Mariano ever entertained running against Bob DeLeo. He just waited his time.”
Mariano declined an interview request for this story. But in interviews with more than a dozen people, including lawmakers, former state representatives, lobbyists, and Mariano colleagues, a picture emerged of a congenial former elementary school teacher who’s kept his hand deep in the workings of the House chamber for decades.
First elected to the House in a special election in 1991, Mariano has often led talks on thorny legislation, especially on health care and financial services. He was at the negotiating table for the state’s 2006 landmark health care reform law that served as the template for the federal Affordable Care Act. He was a key supporter of the state’s move to deregulate the auto insurance market 12 years ago. And in the past week, he helped finish negotiations on extending coverage for telehealth services.
“If there’s one person who has been in every aspect of every major piece of legislation in our contemporary history in Massachusetts, it’s Ron Mariano,” said Jeffrey Sanchez, a former House budget chairman who served in the Legislature from 2003 to 2019. “He loves the institution. This man loves being in the building.”
Lawmakers and others described Mariano as a “macho guy” and a “no-bull” leader who candidly lets members know where he stands on their proposals, but will also stand by his commitments. That, they say, also makes him a known entity and easier to pin down than DeLeo, who can often be noncommittal about priorities and is apt to take it personally when members step out of line.
“If he doesn’t like you, he either dismisses you or dumps on you,” one former lawmaker said of Mariano. “But there’s nobody I’d rather share a foxhole with in a fight. If he gives you his word — it’s done.”
Mariano is also seen as the consummate State House insider, who has built a $470,000 campaign war chest, in part with checks from lobbyists, health care professionals, and others who once floated within Beacon Hill’s tight-knit inner circle. That’s included former House speakers Thomas Finneran and Charles Flaherty, and former Senate President Therese Murray.
While the unassuming DeLeo prefers to spend time in his hometown of Winthrop, Mariano is comfortable with a coterie of legislators and lobbyists that one former State House aide called a “late-night-get-a-steak group.”
“They call themselves Ronny and the Boys,” the aide said.
Still, Mariano has endeared himself to a broader pool of fellow lawmakers, including more liberal representatives. He often spends formal sessions working the floor of the House, talking and laughing with legislators, and one current lawmaker said he’s courted members with invitations to dinners and sporting events.
“Even members inclined to support someone farther on the left like him personally,” the legislator said.
Those personal ties have proven key in building the support needed to succeed DeLeo. The co-chairs of the House Progressive Caucus publicly came out in support of Mariano, and other progressive lawmakers have described Mariano both as accommodating and even charming.
“For the record, I like Ron Mariano. He’s always been really honest with me. He’s always had an open door,” said Representative Maria Robinson, a Framingham Democrat and progressive who said that Mariano treated her well even after she publicly raised concerns about DeLeo’s leadership style and stepped out of line with leadership.
“I don’t feel like [Mariano] holds that against me, and that’s important to me,” she said.
He had the same basic makeup even before he arrived on Beacon Hill, friends say. A Quincy Point native, he has a bachelor’s degree from Northeastern and a master’s in education from UMass Boston, which he put to work as an elementary school teacher in Quincy, including at the Snug Harbor Community School in the city’s Germantown neighborhood.
He later served for roughly 20 years on the city’s school committee, where he was often involved in labor negotiations and working as comfortably with parents as he did with the mayor, said Richard DeCristofaro, a former Quincy superintendent who also coached basketball with Mariano in the city.
“He had the same skills then, the same way of ingratiating himself with players, knowing when to talk with them,” said DeCristofaro, now Quincy College’s president. “He makes connections with so many people.”
Politically, Mariano has a reputation as a moderate to conservative Democrat, voting against a signature measure of progressive Democrats to boost taxes on the state’s millionaires. But several liberal legislators and a lobbyist said Mariano has also aligned with them in significant and controversial battles.
Arline Isaacson, co-chair of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus, noted that Mariano cast votes in support of same-sex marriage during some of the earliest debates, when most lawmakers still opposed it.
“I didn’t see it coming because of his persona,” said Isaacson, who was so delighted, she called Mariano to thank him, confessing her surprise. “He laughed,” she said, suggesting that, “for him, it was like, candidly, a no-brainer.”
Likewise, state Representative Lindsay Sabadosa, a progressive first-term Northampton Democrat, called Mariano charming and a “very good politician.”
Sabadosa expected objections from Mariano to a bill known as the ROE Act, which reproductive rights advocates championed to codify and expand abortion access in Massachusetts.
And indeed, Mariano publicly expressed misgivings about one of the bill’s original features — eliminating a requirement that anyone under 18 get parental or judicial consent for an abortion. The Legislature ultimately scaled back the language to require parental or judicial consent for those under 16 — two years younger than under current law. (Lawmakers and Governor Charlie Baker continue to wrangle over the measure.)
But Sabadosa said she was impressed with Mariano’s response when she shared with him real-life stories in their discussions.
“He listened to me and said, ‘I get it,’” she said.
Katherine Craven, a former budget adviser to Finneran and now the chief financial officer at Babson College, said Mariano always treated her with respect at the State House, which has long been criticized as a bastion of male chauvinism.
“There is a lot of sexism in that older generation, and he never exhibited any of that,” she said.
All the while, Mariano has steadily lined up support for the day when there would again be a change at the top of the House. Supporters say Mariano likely has more than 100 votes committed to him, far more than he needs to succeed DeLeo.
It’s all made for an uphill climb for Holmes, a former chairman of the Black and Latino Legislative Caucus who vowed to challenge Mariano’s bid for speaker as soon as DeLeo publicly disclosed plans to negotiate a new job at Northeastern. Holmes pointed to the deaths of civil rights activists US Representatives Elijah Cummings and John Lewis over the past two years and said the baton of Black leadership must be passed.
“This is what the lunch counter looks like to me in my generation,” said Holmes, 51. “Sure, I’m most likely going to get smoked [in the speaker’s race] but that did not stop John Lewis walking on that bridge. That did not stop people from sitting at lunch counters.”
However, Holmes, who once said DeLeo ran a “dictatorship” and has long challenged House leadership to behave equitably, has not won over many of the colleagues he would need to defeat Mariano.
He proposed sweeping changes to the House’s rules that would take away the perks and privileges of leadership. He also alienated some in the progressive caucus by voting recently against the measure to expand abortion rights in Massachusetts.
But Holmes said he feels the need to challenge Mariano for the leadership, which was passed from former House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi, who was convicted of federal public corruption charges in 2011; to DeLeo, a top DiMasi deputy; and now, in all likelihood, to Mariano. And some on Beacon Hill speculate it could eventually flow to Aaron Michlewitz, the House budget chairman, who was also once a DiMasi aide.
“DiMasi left here in shame,” said Holmes. “We’re still living under the lineage he put in — white guy to white guy to white guy to white guy. It’s not right.”
But Robinson, the House’s first elected Korean-American, said she believes Mariano is committed to making sure that there are voices “represented from across the spectrum” in the House.
“Yes, he might be an old white man,” Robinson said, “but he recognizes the world is very different than when he first came into the Legislature, and the expectations of what people want from a leadership team in terms of diversity — not just of opinion but also of background — is going to be important.”
Now, many believe it’s only a matter of time until that new leadership team takes hold. Though DeLeo has yet to officially announce his resignation, Mariano supporters are preparing for a succession vote in the coming days.
After that, the same type of quiet jockeying Mariano mastered over the years could begin anew, as he fashions his leadership team and sets the House agenda.
“This is our version of a Biden presidency,” said one progressive lawmaker who did not want to be named, but who is not unhappy about the likelihood of Mariano — an entrenched centrist — being speaker. The lawmaker said progressives should begin unifying around their choice for the next speaker, after Mariano.
“The moment one speaker ascends, the next speaker fight begins.”
Todd Wallack contributed to this report.
Matt Stout can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him @mattpstout. Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at Stephanie.Ebbert@globe.com. Follow her @StephanieEbbert. Andrea Estes can be reached at email@example.com.