With the cameras rolling, Massachusetts’ new political power trio emerged from the State House’s executive suite last week as a united front. Governor Maura Healey, newly settled into the corner office, walked in the middle; Senate President Karen Spilka, a thick black binder tucked into the crook of her arm, strode to her left; House Speaker Ronald Mariano, a half-eaten oatmeal cookie in hand, strolled to her right.
It may be the last time they appear in such lockstep.
The three Democrats are launching a new version of Beacon Hill’s so-called Big Three with distinct agendas, styles, and personalities — factors that are likely to drive what does, and doesn’t, get done in the State House’s marbled halls.
That first leadership meeting, which all three later described as collaborative, happened early in the new arrangement, before the leaders truly begin putting policy to paper. And while trios of the past are remembered for their quirks, friction, and sometimes uneasy alliances, how this new dynamic will exactly unfold remains unclear, according to interviews with a dozen political observers and lawmakers.
What observers do know: being from the same political party doesn’t guarantee agreement.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a time since I started that all three have been in sync. I don’t even know if that’s possible,” said Richard Tisei, a former Republican leader in the Senate who now works as a lobbyist. “A lot of times it’s driven more by personality or different agendas than it is by party. If the Big Three were all in the same party and were all totally in sync, they can do anything — in theory. But it hasn’t happened.”
To be sure, the Healey-Mariano-Spilka relationship starts from a common place. Both Spilka and Mariano endorsed Healey while she still faced a primary opponent in former state senator Sonia Chang-Díaz. (Other Democrats, including Boston Mayor Michelle Wu, didn’t back Healey until after Chang-Díaz ended her campaign.)
Spilka appeared on the campaign trail with Healey, and also at an event last week, and has voiced support for pursuing tax relief and changes to the community college system, areas that Healey, too, promised to pursue. All three leaders have elevated overhauling the expensive child care system as a priority.
And both Spilka and Mariano “genuinely like Maura,” said Arline Isaacson, a veteran political consultant. “It doesn’t mean they hated [Charlie] Baker,” she said of the former Republican governor. But in Healey, “they’re dealing with an ally.”
Even so, the three all have varying styles of leadership and politicking.
Spilka — a mediator by trade and, like Healey, a Northeastern School of Law grad — picks her words carefully but is unabashed about her policy priorities, including mental health. A 20-year State House veteran, she’s built a reputation among colleagues as a pragmatic negotiator.
“She’s very smart, very shrewd,” said former representative Jeff Sanchez, who served as the House’s budget chief when Spilka was the Senate’s. “But you don’t mess with her either. She’s got a memory.”
Mariano is often unafraid to defend the House’s position on an issue, his colleagues say, and is sometimes more prone than Spilka to express his frustration, exuberance, or disinterest on a given topic, a tendency that often produces episodes of seemingly unfiltered public commentary. And few lawmakers typify the quintessential Beacon Hill insider more than the Quincy Democrat, who was first elected to the House in 1991.
“He can be a tough cookie and doesn’t hide it,” Isaacson said. “But if you are honest and up front, I have found he is willing to listen.”
Healey remains less known, at least in terms of how she’ll operate in her new role. The former two-term attorney general is a deeply connected and popular politician who, despite having worked across the street at One Ashburton Place in the AG’s office, is only just beginning to learn her way around the State House. She’s engaged with lawmakers on Beacon Hill for years, but not nearly to the degree that she will from the executive suite.
Healey succeeds Baker, whose generally positive working relationship with the Democrat-dominated Legislature became a calling card for his much-touted bipartisan approach. Healey said after her first meeting with leaders — a tradition started three decades ago under Republican governor Bill Weld — that the goal was to “talk about the future and what we all want to accomplish together.”
Lawmakers, too, say they’re trying to feel out Healey.
“I don’t know where the new governor is on certain things that I care about,” said Senator Cindy Friedman, an Arlington Democrat. “But hope springs eternal.”
Mariano told reporters he hasn’t yet formed opinions on some of Healey’s early pitches, such as making community college free for some.
“I haven’t thought about it,” he said.
Spilka and Mariano themselves have clashed at times, too, including last year, when Baker announced the state’s glut of tax revenue was likely to trigger an obscure 1986 tax law that ultimately returned nearly $3 billion to taxpayers.
Spilka, at the time, publicly encouraged lawmakers to push forward with a separate tax relief package that had passed both branches, while Mariano saw Baker’s announcement as a “bomb” that called into question the financial decisions the Legislature had already voted on.
A tax relief package ultimately stalled, and insiders said the event had a chilling effect on Spilka and Mariano’s relationship.
Navigating the three-way relationship can be a bit of an art form, from all sides. The governor, while equipped with the bigger bully pulpit, can do little legislatively without support from Democratic leaders, who can wield super-majorities to override vetoes and push through their preferred version of a policy.
Jerry Berger, a former State House reporter and Senate staffer who now oversees Boston University’s State House reporting program, said that in the past, his lesson on how the Legislature typically handles the governor’s annual budget proposal included a big stack of paper and a trash can.
“The governor proposes, and the Legislature disposes,” he said. That means the governor has to figure out when to play hardball on certain policies — and when to resort to “massaging egos.”
“That’s what politics is,” Berger said.
But the legislative branches have their own ingrained rivalries, which can come to a head in conference committee negotiations, drive closed-door horse-trading, and at times, play out through debates in the press.
Depending on the issue du jour, that can mean the Senate president finds an ally in the governor, or the governor aligns more with the speaker, effectively determining which version of a bill emerges from the legislative gears. And sometimes, the governor is best positioned to step back and let the legislative leaders negotiate among themselves.
“The governor has to understand that piece of it,” said Doug Rubin, who served as a top political adviser to former governor Deval Patrick. “They have their own back-and-forth of what they want to get and their priorities. It doesn’t always have to involve the governor.”
In the past, governors have taken varying approaches to navigating the legislative bodies.
Mitt Romney, a Republican, kept distant relations with Democratic lawmakers over his one term. They sometimes coalesced — they share credit for establishing the state’s landmark health care law, which came to informally bear Romney’s name — but often clashed.
Patrick, despite sharing a party with legislative leadership, also had a tumultuous relationship with lawmakers, who often chafed at what some have described as a highhanded approach. He, now infamously, unveiled a nearly $2 billion tax hike package during his second term without first briefing legislative leaders on the details, immediately souring many on it.
Therese Murray, a Democrat who served as Senate president for the eight years of Patrick’s tenure, said the governor should avoid surprising lawmakers with major announcements.
“They don’t have to buy in, they don’t have to be supportive. But you don’t want to blindside them,” she said.
Whether and how quickly the current iteration of the Big Three sees eye to eye could become clearer in weeks, when Healey’s first budget will be due and lawmakers begin filing their initial legislative priorities, said veteran Representative Tackey Chan, a Quincy Democrat.
“It’s a Valentine’s Day kiss,” he said, “or a St. Patrick’s Day nightmare.”