Since the death of Edward M. Kennedy in August 2009, the state’s political class has been locked firmly in a campaign frame of mind. Election begat election — five major statewide and two Boston mayoral votes plus a local presidential nominee — and the public focus has been nearly exclusively on political races, rather than governing.
That spotlight is now set to swing back to Beacon Hill, which will feature a new governor, a new Senate president, and a host of policy questions left over from the Patrick administration.
“There’s not much electoral politics. I think the politics that will take place are lobbying politics. It’s policy politics,” said Judy Meredith, a longtime human services lobbyist.
“What are the internal politics of the policy-making arena in the Massachusetts State House?” she said. “Who cares about affordable housing? Who cares about cash assistance? Who cares about the environment? It’s all compromise and coalition.”
Such issues have been obscured by the relentless elections: the nationally watched scramble to replace Kennedy in late 2009 and early 2010 and the gubernatorial election that same year; the 2012 presidential campaign overlapping with another consequential Senate fight; last year’s special Senate election; Boston mayoral votes in 2009 and 2013; this year’s race for the corner office.
With that blur of electoral activity now coming to a close, a political vacuum is opening, with no ballot-box intrigue to fill it.
“Obviously, that changes now, with none of those types of races going on,” said House minority leader Bradley Jones, a North Reading Republican.
In addition to the evergreen examples laid out by Meredith, policy makers will no doubt find themselves wrestling with everything from casino gambling and a potential bid for the 2024 Olympics to balancing the state budget and the ongoing headache of health care costs.
Unanswered questions about where to compromise, and where those next coalitions may come from, are shot through with more fluidity in the political landscape than they have been in years.
In a post-election interview last week, Governor-elect Charlie Baker indicated he had already put some thought into a riddle whose solution has eluded Governor Deval Patrick, much to Patrick’s frustration: mobilizing an electoral coalition behind a policy agenda.
“I think the reason that’s a hard thing to do in the first place is a governing coalition is different depending on which issue you’re talking about,” Baker said during an interview in his Swampscott home.
“One of the things that I certainly observed when I was on Beacon Hill is a coalition that got together to work on an issue could look a lot different than the coalition that gets together to work on the next issue,” he said.
If Baker plucks administration aides from the Legislature, there will be a wave of special elections, but likely small-bore and of little interest to the broader public. With no electoral imperative in 2016, beyond the traditional humdrum of legislative elections, the state’s campaign horizon is, for now, relatively clear. The next Boston mayoral contest isn’t until 2017. Senator Edward J. Markey quietly won his seat outright for the next six years last week, and Senator Elizabeth Warren’s term runs through 2018.
The wave of big-ticket elections appears, at the statewide level anyway, to have calmed for the foreseeable future. Campaign donors battered by the spate of elections can exhale, and shelve their checkbooks for a bit.
Moreover, all of the state’s potential candidates for national office — including Warren, former governor Mitt Romney, and Patrick — have foresworn interest in the next presidential cycle, meaning that the steady churn of homegrown candidates from Massachusetts over the last few decades may have hit a fallow period.
“The focus of political coverage is going to shift inside rather than outside,” Jones said.
A returned focus to governing arrives as the State House is undergoing important turnover of its own: Baker making preparations to take office and state Senate president Therese Murray preparing to hand over the keys for hers to majority leader Stanley C. Rosenberg. Speaker Robert DeLeo has ruled the House fairly steadily since 2009, and some of his acolytes have indicated he may look to restructure House rules to extend his reign beyond 2016.
And the newly reconfigured “Big Three” of Beacon Hill will have a full slate of vexing policy dilemmas to noodle out, even as they are figuring the new dynamics among them.
The state budget has a shortfall this year that the Patrick administration is working to close, but which some budget analysts believe will still be gaping when Patrick hands off to Baker. And Baker, responsible for writing budgets during the Weld and Cellucci administrations, will very quickly need to turn to his own first operating plan.
Additionally, the next enrollment period under the Affordable Care Act opens next week, with hundreds of thousands of residents who were temporarily enrolled in Medicaid or private exchange plans reapplying for medical insurance through the state exchange.
And now that voters have affirmed support for the casino law, an array of implementation and logistical challenges await both the industry and public policy makers.
Those hurdles will provide early indicators of Baker’s governing style, whether he is more taken with the legislative process than his immediate predecessor, or whether the surliness that Baker worked to bury during the campaign resurfaces.
Less under the control of the state, but with the potential to consume much of the public discourse over the next few years, is Boston’s effort to secure the 2024 Olympics.
The local application to the US Olympic Committee is due Dec. 1, with the body set to meet Dec. 16 and disclose its decision about a host city in January. Baker has been circumspect about the Olympic bid, despite the enthusiasm among his longtime colleagues in the state’s C-suites. If Boston is the pick of the national organization, how Baker reacts as the bid moves to the international level will be closely watched. If Boston is selected, the effort to bring the Games to the city will take on a national momentum.
And that will be a campaign of an entirely different magnitude than even the seemingly earth-shaking elections that have unfolded across the state over the last several years.