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Ronald Mariano vows to increase diversity in Massachusetts House leadership after he becomes speaker Wednesday

Former speaker DeLeo says goodbye to the Legislature after nearly 30 years

Ronald Mariano in his office on Monday.
Ronald Mariano in his office on Monday.Matthew J. Lee/Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff

The day before he is expected to be elected speaker of the House, Ronald Mariano on Tuesday pledged to make his leadership team more diverse than the current all-white group.

“I feel an obligation to put together a team that’s representative of the diversity of the body,” said Mariano in one of his first interviews since emerging as the likely successor to House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo, whose resignation was to take effect Tuesday evening.

Mariano, a Quincy Democrat who serves as House majority leader, said he will also take steps to make the business of the House of Representatives more transparent and less insulated from the public, though he didn’t offer specifics. DeLeo has been criticized for frequently operating outside of public view, relying on a close group of insiders to implement policies he championed.

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“I think there is an opportunity to make some changes,” Mariano said. “We’ll discuss some of those in the rules debate and I will listen to the arguments.”

On Wednesday Mariano, 74, is expected to be supported by the overwhelming majority of House members, becoming the oldest speaker since at least the Civil War, records show.

Previously, DeLeo, 70, held that distinction.

Mariano’s remarks came on the same day that DeLeo said his goodbyes to his House colleagues after nearly 30 years as a representative. The chamber was only half full — sessions are being held remotely because of COVID-19.

Speaker Robert DeLeo delivered his farewell speech in the the House Chambers at the State House.
Speaker Robert DeLeo delivered his farewell speech in the the House Chambers at the State House.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

In his 30-minute farewell speech, DeLeo ticked off legislative accomplishments and individually thanked family members, his colleagues, and his staffers.

He thanked his parents “who taught me values like hard work and persistence, fairness and respect.” He described his mother, a school cafeteria worker, as “the type of lunch lady who could tell when a student was hungry. She made sure each kid was fed, whether or not they had money, and was treated with dignity. She taught me everyone deserves an equal shot in life. It’s the job of legislators to make sure people get that.”

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He described how awestruck he felt the night before he was first elected speaker 12 years ago.

“I remember visiting the chamber at dusk,” he said, “thinking of it like one of the famous ballparks I like to visit, and feeling an immense gratitude that I would be leading this esteemed institution; an institution I had revered my entire career.”

He continued, “Sometimes it feels like those 12 years went by in an instant. Yet during that time Massachusetts has been led by two governors, from opposite parties, and four Senate presidents. And this House has passed major legislation with all of them.”

He cited “landmark legislation” enacted during his speakership, including measures to protect transgender people; create an autonomous Early Education and Child Care Department; and overhaul the state’s criminal justice and police policies and practices.

When he was finished, members applauded for several minutes. As he walked off the dais, he elbow bumped several members and staffers, and shook a few hands.

Mariano’s election would cap a political career spanning more than 40 years, spiced with rumors that he has long coveted the House’s top job. But, in his interview with the Globe, Mariano insisted he hasn’t been planning his ascension to speaker for years.

“I never started out wanting to be the speaker,” he said. “I got involved in politics a long time ago. I was on the School Committee for 18 years. Then I ran for rep. I voted on policy at the School Committee and then in the Legislature. Now I’m in the position where I can make policy and influence the decisions that other legislators make.

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“This is the culmination of my activity in the House of Representatives. You can’t get any higher. I don’t want to run for president. I’m not old enough, " he joked.

Mariano’s openness to adding diversity to his leadership team addresses a sore spot for some House members. Boston Representative Russell Holmes, a Black legislator from Mattapan who briefly campaigned for speaker before withdrawing when it was clear he would lose, had criticized House leadership as something passed “from white guy to white guy to white guy.”

“White men should not be making this decision,” Holmes has said. “You walk into the speaker’s office and all you see is nothing but pictures of white men, as if they were the only folks in the 300 some-odd years to run this Legislature. The time has come for change.”

Holmes pointed out that DeLeo’s immediate leadership team is entirely white and just one of the House members on the Massachusetts Black and Latino Legislative caucus holds a chairmanship — Frank A. Moran, who heads the House Committee on Personnel and Administration.

Mariano acknowledged that House leadership should reflect both the racial makeup and the political spectrum of the members.

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Currently, there are 18 members of color in the 160-member chamber; when the new Legislature is sworn in, that number will rise to 26.

”We do have a Black and Latino caucus and a progressive caucus. I think we can have a discussion about where they fit into the leadership of this body,” he said.

Mariano said one of his top priorities will be to provide financial help to struggling community hospitals, which provide low cost care to low-income residents.

“Insurance companies won’t pay community hospitals the same rate they pay Mass. General,” Mariano said. “Community hospitals are taking poor people. How do we make up that discrepancy? I’m committed to putting community hospitals on solid financial footing so they can provide low cost health care.”

One likely member of Mariano’s leadership team, Representative Michael J. Moran of Boston, said he has known for years that Mariano’s day would come.

“I committed 15 years ago,” said Moran. “There never was a moment where Ron Mariano ever entertained running against Bob DeLeo. He just waited his time.”

A few months ago, Mariano shaved off his trademark mustache, but he said it wasn’t to burnish his image in anticipation of his run for speaker.

“It was a protest against everyone growing beards during the pandemic,” he said. “I wanted to shave my head but my wife told me if I did I’d be out on the street.”

Matt Stout of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

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Andrea Estes can be reached at andrea.estes@globe.com.