In a stark contrast to the partisan rancor in Washington, the atmosphere among the politicians onstage in Boston Sunday was amicable, if not often downright jovial.
“If you’re a Republican in Massachusetts, you have to be tall and skinny,” Speaker Robert DeLeo deadpanned as Governor Charlie Baker was introduced.
Both Baker, a Republican, and DeLeo, a Democrat, traded jokes with each other and Senate President Stanley Rosenberg at the National Conference of State Legislatures’ annual Legislative Summit in front of an audience of hundreds of legislators. The topic of their discussion: bipartisanship.
The panel, moderated by former Republican Governor William Weld, initially circled around the significance of bipartisanship and the challenges of practicing it. But it was Rosenberg who said what surely many in the room were thinking: Washington could take a page out of Massachusetts’ book.
“That’s what’s so distressing about what’s happening in Washington, they don’t break bread together anymore, they just try to break knees,” Rosenberg said. “We are stewards of the seats we occupy, we don’t own them. Leaving them in good shape to pass to the next person is a fundamental responsibility of the job.”
Weld also emphasized the importance of face-to-face interactions among legislators, and remembered weekly meetings he used to hold at the Charles Hotel in Harvard Square with then-Speaker Charles Flaherty.
“It’s a lot harder to take a cheap shot at someone in the press if you know you’re going to be sitting across the table from them sometime in the next seven days,” Weld said.
Those meetings have since continued in Massachusetts, with each administration handing down the tradition to the next.
Baker, who served under Weld as undersecretary of health and human services and secretary of administration and finance, shared advice he learned from his former boss.
“Governor Weld used to say all the time, you never know where the next coalition you’re going to work with is coming from,” Baker said. “This is supposed to be a distributed decision making process, it’s supposed to be messy and complicated. I believe in that and think in the long run you get a better product the more voices you include.”
Baker, DeLeo, and Rosenberg all cited the opioid legislation passed last year as a chief example of the importance of two parties working collaboratively.
That law placed tighter state controls on opioids, and required hospitals to administer a substance-abuse evaluation to patients in emergency rooms believed to have overdosed. Baker originally called for the state to require hospitals to hold patients involuntarily, if necessary, for treatment for up to 72 hours. That measure was ultimately rejected, but, in a compromise, Baker signed the law with the addition of the substance-abuse evaluation requirement.
The governor said that the state still has “miles to go” in combatting the crisis, but praised the Legislature for working to pass legislation quickly and aggressively.
“There are a lot of things we do in the Legislature that are not partisan, and there are many things that are,” Rosenberg said. “But things like dealing with the opioid crisis is not a partisan issue and therefore all the best minds have to be at the table.”
DeLeo echoed that sentiment.
“When you talk to folks about this issue, they compare what happened here in Massachusetts to Washington — I hear quite a bit from constituents, ‘we’re glad we’re from Massachusetts,’” DeLeo said. “We were able to put our egos aside. I think this is one of greatest examples of bipartisanship in the state.”
Successful compromises comes down to respect for the institution, all three lawmakers concluded.
“Most of the time you’re not talking about principles and values. You’re talking about details,” Rosenberg said. “Do not ever compromise on your principles and values, but there’s plenty of room to compromise on the details.”
As the legislators continued their discussion, more than 100 protesters in two different groups picked outside of the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center.
About 60 Asian-Americans protested a bill introduced by state Representative Tackey Chan of Quincy that would require state agencies to collect aggregate data on Asian-American groups in the Commonwealth. Quincy has said the goal of the bill is to provide legislators with a better sense of the demographics and needs of the state’s Asian-American community.
Sunday’s protesters vehemently opposed the bill, voicing concerns about how the data might be used and questioning why the Asian-American community was the only group that would be targeted by the legislation.
“Why single out Asians? If the goal is better policymaking, why not collect data on all ethnic groups?” asked Yong Wang, a software engineer from Sharon. “My children were born here, they are American. Why should they be labeled differently?”
On the same block, nearly 40 Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority machinists and members of Invest Now Massachusetts protested officials’ proposals to privatize several of their nine bus garages.
But even on the stretch of sidewalk outside the summit, the spirit was one of bipartisanship. A machinist and Chinese-American activist traded pamphlets and explained to each other their respective causes. And when they parted, they wished each other luck.