The Massachusetts House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly Thursday to abolish term limits for Speaker Robert A. DeLeo, extending indefinitely the reign of one of the most powerful politicians on Beacon Hill.
The vote came six years after DeLeo put the limits in place, trumpeting them as a blow for more ethical government.
On Thursday, the speaker said that his position had “evolved” and that it would be good for the House to have an experienced leader with a strong track record.
“What we have done, quite frankly, over this past six years, I think has been remarkable,” DeLeo told reporters before the vote, citing legislation he pushed through in recent years tackling opiate abuse, gun violence, and domestic violence.
But good-government groups said the move was a major disappointment, arguing that term limits reduce the potential for corruption and give new ideas a chance to percolate.
“It really isn’t a matter of whether things are going well or not well” under the current speaker, said Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts. “It’s part of good governance.”
The push to abolish term limits had some members grumbling privately about broken promises in the days leading up to the vote. And on Thursday afternoon, a handful of rank-and-file legislators raised concerns in a closed-door Democratic caucus meeting, according to legislators who were present.
One of them, Jonathan Hecht of Watertown, took to the House floor Thursday evening to make an impassioned plea for term limits, arguing before a hushed chamber that the speakership has become too powerful to remain in the hands of one man.
“It’s like magnetic north, all compasses tend to swing in its direction,” he said, adding later, “If we’re honest with ourselves, we have to admit that absent term limits, there are no real checks on the speaker’s longevity in office.”
In the end, the House voted 109-45 to spike the speaker’s eight-year term limit, with just 11 Democrats voting to keep it in place.
If the move irritated some House members and outside groups, it did bring a measure of stability to a changing Beacon Hill leadership. Republican Governor Charlie Baker is still settling into the corner office, and it is not yet clear what his promise of a compassionate conservatism will look like in practice. Observers are still getting a bead, too, on new Senate President Stanley C. Rosenberg, who has been a bundle of contradictions in his career — a liberal with a strong pragmatic streak, an evangelist for transparency renowned for his poker face.Both of those leaders — two of the “Big Three” on Beacon Hill — kept a safe distance from the House leadership debate Thursday.
“I’m a big believer in letting the House and the Senate make their own decisions with respect to how they want to manage their affairs,” Baker said Thursday morning.
“It’s up to the House members to decide,” said Rosenberg.
Under the old House rules, DeLeo would have been forced to give up the gavel in January 2017. In the run-up to the vote, his supporters argued that a lame-duck speaker would have weakened the chamber’s bargaining power in negotiations with the Senate and governor’s office. Garrett Bradley, a Hingham Democrat close to the speaker, built on that argument Thursday, suggesting that a lame-duck Senate president and lame-duck governor had been less than effective in the last legislative session.
“We’ve seen this movie before,” he said.
The first big negotiation this session will focus on what the Baker administration has estimated is a $765 million midyear budget deficit.
Baker said Thursday that he would probably brief legislative leaders Monday on his plans for addressing the shortfall and publicly release those plans Monday afternoon or Tuesday.
The House first imposed an eight-year term limit on the speaker in 1985, after George Keverian won the post on a platform of rules reform. House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran stripped out the rule in 2001 and was quickly dubbed “speaker for life.”
After Finneran and his successor, Salvatore F. DiMasi, resigned in the face of brewing scandals, the new speaker, DeLeo, reinstated the eight-year term limit. At the time, he called it an “opportunity for fresh ideas.” And in a May 2009 Globe op-ed column, he said it had been passed as part of a broader push “to restore public confidence in the government.”
In the last year, DeLeo’s name came up repeatedly in the state probation department corruption trial. But he was never charged in the matter, and he lashed out at federal prosecutors he said tarnished his name.
State Representative Ronald Mariano, a Quincy Democrat and top DeLeo lieutenant, insisted that much had changed since the scandal-marred days of former speaker DiMasi.
“The situation was a lot different,” he said. “You had a speaker that was being indicted, and so there was a different set of circumstances and a different atmosphere.”
Asked Thursday if he had gone back on his word, DeLeo demurred: “I wouldn’t say I’m going back on my word as much as the fact that over six years, rightly or wrongly, I have learned . . . the importance . . . of doing away with the term limits that we have in our rules.”
DeLeo said he does not know how long he would like to remain in the speaker’s office.
David Scharfenberg can be reached at david.scharfenberg @globe.com.