WASHINGTON — In 2001, Massachusetts Representative Joe Moakley, the former chair of the House Rules Committee, secured a spot on the powerful panel for a young Jim McGovern and offered him some advice.
“Don’t do anything stupid, like run for Senate,” he said, according to McGovern. “Good waiters make good tips.”
McGovern did wait, and rose to chairman of the committee 18 years later, continuing a tradition for the Massachusetts delegation of long House careers that bring seniority and influential posts.
But the question facing today’s younger and ambitious members of Congress, including Representatives Ayanna Pressley, Jake Auchincloss, Seth Moulton, and Lori Trahan, is just how long they want to wait to rise through the ranks, particularly in a political environment that increasingly rewards celebrity and virality over self-restraint.
It’s one they may be asking themselves as Senator Elizabeth Warren, 73, said on Monday that she will run for reelection in 2024, as had been widely expected. That eliminated the possibility of an open Senate seat in the state next year, closing off one potential avenue for advancement. Senator Ed Markey, 76, says he plans to run for a third term in 2026. And the election of Maura Healey as governor last year leaves little hope for Democrats seeking an opening in the top statewide office until 2026, or longer if she runs for reelection.
Massachusetts members of Congress have historically bided their time for decades. Markey served nearly 40 years in the House before winning his Senate seat in 2013. McGovern, 63, a Worcester Democrat, became Rules chair in 2019, the same year Representative Richard Neal of Springfield, claimed the gavel of the influential Ways and Means Committee after serving in the House for 30 years, and he has used his sway to help place the state’s younger members on influential committees.
“I had a plan and I stayed with it,” Neal, 74, said. “My suggestion would be patience.”
The newer generation may have to show quite a lot of it.
Neal and McGovern have expressed hope they will be chairs again if Democrats reclaim their House majority. Attempts by younger members to encourage more turnover in top positions — including a doomed 2018 effort by Moulton to oust the septuagenarians then leading the House Democrats — have found only limited success.
While none of Massachusetts’ lawmakers who spoke with the Globe expressed dissatisfaction with their jobs, some did signal an appetite for more opportunities for younger members to make an impact.
“We do want to see an accelerated path to leading these committees and getting up the dais, there’s no question,” said Trahan, 49, though she praised McGovern’s mentorship and her committee assignments. “I mean, there are a lot of folks that don’t want to spend that amount of time here in order to sort of shape the agenda on committees.”
“I think there are opportunities for the House in general to be more meritocratic in how it affords … platforms and opportunities for members,” said Auchincloss, 35, the second-term Newton Democrat. His early fund-raising prowess and frequent cable news appearances have spurred speculation that he is eyeing a quick rise — although he insists his focus is on some two dozen legislative and policy priorities in his district.
“In politics you cannot chart a path, you really cannot,” Auchincloss said. “There’s too many exogenous factors that determine what opportunities come next.”
One relatively new lawmaker in the House, Revere Representative Katherine Clark, 59, has broken the mold, skyrocketing since her arrival in Congress in 2013 to the No. 2 position in Democratic leadership this year. Those who have followed her career expect her to hold the position for some time or possibly even ascend to speaker some day — which would make her the ninth person from Massachusetts to hold that job.
But observers of the delegation see a strong bench of political talent elsewhere in the delegation waiting for opportunities to advance and willing to make their own luck, inside or outside the House.
Pressley of Boston, 49, won her seat by ousting an incumbent, as did Moulton. She has become a national figure in progressive politics, and she has recently taken steps that could help boost her name recognition outside her district, like a Boston-to-Springfield road trip with Warren last year to tout their student loan relief efforts.
Pressley, who was a cochair of Warren’s presidential campaign, is the only member of the state’s House delegation to appear in Warren’s Monday announcement video, underscoring the depth of the alliance the two appear to have formed.
“I think I’m going to see her in the House until a Senate seat opens up, and when that Senate seat opens up, she’s the prohibitive front-runner,” said Mary Anne Marsh, a Democratic political analyst.
Moulton, 44, has already made his ambitions and impatience clear. Although he failed in his effort to forestall California Representative Nancy Pelosi from winning another term as speaker in 2018, she agreed to some loose term restrictions, and ultimately stepped aside from leadership at the beginning of this year. In 2019, Moulton briefly ran for president, dropping out without qualifying for a debate.
Now he and Auchincloss are serving together on the House’s select committee on China, which Moulton cited as evidence that new House Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries wants younger members to get key leadership opportunities.
“I think things are dramatically improving,” Moulton said, adding that Democratic term limits on chairmanships would help, too. “Is there more room to grow? Yes.”
Some members have been unable to resist the pull of the Senate.
Former representative Joe Kennedy III, 42, gave up his seat to wage an unsuccessful primary campaign against Markey in 2020. He has built a political grass-roots training organization since and observers believe he could mount another run for office.
The apparent lure of the Senate mystifies some senior members of the Massachusetts delegation, including Neal.
“I don’t want to diminish senators, but if you can be the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, come on!” Neal said.
But lawmakers who have served in both chambers say the Senate can be worth the wait, because its smaller size and its unique rules give each member much more clout.
“Power in the House comes from being able to convince a group of people that follow your lead — it’s kind of like gang warfare,” said Senator Lindsey Graham, 67, a Republican who served in the House for eight years before his election to the Senate in 2002. “In the Senate, all you need is one or two friends.”
Democratic Senator Peter Welch of Vermont, 75, served in the House for 16 years before winning the seat that opened up when Pat Leahy announced his retirement last year.
“I feel really good being in the Senate,” he said.
Generationally, millennials, Gen X-ers, and even some baby boomers are making more career jumps than their predecessors, including in Congress.
“Seniority, while always valued, I don’t think you’re going to have the kind of tenures that you used to see,” said Marsh.
Representative David Cicilline of Rhode Island, 61, recently announced that he will retire in the middle of his term to take a job with the Rhode Island Foundation. That move comes after a couple of failed or aborted efforts to join House leadership, although he insisted that is not why he decided to leave.
“I just sort of looked at where the House is and where the Republican leadership of this House, what it has produced in terms of their priorities, and I think it’s hard to imagine we’re gonna get much done,” Cicilline said. “This was an opportunity to work in an organization that I know will be able to do important things.”
Asked if the Senate ever beckons, Cicilline paused and shrugged.
“We have two excellent senators,” he said.