The Massachusetts House elected Speaker Robert A. DeLeo to a sixth term Wednesday, continuing the Winthrop Democrat’s unprecedented hold on one of Beacon Hill’s most powerful leadership posts.
“I can tell you that I come into this job as speaker . . . with the same type of excitement, encouragement, and vitality as I did as the first day that I was elected here to this great body,” DeLeo told his colleagues during the House Democratic caucus meeting after he was nominated.
But amid the pomp and circumstance of the first day of the Legislature’s 191st session, signs appeared of the challenges DeLeo will face in the year ahead. Though no one formally ran against him for speaker in the party’s caucus meeting, eight Democrats, including four freshmen, voted “present” during the formal roll call — a quiet but thinly veiled protest to his leadership.
And down the State House hall, senators reelected as their president Karen E. Spilka, who sketched a lofty, if broad, agenda for her first full term that could press the more conservative House on various fronts.
The vote for House speaker, in which DeLeo received 119 ballots, continues his reign as the longest-serving speaker in the history of the Commonwealth, a tenure made possible in 2015, when the House, prodded by DeLeo and his supporters, voted to eliminate term limits on the influential position.
It was DeLeo himself who had reinstated the eight-year cap when he first took the gavel in 2009, as part of a bid to restore confidence in a scandal-scarred office. But six years later, he said his position had “evolved,” and he argued that the House would be better served by an experienced leader.
Representative Nika Elugardo, a freshman lawmaker and one of the eight who voted present, said she met with DeLeo and found him “delightful as a person.” But, she said, “I separate my emotional state on a person from whether or not they’re leading.
“I’m going to stand and, not make a statement, but send a signal to my colleagues,” said Elugardo, of Jamaica Plain. “I know there are a lot more people who are willing to vote ‘present,’ who want to see reform” in how the House operates.
In another sign of pushback against the status quo, a small contingent of members requested to change the Democratic caucus rules so that future votes nominating a speaker would be conducted by secret ballot. Supporters argued the change would improve the culture of the House and protect lawmakers from political reprisal should they support a candidate other than the victor in a leadership battle.
The motion failed in a voice vote, but it is an early indication of the growing desire from some lawmakers, including many freshmen, to change how the House operates. Critics have long bemoaned the chamber as a top-down institution, where little happens without the speaker’s blessing.
“I would like to make sure that the stature of the House is considered one where House members have independence,” said Representative Maria D. Robinson of Framingham, a freshman who put the motion forward and also voted “present” on speaker. Conversations with longer-serving members have shown her that even decades-old leadership battles leave deep scars, Robinson said, and a secret ballot would help “prevent any sort of fracture within the Democratic caucus.”
Other supporters noted that the Democrats in Washington use a secret ballot to decide their leadership roster, including House speaker.
Opponents of the proposed rule change said it would be a step backward in transparency for the chamber.
Voters “entrusted us to come here to the State House and take public votes and public stands on what we believe in. One of the most important things that we do is elect the speaker and our leadership for the next two years,” said Representative David Paul Linsky of Natick, who supported DeLeo. “We should all stand up and be counted.”
The House, and its burbling dissatisfaction, stood in stark contrast to the Senate, where lawmakers celebrated the opening of its refurbished chamber with a warm embrace of Spilka. The Ashland Democrat ascended the rostrum in the chamber — which reopened Wednesday following a $22.6 million, 18-month renovation — to sketch her priorities, referencing potential tax reform and a desire to “adequately” fund education as priorities.
She also emphasized the need to slow the rise of prescription drug prices; pushed for a reimagination of the state’s “outdated” commuter rail system; and hailed the potential of tackling climate change in meaningful ways, including with help from local officials.
Referencing her own father’s struggles, Spilka said she’ll also fight to end the stigma around mental health, calling it an underlying problem on issues ranging from drug addiction to homelessness.
“This is my personal promise to all of you — that achieving true mental health parity and finding creative ways to integrate preventative mental health care into our health care system — will be my priority, for this session, and frankly, for as long as it takes,” Spilka said.
Referencing two still-empty alcoves in the chamber, which she said will feature busts of abolitionist and author Frederick Douglass and first lady Abigail Adams, Spilka said it’s their voices, and the “voices of our future,” that help guide the Senate.
“They’re telling us,” Spilka said, “that the time for small ideas and incremental change is over.”