House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo and Senate President Karen E. Spilka unveiled their leadership teams Thursday, shuffling in two new chairmen to lead the State House’s powerful budget committees just weeks before the state spending debate begins.
Representative Aaron Michlewitz, a former State House aide who rose through the House hierarchy to handle thorny legislation involving ride-hailing and short-term rentals, will take over the House Ways & Means Committee.
Senator Michael J. Rodrigues, a 23-year Beacon Hill veteran, will assume the post in the Senate, where he last year led a closely watched ethics investigation into the Senate’s former leader.
The appointments were subject to a monthslong guessing game in the State House, where, in a rare twist, neither of the influential committee’s past leaders were returning.
But the flurry of appointments — unveiled hours apart after Democrats in both chambers met behind closed doors — came with a notable exception. DeLeo left open the chair of the Committee on Tourism, Arts & Cultural Development while an ad hoc legislative panel investigates misconduct allegations against a House member.
Representative Paul McMurtry, then chairman of the House Committee on Personnel and Administration and a member of DeLeo’s leadership team, is accused of grabbing the backside of an incoming legislator during a December cocktail hour on the University of Massachusetts Amherst campus. The school had organized a three-day orientation for incoming senators and representatives.
The accusations were first reported by the Globe, which spoke to three lawmakers who either witnessed or were told of the alleged incident. McMurtry has denied the allegations.
DeLeo said that after receiving secondhand reports of “inappropriate conduct,” he referred them to the House counsel, and an outside consultant later determined the allegation was “plausible.” The legislative committee, which is confidential, will ultimately decide “whether and how to discipline a member,” according to a DeLeo spokeswoman.
DeLeo’s office has not identified McMurtry as the focus of the investigation. But DeLeo did not reappoint McMurtry to his post atop the Committee on Personnel, and when asked Thursday whether he was specifically keeping open a spot for the 53-year-old, DeLeo said he was awaiting the results of “an item pending . . . in HR.”
The tourism and arts committee would also appear to fit McMurtry’s background; he owns the Dedham Community Theatre.
“I just want to see what the outcome is and what the conclusion of HR is relative to that before I make a decision,” DeLeo told reporters.
Michlewitz, a 40-year-old North End Democrat, replaces Representative Jeffrey Sánchez, who was ousted in a Democratic primary by Nika Elugardo in September — less than 15 months after he was tapped to lead the House budget once longtime chair Brian S. Dempsey decamped for a top lobbying firm.
Michlewitz was the House’s lead negotiator on closely watched legislation regulating and taxing short-term rentals and, in 2016, the law governing ride-for-hire companies, such as Uber and Lyft. He has also served as chair of the House Committee on Financial Services and, before that, chair of the Committee on Public Service. He was viewed as a potential choice to fill the open budget chairmanship two years ago before Sánchez was selected.
A former aide to then-Speaker Salvatore DiMasi, Michlewitz won the special election to fill DiMasi’s seat in 2009 after he resigned amid an ethics cloud. (DiMasi was later convicted on federal bribery charges.)
DeLeo praised Michlewitz on Thursday, calling him someone “who really works well in dealing with all of the members, their particular interests and concerns.” DeLeo — who had faced calls to name a woman as budget chair — also noted his selection of Denise C. Garlick as the committee’s vice chair and Jennifer E. Benson’s post as chair of Health Care Financing
“I look at this as a team,” DeLeo said. “It’s not just about one position. It’s about all positions.”
Michlewitz enters the role just two months before the House is scheduled to debate its budget in April. He did not say whether he would consider new taxes. “We have the next 10 weeks here to kind of go through the budget process, and I think we’re going to make sure that we’re taking a look at all options on the table,” he said.
Rodrigues — first elected to the House in 1996 and the Senate in 2011 — replaces Spilka, who started last session as the Senate’s budget chief before rising to the chamber’s presidency in July. She corralled the votes to take the gavel from Senator Harriette L. Chandler, who herself was picked to replace former president Stanley C. Rosenberg on an interim basis.
A Democrat “in the boring middle,” as he put it, Rodrigues will now handle the purse strings of a chamber that has increasingly tracked left, including in support of seeking more revenue in the budget process. Rodrigues said he last year supported a failed constitutional amendment that would have imposed a surtax on millionaires, but cautioned Thursday that he’s “not ready to commit to anything yet” as budget chair.
“I’ve always kept an open ear to all my colleagues,” he said. “We will take it one step at a time. It’s still too soon to tell what items are going to percolate to the top.”
Rodrigues last year led the Senate’s Committee on Ethics during its investigation of Rosenberg, taking center stage when the committee’s report ultimately found Rosenberg had failed to protect the Senate and its staff from his husband, Bryon Hefner, despite knowing Hefner had harassed them.
The position launched Rodrigues into an uneasy spotlight, but one that many in the Senate felt he handled well.
“Senator Rodrigues is a trusted member of the Senate and will provide a steady hand in Senate Ways and Means at a critical time for the state,” said Spilka, who cited his experience, work as Ethics chair, and chops as the owner of his family’s flooring business in choosing him.
Wielding control over the $40-plus billion state budget is a prized stepping stone for Beacon Hill’s politically ambitious: The Ways and Means leaders attract piles of campaign donations from lobbyists and other interests looking to gain influence, and they gain a platform that can help lift them toward other top positions in the State House.
Both DeLeo and Spilka served as the budget chair immediately before leading their chambers.
But the State House was thrown into an unusual state of uncertainty in recent months after neither of the previous budget leaders were returning to their seats. And in both cases, the chamber lacked a clear successor.
In the Senate, there were a variety of other changes. Senator Marc R. Pacheco — who has served as the chamber’s Senate Pro Tempore, its third-highest-ranking position — was replaced by Senator William Brownsberger, a close Spilka ally and Belmont Democrat.
Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz, the Jamaica Plain Democrat who had led the Senate’s Committee on Education, was moved from the post in favor of Senator Jason Lewis. Chang-Díaz had established herself as a vocal proponent for overhauling the state’s troubled school funding formula, including last month rolling out a revamped version of the Senate’s funding bill from last session alongside dozens of officials and advocates.
Lewis said he supports Chang-Díaz’s bill, and has worked with her on other education policy issues “for years.”
“I anticipate working very closely with her,” he said, “and with other senators as well. Education funding is a top priority issue, I can say, for every senator and every representative.”
Senator Joan Lovely, who had publicly vied for the budget post, will take over as chair of the Senate’s Committee on Rules. She is also one of three assistant majority leaders behind Cynthia Creem, who will resume as the chamber’s majority leader.
“I think Senator Spilka made the right choice” in picking Rodrigues, Lovely said.