When Progressive Massachusetts hosted its first “lobby day” four years ago, the number of people who showed up fit into a small conference room on the State House’s top floor.
This week, more than 100 people gathered for the grass-roots group’s daylong push on Beacon Hill, imbibing Dunkin’ coffee before fanning out to lawmakers’ offices, gripping checklists of more than a dozen bills on everything from same-day voter registration to reducing greenhouse gases.
“Even though the state might not be as liberal as many people think it is, we should make it as liberal as people . . . like to think it is,” Jonathan Cohn, chairman of the group’s issues committee, told members from many of its 16 chapters across the state.
Amid growing frustration among some on the left that the Legislature isn’t moving boldly enough, activists are redoubling their pressure on Beacon Hill to act on their key legislative priorities. The progressives are pushing to bolster the state’s education funding system, battle climate change, and block local and state police officers from performing the functions of immigration officers, a bill known as the Safe Communities Act .
The session ahead, following some key 2018 election victories, will be a key test of just how much clout the Democrats’ progressive wing has gained, in either chamber, both on and off Beacon Hill. Their push comes in a political environment that includes a moderate Republican governor who wields infrequent vetoes and, in his fifth year in office, still enjoys a relatively close working relationship with Democratic leaders.
State Senator James B. Eldridge, one of the cofounders of the Senate Progressive Caucus, said the early days of the new session have been encouraging. He pointed to the recently passed ban on so-called gay conversion therapy for minors and elimination of the family cap on welfare benefits, both of which were sent to Governor Charlie Baker on Thursday. The Legislature also approved $8 million for family planning programs to replace the federal funds that the Trump administration is expected to halt in early May for health centers that discuss abortion.
But many of the most progressive measures that passed the Legislature in recent years, from hikes to the minimum wage to establishing a paid family and medical leave program, were largely powered by outside groups frustrated by a lack of movement on Beacon Hill. After activists and labor unions mounted campaigns to put these issues on the ballot, the Legislature forged last year’s grand bargain that raised the minimum wage and established paid family leave (as part of the deal, lawmakers also created a permanent sales tax holiday, among other changes).
“Had we not had the ballot initiative, either they wouldn’t have passed or they would have passed but not nearly as strong as they did,” said Lew Finfer, codirector of Massachusetts Communities Action Network and one of the leaders of Raise Up Massachusetts, a coalition of labor, faith, and community groups behind many of the initiatives.
Progressives were further emboldened by two 2018 electoral victories. Jeffrey Sánchez and Byron Rushing, both Democrats and the House’s highest-ranking Latino and black representatives, respectively, were swept from office last fall by primary opponents who charged they had fallen out of step with their liberal districts.
Sánchez, for one, was berated by challenger Nika Elugardo, a self-described “super left” Democrat, after a Senate-passed provision to stop supporting US Immigration and Customs Enforcement with state money was left out of the budget that Sánchez helped shepherd to the governor’s desk.
But whether this enthusiasm on the left can translate into more change inside the State House is still unclear.
One trial balloon may be the Fair Share Amendment , which would change the state constitution to allow for a surtax on high earners. Another potential stress test, according to Finfer, is the debate over the school funding formula and ultimately, how much new state money is dedicated toward it.
“That’s kind of the bellwether issue,” he said. “How much impact will the progressive legislators have on that?”
On paper, the Legislature’s progressive wing is strong. The House Progressive Caucus currently lists 58 members, the same number as last year but with an infusion of vocal freshmen members such as Elugardo, Lindsay Sabadosa
of Northampton, and Liz Miranda
of Dorchester, all of whom attended the Progressive Massachusetts event Wednesday. (Democrats hold 127 House seats out of a total of 160.)
At 19 members, the Senate Progressive Caucus comprises a majority of Senate Democrats and has grown so much that its members are in the process of electing a steering committee for the first time, said Eldridge.
But in practice, neither caucus votes as a bloc and thus many activists say the size of the groups doesn’t translate into influence.
In recent years, the Senate has been seen as the Legislature’s more liberal chamber, passing legislation — for example, on gender identity and environmental protections —
that often lands with a thud at the doorstep of the House, which had traditionally followed the more moderate Democratic politics of Speaker Robert A. DeLeo.
“At every step, the House ‘progressives’ heel to Speaker DeLeo, who is not particularly progressive, an autocrat, and seems to have scant legislative ambition,” wrote activist Charley Blandy on the progressive blog he founded, Blue Mass Group.
Other Democrats say the idea that the House and DeLeo are an impediment to progressive priorities is unfair and untrue.
They point to recent legislation championed by DeLeo, such as gun safety and transgender rights. Abortion rights advocates heaped praise on DeLeo for his role in pushing the recent emergency bill to replenish federal funding from the Title X program, which supports family planning and sexual health care services for low-income people.
“We have a bold agenda this session, from banning so-called gay conversion therapy as we did last month to a progressive approach toward health care and education,” said Representative Kate Hogan of Stow, a member of DeLeo’s leadership team. “As a practical progressive who likes to get things done, I’m proud to be a member of what is, by any metric, one of the most forward-leaning and progressive legislative chambers in the country.”
DeLeo’s office said no one from Progressive Massachusetts asked to meet with the speaker during the lobby day. “The speaker looks forward to building on this existing stack of accomplishments over this current session with other proposals including his to invest $1 billion over the next decade in community-driven, large-scale climate and resiliency projects,” said a DeLeo spokeswoman.
In the meantime, activists say they will continue to e-mail, call, and fill Beacon Hill offices, as did more than a dozen Progressive Massachusetts members who crammed into state Senator Michael F. Rush’s office on Wednesday. Wearing blue-and-white stick-on name tags, they spent more than half an hour with three aides, promoting their priority bills such as the Safe Communities Act, ranked-choice voting, and a measure to encourage the state to move to 100 percent renewable energy by 2045.
“It takes people like us to push things to the top of the pile,” Rachel Poliner, of West Roxbury, told them. “Times are different than they were a few years ago. . . . You could say that all of us — as voters and as legislators — have been a little too complacent. Why is the MBTA in the shape it’s in? Right, so we’re upping the ante.”