The vacancy in the Legislature soon to be created by state Senator Joseph Boncore’s upcoming resignation is the latest example of the need to rethink Massachusetts’ process of filling sudden open seats in the State House.
Boncore — who has represented the First Suffolk and Middlesex District that includes Revere, Winthrop, parts of Cambridge, East Boston, the North End, Beacon Hill, the Seaport, and other areas of Boston since 2016 — announced Wednesday he was stepping down to become the CEO of the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council, the powerful trade group whose leader has traditionally served as one of the state’s most influential lobbyists. Boncore had been reelected to the state Senate in November.
The Legislature’s turnover problem isn’t anything new. Lawmakers, some in key committee leadership positions, keep dropping out in the middle of their terms, with many of them leaving to take high-earning lobbying posts. Of course, they have every right to leave for better jobs. The problem is what happens next: They get to unduly control the process of electing their successor.
For one, special contests have slowly become a misnomer — they’re elections that are not so special anymore. They’re also an additional cost to taxpayers while being undemocratic. According to a recent MassINC report on electoral reform, “nearly one-quarter of state representatives and over one-third of state senators currently holding office first entered the Legislature through a special election. These are generally extremely low-turnout contests held on short notice, providing considerable advantage to those with established political connections.”
Boncore’s impending departure comes after House minority leader Brad Hill announced his resignation once he was appointed to the Massachusetts Gaming Commission, in August. Claire Cronin, the number-two Democrat in the House, was nominated in June by President Biden to serve as US ambassador to Ireland. Her appointment, and ensuing resignation from the House, is pending her US Senate confirmation. In another potential vacancy, Maria Robinson, the state representative for Framingham, is reportedly being considered as head of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
In Boncore’s district, special elections have become somewhat of a tradition. Three out of the last four senators for this district — all male — have been elected in a mid-term vacancy: Michael LoPresti Jr. served in this seat when he won a special election in 1973 kicked off by the resignation of Mario Umana; Anthony Petruccelli, at the time a state representative who had also been elected via a special election, ran and won the Senate seat when Robert Travaglini (who succeeded LoPresti) resigned in 2007 to launch a lobbying firm and triggered a special election; in early 2016, Petrucelli similarly resigned in the middle of the term to take a lobbying job and Boncore was elected in the ensuing special contest.
Because the process of a special election is officially triggered when a lawmaker issues a resignation letter, there is an incentive to play scheduling games to tip the scale one way or another. “[Boncore] knows he is controlling this with the timing of his letter,” Secretary of State William Galvin said in an interview.
Galvin offered Hill’s special election, already scheduled, as a parallel. “I reached out to [Hill] when our office became aware of his appointment. I saw an opportunity to consolidate the elections we’re having on November 2 by getting the special election calendar approved,” Galvin said. Even though the six towns in Hill’s district are not holding municipal elections, Galvin said his staff would already be working and fully present to support it. Another reason to have the special primary on Nov. 2 is that the present authorization to vote by mail expires on Dec. 15.
Though Hill is not leaving the State House until Sept. 16, “there’s case law that says, if somebody gives me an irrevocable letter of resignation for a later date, I can start the scheduling process” in advance, Galvin told me. “It was pretty obvious [Boncore] was going to get [the MassBio] job around the same time of Hill’s announcement, so I placed a call to Boncore. He didn’t get back to me until earlier this week,” Galvin said.
Boncore, who did not return a call for comment, is reportedly planning to submit his letter of resignation next week. As a result, a special election will probably take place in December, which might mean that voters in Revere, Winthrop, Boston, and Cambridge in that Senate district will be asked to go to the polls three successive times in as many months.
“In every special election you have to weigh voter turnout, fiscal responsibility, and the ability for people to truly campaign and get their message out there,” said Boston City Councilor Lydia Edwards, who is planning to run for Boncore’s seat. “And in many cases, you’re going to find that special elections don’t allow for any of these things.” Other rumored contenders include Anthony D’Ambrosio, a Revere school committee member, and state Representative Adrian Madaro.
State Representative Russell Holmes has filed a bill to get rid of special elections because they provide advantages to insiders and politically connected candidates. It’s time to kill the tradition of special elections in Massachusetts, or at least make them rare — and truly special.