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Beacon Hill power trio in tune — mostly

DeLeo, Rosenberg in step with Baker, but battle each other

Governor Charlie Baker, Senate President Stanley Rosenberg, and House Speaker Robert DeLeo have found some common ground so far.Elise Amendola/AP/File

A few days after winning the gubernatorial election last fall, Charlie Baker went to the East Boston eatery Rino's Place, home of thin-cut veal and fist-sized ravioli and a regular gathering of Italian-American politicos including House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo.

The Republican governor-elect, who had been quietly courting the Democratic speaker for some time, held his own at the lunch. But months later, DeLeo is still ribbing Baker for his less-than-autentico eating habits.

"He didn't eat Italian food that day," the speaker said, in a recent interview. "And I told him that, you know, if he and I are going to get along, he better change his ways a little bit."


Just over 100 days into his first term, the Harvard-educated governor from Swampscott has developed a good rapport with Winthrop's DeLeo and the other member of Beacon Hill's oddly matched triumvirate: Stanley C. Rosenberg, the openly gay, Jewish Senate president from Amherst.

But if the new Big Three are trumpeting an auspicious start, there have been fissures, already, that could foretell significant breaks.

The public fight between Rosenberg and DeLeo over arcane legislative rules, including talk of a "nuclear option" that would blow up the Legislature's committee system, slowed Beacon Hill's business for months and pointed to deeper differences in their governing styles. And competing ideas about how to repair the beleaguered MBTA underscore an ideological split in the state's political leadership.

Baker and DeLeo, both avowed fiscal conservatives, have prioritized management fixes over new revenue for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, while Rosenberg has staked out a position to their left: Reform is a must, he argues, but substantial new spending is required, too.

The early dynamic has inevitably conjured comparisons to Baker's mentor William F. Weld, a Republican governor who collaborated with Senate President William Bulger, a conservative Democrat from South Boston, at the expense of House Speaker Charles F. Flaherty, a liberal from North Cambridge.


But outside observers, and the principals themselves, say the lines are not so clearly drawn.

Rosenberg, if left-leaning, is widely considered a pragmatist. And he and Baker share a geeky appreciation for public policy minutia. "He likes to get in the weeds," Rosenberg said, admiringly, of the man in the corner office.

If the relationship between the Senate president and the administration is grounded in data, there are more personal connections, too. Baker's lieutenant governor, Karyn Polito, a former opponent of gay marriage, is set to officiate Rosenberg's wedding to his partner.

Indeed, the greatest tension at the moment is not between the Democratic leaders and the Republican governor but between the Democratic leaders themselves.

Rosenberg and DeLeo have sparred over the Legislature's centuries-old system of joint House-Senate committees that share jurisdiction over matters ranging from education to housing and the environment.

The House, a far larger chamber, has a majority on each panel and effectively controls the flow of legislation. Senators have long groused that their bills are too often bottled up in committee.

The House has resisted the push to revamp the system, seeing little upside in reforms that would diminish its power. But recently, the Senate took a first step toward the so-called "nuclear option" — authorizing planning for standalone Senate panels that would spell the end of the joint committees.

DeLeo says he is puzzled by the whole affair.


"The thing that has sort of taken me by surprise is the fact that, in my 24 years here, I've never seen this issue raised," he said. "You know, the Senate president, if there's an issue which he feels is important, all he has to do is call me and we'll talk about it."

But senators say Rosenberg's ongoing push to overhaul the committee structure is, in part, about moving away from a governance model that puts a handful of influential legislative leaders at the center.

Rosenberg has spoken of a "shared leadership" approach in the Senate. Casting off a House-controlled committee structure means empowering Senate chairmen to work on legislation they care about.

"I think the clash is symbolic of a much bigger cultural difference, not only between the chambers, but between the leaders," said Senator Mark Montigny, a New Bedford Democrat who is a key figure in the committee fight.

The Senate president highlighted the cultural differences himself, in a recent interview, when he discussed the two chambers' handling of a Baker administration proposal to induce early retirement by thousands of state workers.

The House unanimously passed the governor's plan. The Senate, by contrast, discussed the early-retirement legislation in a series of three caucus meetings, watched a significant bloc of senators air their misgivings about the bill in a Globe article, and made changes to the bill before passage.

Both chambers had the bill for 21 days, Rosenberg noted. "We used the time a little differently," he said.


DeLeo has chafed at the narrative building up around the two leaders. Speakers are often cast as iron-fisted rulers, an image burnished by DeLeo's recent successful push to eliminate term limits for the post. But the speaker's supporters insist the caricature is overdone.

Many on Beacon Hill, moreover, acknowledge that the sheer size of the House, with 160 members to the Senate's 40, lends itself to more centralization of power. "It's a different management challenge," said Montigny, the New Bedford senator.

Whatever their differences, the speaker and Senate president have worked together on several important budget fixes in recent months — as they are quick to point out.

An understanding of the state's balance sheet has, in fact, been an important piece of common ground for Beacon Hill's Big Three. DeLeo and Rosenberg were both chairmen of their chambers' budget-writing Ways and Means committees.

And Rosenberg worked directly with Baker, from that perch, in the late 1990s, when Baker was budget chief for Governor Weld.

John McDonough, a former Democratic state representative who is now a public health professor at Harvard University, said the feature that most distinguishes the relationship among the new Big Three, so far, is the relative tranquility. Other new governors have stumbled, he said, but not Baker.

"I've been waiting for him to make the same boneheaded mistakes [other governors made], and I haven't seen them," McDonough said.

Even Baker's Rino's Place outing worked out in the end. And he was more adventurous, he insists, than DeLeo's culinary crack would suggest.


"I grabbed all the good stuff to go when the speaker wasn't looking," Baker told the Globe.

David Scharfenberg can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @dscharfGlobe.