It was supposed to be a triumphant week for Democrats on Beacon Hill: a return to power in the governor’s office, an inaugural party, and in the House, the arrival of their largest majority in years.
But all that pomp and circumstance couldn’t hide growing tension.
“Anti Woman, Anti-election & anti Democracy,” Eileen Duff, a Gloucester Democrat and member of the Governor’s Council, charged on Twitter about House leaders. “If this can happen in [Mass.], wow!”
At issue is the decision by House Speaker Ronald Mariano to delay the swearing-in of two Democratic representatives-elect last week. Instead, he took the rare step of charging a special committee with reviewing the “legal issues” raised by their Republican opponents and to “affirm the results of each election.”
Mariano’s move, while not unprecedented, quickly sparked fissures in the party. Some activists fretted that the Quincy Democrat was feeding into election denialism, just days shy of the second anniversary of the Jan. 6 attack on the US Capitol. One local Democratic group went as far as to call the speaker’s decision a “blow to democracy.”
Margaret Scarsdale, who emerged with a seven-vote victory only to see her swearing-in put on hold, blamed the delay on both her GOP opponent’s legal challenge and “election denialism more broadly,” lamenting that a “new and dangerous trend of not just denying election results, but using frivolous, disingenuous methods to delay the certified winner from taking her seat is chilling.”
Andrew Shepherd, the Republican in the race, said the election “wasn’t ‘stolen’ — it’s just excruciatingly close.”
It is not the first time the House has stepped in to be the arbiter of an election, nor the first time it has created a special legislative committee to review a race. The state Constitution empowers it to do so: It says the chamber “shall be the judge of the returns, elections, and qualifications of its own members,” giving it say over who should be seated and who should not.
Such moves have also drawn criticism in the past, including in 2003 when the House seated a Democrat who won a closely contested race on Cape Cod despite a court ruling ordering a new election. House minority leader Bradley Jones at the time called the move “a bag job.”
This time it’s Democrats training their fury on the process. Even critics of Mariano’s decision acknowledge the reaction is a reflection of the country’s uneasy political environment, one inflamed by former president Donald Trump’s repeated and false claims that the 2020 election was stolen.
“In a normal time — a pre-Trump era — I don’t think it would even be an issue. But it is such a fraught issue, there is a great deal of concern that this could be a reflection of that,” said Bob Watts, chairman of the Georgetown Democratic Town Committee, which sent a letter to Mariano last week criticizing the decision to not seat Kristin Kassner, the certified winner by a single vote in the Second Essex District.
Massachusetts is “supposed to be the beacon of free and fair elections,” the committee wrote to the speaker. “Caving in like this means no election is safe, anywhere.”
Mariano said he, too, is worried about fueling election doubters.
“I do. I do,” he told reporters Monday. “But my other concern was . . . both challengers had legal options that they were not able to exhaust.”
Both Kassner’s and Scarsdale’s races went to a recount last month; Kassner actually trailed five-term incumbent Representative Lenny Mirra by 10 votes before emerging victorious by a single vote. The results were then certified by state officials, and both Democrats were slated to take the oath of office last Wednesday before Mariano announced the night before that he would delay their swearing-in.
The special legislative panel tasked with reviewing the “last-minute legal issues” raised by their GOP opponents has scheduled a pair of public hearings Friday. Candidates in both races and their attorneys have been invited to testify.
In the interim, Mirra was tapped to remain in the Second Essex seat until the three-person committee — composed of two Democrats and Jones, the GOP leader — issues its decision on the contests. Scarsdale, of Pepperell, and Shepherd, of Townsend, were vying for an open seat in the First Middlesex District, meaning the seat, once held by Republicans for nearly 40 years, will sit vacant.
Mirra and Shepherd had each challenged the results in court. Mirra filed a lawsuit in Essex Superior Court and later asked for a review of two ballots — both of which Mirra said elections workers had determined to be cast for him but were later ruled as “blank” ballots. A Superior Court judge later dismissed the suit, arguing that he “no longer has jurisdiction” to review the results of the election, and an appellate court judge rejected Mirra’s request for an injunction.
Shepherd separately asked a Middlesex County court to order a new election, arguing that the “egregious dereliction of the procedural safeguards of mail-in voting has placed in doubt the results.” His lawsuit, in part, charges that officials in Pepperell mishandled mail-in votes his campaign had challenged, and that some Groton voters were mailed the wrong ballot. A judge has yet to rule in that case.
Mirra, who has an ongoing legal appeal, has said he’s confident he’ll prevail after the legislative review, but said he would also accept “whatever the committee decides.” Shepherd did not commit to dropping his own challenge if the committee confirms Scarsdale’s victory, saying “too much is up in the air right now to say what happens.”
But Shepherd said his decision to challenge the results is “not election denialism.”
“It’s disappointing, in the age that we’re living in, that when you do have legitimate issues that come about in an election, to challenge them further, it’s almost politically impossible to do so,” he said. He added that his challenge rests on a “number of process issues that we think can materially affect the results.”
“We’re hoping for a thorough investigation,” he said.
Kassner and Scarsdale each said they’re hoping for an expeditious review as well. Both Democrats watched Wednesday’s swearing-in ceremony from the balcony of the House chamber. Kassner said she observed with notes of disappointment and the “unknown,” with little clarity of how, or when, the review process would unfold.
There’s some history from which the candidates can draw. Two decades ago, a three-legislator panel reviewed and later voted to recommend that the House swear in Matthew Patrick, a Falmouth Democrat who had topped his GOP opponent, Larry Wheatley, by 17 votes.
A judge later ordered a new election amid allegations of widespread irregularities during the race, but the House effectively prevailed in court. The Supreme Judicial Court ruled a new election would be “an exercise in futility” because the Legislature had already seated Patrick. It issued its decision in August, some nine months after the election was held.
Whether the uncertainty over this year’s two races stretches that long remains to be seen. Kassner, of Hamilton, said she convened a call with her attorney, Gerry McDonough, and chairs from the town Democratic committees in the district on Friday, in part to explain the process and to address the enmity among the local activists.
“There was a lot of frustration, and with seating the incumbent, that was a surprise to everyone,” she said. “We just really want to get to work. We campaigned for a year and had a long postelection. It’ll be really good once this is done.”
Her Democratic supporters share her anxiety. Nancy E. Stehfest, chair of the Hamilton Democratic Town Committee, said the district was reshaped dramatically during last year’s redistricting process, which sliced off all or parts of several communities and merged Georgetown and Newbury with Ipswich, Rowley, Hamilton, and a part of Topsfield. To have Mirra in the seat, she said, the House has installed a lawmaker “who has never represented us.”
“I don’t see a conspiracy here. But I do think it’s an oversight that [House leaders] aren’t considering that it’s not the same district [as before],” Stehfest said, adding she hopes the committee moves quickly to finish its work. “We’re not here to rerun this election.”
Watts, the Georgetown committee chair, went further.
“If they start unwrapping those boxes of ballots,” Watts said of the committee, “this becomes — to coin a phrase — a [expletive] show.”
Matt Stout can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout.