Ron Mariano doesn’t plan to hang around long as speaker of the Massachusetts House — of course he doesn’t, he’s 74 — and that’s the best thing about his tenure to date.
The old guard at the State House won a major victory late last month when Mariano, the longstanding House No. 2, swept into the speaker’s chair recently vacated by his good friend Bob DeLeo, the longest-serving speaker in history.
Most people expect that very little will change in the transition, and maybe they’re right. But Mariano gave an interview to Sharman Sacchetti of Channel 5 this week that was nothing short of clueless. DeLeo was many things, but never clueless.
Mariano, who’s from Quincy, listed his priorities as offshore wind power and health care. But for a self-proclaimed health care advocate, taking over in the middle of a global pandemic, he didn’t bring much to the table.
When Sacchetti asked how he thought the state’s sluggish vaccine rollout was going, Mariano responded: “I have no idea.” When she asked if he was looking into it, he said, “I just got here.”
Just got here? Sure, he just ascended to the speaker’s job. But he’s been in the State House for nearly 30 years.
Just got here?
Sure, it was just one (disastrous) interview. But I found it telling.
Mariano has moved up the ladder over the years based on his skills as an inside player — primarily, his ability to keep other representatives in line, help speakers accomplish their objectives, and keep his mouth shut. Asking him about his “priorities” is almost a trick question, because he’s never had any policy priorities. His priority has been corralling votes.
That was fine for his old role. But maybe not so much for his new one, in which speaking for himself and his chamber is now of central importance. It’s a job that requires a lot more than a old-school facility for keeping your mouth shut.
The House was really at a crossroads in this election, and it’s unfortunate that more members don’t seem to have viewed it that way. DeLeo was a strong leader, albeit one who ruled in an excessively iron-fisted fashion. The job had practically been passed onto him — as it had to Sal DiMasi before him. For close to two decades, speakers have been not so much elected as anointed, a tradition Mariano’s election has continued.
Whatever options may have existed in the last election for speaker were quickly foreclosed. Representative Russell Holmes of Mattapan ran an unabashed protest campaign. He complained that the fix was in — and it was — but he didn’t have nearly enough support to do anything about it.
Another possibility, Representative Aaron Michlewitz, has instead been installed as Mariano’s deputy and speaker-in-waiting. Turning the gavel over to a younger generation would have been an important change all by itself.
But change is a concept that rarely gains traction in the Legislature, and especially in the House. There hasn’t been a close race for speaker in a generation, or even a speaker whose ascent wasn’t preordained.
So the second-most-powerful public official in Massachusetts is an undistinguished hack who has no priorities, and no plans — other than, perhaps, boosting his pension, which will eventually be pegged to his higher salary as speaker.
Maybe Mariano will surprise us all. Perhaps under that unimpressive exterior beats the heart of a thought leader prepared to guide Massachusetts forward in the final act of his public service.
Or maybe not. Maybe now our fate rests partly in the hands of a man who doesn’t know or have any curiosity, who’s been around since 1991 but somehow just got here.
The House will be fine — in the limited sense that it will continue to function much as it did before.
But for the sake of the state, I hope the new speaker is good for more than counting heads.
Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.