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In reversal, Robert DeLeo opposes term limit

Seeks to keep his role as speaker beyond 2017

Current restrictions require that House Speaker Robert DeLeo step down in 2017.
Current restrictions require that House Speaker Robert DeLeo step down in 2017.(Associated Press/file)

Speaker Robert A. DeLeo told House members Wednesday that he plans a Thursday vote to abolish the eight-year boundary on a speaker’s term — even though he was the person who successfully championed that limit in 2009.

A favorable House vote would allow DeLeo to serve beyond early 2017. Several legislators told the Globe Wednesday they expected the measure to pass with relative ease.

The move comes after months of internal deliberations at the highest levels of the House. DeLeo aides circulated the proposed rule package to members late Wednesday afternoon.

DeLeo, 64, is expected to make the case to House Democrats during a Thursday-morning caucus, with a vote planned for later in the day.

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Six years ago, the Winthrop Democrat led the move to establish term limits on his office as part of a wave of ethics reform following the departure of former speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi, later convicted on federal corruption charges.

Representative Garrett J. Bradley, who has served as one of DeLeo’s top deputies and is expected to help shepherd the rules debate Thursday, suggested House members would back DeLeo’s proposal as a way of fortifying the chamber against the Senate and the executive branch, both of which are under new leadership.

“It’s about the House as an institution and how the House is viewed by our coequal branches of government, in particular the Senate and the administration,” said Bradley, a Hingham Democrat. “And the last thing we need at this point, with all that’s going on, is an individual who’s viewed as a lame duck in the institution.”

DeLeo spokesman Seth Gitell declined to comment. Aides to Governor Charlie Baker also declined to comment.

Even some House members who said privately Wednesday that they were frustrated with and personally opposed to DeLeo’s plan said they were unlikely to vote against it, and did not expect many of their colleagues to do so.

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The scheduled vote would come weeks after his Democratic colleagues unanimously reelected DeLeo to a fourth term, and following a year during which DeLeo’s name was frequently invoked in connection with the state probation department corruption trial in federal court.

DeLeo was never charged, and spoke out angrily after prosecutors fingered him as an unindicted coconspirator but never summoned him to testify.

Last year, DeLeo spent $200,000 from his campaign account on legal bills, according to state campaign finance records.

Granting DeLeo expanded power would allow him to continue enjoying the exalted fund-raising perch that helped him pay those bills, without facing the lame-duck status that could inhibit him.

DeLeo recently refrained from pushing a pay raise for legislative leaders, which would have boosted his pension. Top Democrats said the delay meant that, in order to qualify for the enhanced pension higher compensation would bring, DeLeo would probably need to win two more terms as speaker, the second one in 2019.

But the vote’s timing also matches uncertainty on Beacon Hill about the capitol’s new power dynamics. The new Senate president, Stanley C. Rosenberg, an Amherst Democrat, is perceived as being to the ideological left of the House’s recent preferences, and the new Republican governor, Baker, is still finding his political footing after diagnosing a $765 million midyear budget deficit.

Bradley argued that handcuffing DeLeo by keeping the term limits in place would dilute the House’s institutional standing in that jockeying.

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“I think it weakens the House in the very significant negotiations we’re going to be having as we move to fix the budget gap as well as the other very significant issues that will dominate the agenda over the next 18 months,” he said.

But DeLeo himself once led the charge in favor of confining the House leader’s tenure.

In a May 2009 Globe op-ed column, DeLeo said the term limits had been passed as part of a broader effort “in order to restore public confidence in the government.”

The vote on DeLeo’s proposal comes as members await their committee assignments, which the speaker decides and which dictate salary, influence, office space, and staff size. It is not unheard of for legislative leaders to wield their committee assignment authority to pressure members to toe the party line.

The rules package DeLeo is expected to submit Thursday will drop the current term-limit language. The House must adopt a new set of internal rules at the beginning of each two-year legislative cycle.

In a statement, the government watchdog group Common Cause Massachusetts said it was “deeply disappointed” with DeLeo’s intentions.

“Term limits restrict the amount of power than can be amassed by a leader and ensure predictable, stable, transitions of power,” the group said. “Without a term limit, leaders must either be deposed, which can be very disruptive to a legislative body, or happen when a legislative leader is indicted or under an ethical cloud, or, very rarely, when a leader loses interest and decides to move on, typically after securing a post for a successor.”

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The Republican counterpart to the speaker, the minority leader, is not governed by term limits. Minority leader Bradley H. Jones, first elected to the post in 2002, did not return a call seeking comment.

In a statement late Wednesday, state Republican Party chairwoman Kirsten Hughes said, “Speaker DeLeo’s sudden reversal on term limits he once championed smells of hypocrisy. Speaker DeLeo’s about-face is yet another example of Democrats on Beacon Hill changing the rules for their own self-interest and demonstrates a lack of commitment to changing the culture of corruption that led to the indictment of three consecutive speakers.”

Senior Democrats said they expected opponents to seek to preserve the limits through the amendment process.

Related:

Editorial: Don’t shift gears on term limits, Robert DeLeo


Jim O’Sullivan can be reached at jim.osullivan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JOSreports.