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OPINION

With Speaker Mariano, progressives get what they deserve

Progressive activists helped defeat at least one progressive who could have challenged Mariano.

Rep. Ron Mariano
Rep. Ron MarianoLane Turner/Globe Staff/file

So, it looks like leadership of the Massachusetts House will be handed off from one white guy to another.

It also looks like some of the people complaining about the lack of diversity in leadership are the same people who helped make it happen.

If there’s no progressive alternative to Ronald Mariano — the 74-year-old lawmaker from Quincy who says he has the votes to succeed House Speaker Robert DeLeo, who stepped down Monday to reportedly take a job at Northeastern — it’s because progressive activists helped defeat a progressive who could have challenged him. That would be former state Representative Jeffrey Sánchez, who, as chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means committee, failed the progressive purity test and was kicked out of office. It’s a classic story of political consequences, when the perfect becomes the enemy of the possible — more specifically, when the candidate deemed more ideologically perfect wins the election battle. Meanwhile, the power that comes with seniority is lost, along with the chance to make a difference, not just a statement.

Sánchez currently works as a senior adviser at Rasky Partners, where he consults on health care, finance, and other public policy issues. Concerning his involuntary exit from electoral politics, he now says, “Una puerta se cierra, otro mundo se aparece.” Translation, provided by Sánchez: “One door closes, another world appears.”

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In 2017, a promising door opened when DeLeo picked Sánchez, a self-described “practical progressive,” as the first Latino to be the chamber’s budget chief. The role can be a bridge to the speaker’s office. But in 2018, Sánchez lost his reelection bid when progressive groups decided he wasn’t progressive enough. They rallied instead behind newcomer Nika Elugardo, who now represents a district that includes parts of Jamaica Plain, Roslindale, Mission Hill, and Brookline.

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I’m not saying Sánchez would have won a speakership battle (or that Elugardo is bad at her job). But Sánchez would have been an attractive alternative to Mariano, more than 20 years younger, with a much more progressive record. The son of parents who were born in Puerto Rico, Sánchez grew up in the Mission Main projects, and certainly would have changed the lens of House leadership. He also knew how to build coalitions and count votes. His biggest sin was omitting language from the 2019 state budget, at DeLeo’s behest, that would have added protections for immigrants. Liberal activists also complained he carried out DeLeo’s marching orders in general — at the expense of their causes. Yet they now face the prospect of a speaker even less sympathetic to their agenda.

For example, Progressive Massachusetts, a statewide advocacy group that backed Elugardo, is now warning about post-DeLeo dangers on its website: “If you’ve been worried about the conservative and authoritarian drift of the MA House under Speaker Bob DeLeo, you should be even more worried about what’s to come under a Speaker Ron Mariano, who is more conservative than DeLeo and no less top-down in his approach to legislating.”

As Carol Steinberg, a lawyer and disability advocate who lives in Jamaica Plain and supported Sánchez, noted, via an email exchange, “You can say that the goal of achieving diversity in the leadership was undermined by progressives themselves.”

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House members, including progressives, appear primed to make Mariano the next speaker. Representative Russell Holmes, a Black Mattapan Democrat, is mounting a long-shot challenge. But while Holmes deserves praise for standing up to DeLeo, his own record includes some non-progressive history. For example, Holmes joined Republicans in an effort to restrict welfare recipients from drawing cash with their electronic benefit cards and ban spending outside of New England.

In a recent opinion piece in Commonwealth Magazine, Representatives Jonathan Hecht from Watertown and Denise Provost from Somerville, who are retiring from office, called Mariano’s ascension “the culmination of insider politics” and urged progressives “to cry foul.” Yet as Sánchez points out, Mariano got to this point because he nailed down votes from colleagues, including progressives. To build support, said Sánchez, you have to “talk to people, work your issues. Don’t use the press to get things out. Engage with the members . . . Mariano talked to people.”

Progressive advocates also must be willing to accept compromise as something other than evil. Otherwise, they get what they deserve.


Joan Vennochi can be reached at joan.vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @joan_vennochi.