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Two MIT grads are goading Bob DeLeo with ballot measures in his district

House Speaker Robert DeLeo.
House Speaker Robert DeLeo. (Timothy Tai for The Boston Globe/file)

WINTHROP — Robert A. DeLeo may be Mr. Speaker on Beacon Hill. But here in this pretty seaside town, he’s just “Bobby,” the affable, cigar-chomping state representative since 1991.

He doesn’t have an opponent this year — he rarely does — and yet the powerful leader could face an embarrassing rebuke on Nov. 6.

Two recent MIT graduates who have never lived in the district but are concerned about what they see as DeLeo’s thwarting of major climate change legislation, gathered signatures from hundreds of his constituents to put some pointed nonbinding measures before residents of Winthrop and the part of Revere he represents.

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One ballot question implicitly takes aim at DeLeo for successfully pressing to erase the term limits for his speakership in 2015; to hike his own total yearly pay by about 50 percent in 2017; and for presiding over a Legislature where lawmakers and their aides routinely become lobbyists.

“Shall the state representative from this district be instructed to vote in favor of legislation that would repeal the $45,000 increase in annual compensation for the speaker of the House of Representatives . . . prohibit elected officials and their senior staff from engaging in any lobbying activity for five years once they leave office; and enact a rule that no member shall hold, for more than eight consecutive years, the office of speaker of the House of Representatives?”

The other is focused on environmental legislation that has not become law.

“He, as speaker of the House, has been blocking the passage of climate legislation,” said Daniel Mascoop, a 24-year-old transportation planner and engineer, and coauthor of the nonbinding questions. “Being from Massachusetts, I think the state can do a lot to lead [nationally] especially with climate change,” the Roslindale native said.

“But we need leadership to actually pass the bills,” he said, referring to top lawmakers.

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Max Dunitz, a 27-year-old studying at a graduate program in France and the other coauthor, said he collected signatures for 40 hours in the hot summer sun on Winthrop Beach and in front of the Winthrop Marketplace “because climate change is an emergency that we must respond to.”

Dunitz, a California native, said the two questions are interrelated, because it’s through control of committee chairmanships and the extra pay that comes with them that DeLeo “maintains power in an undemocratic fashion . . . to block serious action on climate change, education, immigration” and other issues.

Mascoop said he has no particular animus toward the speaker “other than making sure politicians act ethically.”

The speaker said the measures, which he just learned about this week, caught him by surprise.

“Didn’t know anything about it. Just heard about it just now,” he said walking to an event at Revere Beach.

He noted his support in his hometown remains strong, saying “we had a little fund-raiser, well more of a get-together, in Winthrop the other night. We had over 400 people, all very enthusiastic about my reelection.”

DeLeo, a Democrat who was first elected speaker in 2009 and made $157,500 in total pay last year, is among the most powerful people on Beacon Hill and presides over what is widely seen as the less progressive of the two chambers.

During this two-year legislative session, the Senate passed a wide-ranging climate bill. It was different than the bill referred to by the ballot question, but included some analogous provisions.

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One key part of the Senate-passed legislation: a mandate the state establish a market-based mechanism to limit carbon emissions — that is, a price on carbon.

To drive down greenhouse gas emissions, the provision would have imposed a new charge on fossil fuels like gasoline.

But after negotiation with the House, the final version of the climate bill that became law did not include a price on carbon or several other priorities for many environmentalists.

Dunitz said he hopes the questions will show DeLeo what his constituents believe on issues of climate change and government ethics.

While everyone in Massachusetts will have three statewide ballot questions, some local cities, towns, and legislative districts will have more.

It takes 200 certified signatures from constituents to put a nonbinding public policy question on the ballot in a state representative district, but there’s no mandate that the people who write the question or gather the signatures be district residents. For such nonbinding referenda, the attorney general determines whether the questions are ones of legitimate public policy.

Cindy Luppi, an environmental advocate who lives in Winthrop, recalled reading the ballot petitions in a supermarket parking lot, signing them, and then not thinking about them again until the Globe called.

Still, she said, “these are the kind of issues that ought to be talked about with public input, particularly the good-government questions raised by revolving doors between public officials and lobbyists,” she said.

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(DeLeo’s longtime chief of staff, James Eisenberg, resigned his House post on Dec. 30 of last year and registered as a lobbyist on Jan. 2 though he can’t lobby lawmakers until a year has elapsed.)

The speaker, for his part, said he’s never lost touch with his district despite his top position, and works very hard for constituents. DeLeo said he had not heard of any “discontent or anything else like that.”

And local elected officials, like state Senator Joseph A. Boncore of Winthrop, praise DeLeo’s hometown chops. “Though his role in the House requires statewide leadership, Speaker DeLeo remains as Winthrop’s strongest advocate,” Boncore said.

DeLeo hasn’t faced a serious challenge since he first won the seat in 1990.

But his House leadership team has sustained big losses this election season. Both DeLeo’s hand-picked budget chief and his assistant majority leader were felled by Democratic primary challengers.

And Dunitz, the MIT graduate studying in France, said he wants someone to take DeLeo on.

“I hope a young person in the district will see” the ballot results and “decide that it’s time to give him a run for it.”

Asked this week if he is concerned about a challenger trying to take him out in the future, the 68-year-old DeLeo replied, “Who knows?”


Joshua Miller can be reached at joshua.miller@globe.com.