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Lobbyist or legislator? Brian Dempsey can’t be both

State Representative Brian Dempsey, Democrat of Haverhill, spoke in 2010 at the State House.Associated Press/File

Timing is everything.

A worn-out adage, for sure — but it’s also a truism that takes an outsized meaning in the State House every time a legislator announces plans to resign from elected office. In a major Beacon Hill summer surprise, House Ways and Means Committee chairman Brian Dempsey, a state representative from Haverhill, dropped the news he will be leaving his seat to take a job with ML Strategies, one of the state’s leading lobbying firms. Except he hasn’t said when he’ll step down.

Dempsey, who has a distinguished record on Beacon Hill as a straight-shooting budget expert, needs to do one more thing right: Resign his seat quickly to eliminate any perceptions of conflict of interest, and so that Massachusetts can avoid another poorly contested special election.


To his credit, Dempsey formally stepped down on Monday at 9 a.m. from his chairmanship, which, aside from governor, House speaker, and Senate president, is the most powerful job on Beacon Hill.

With the ascension of state Representative Jeffrey Sanchez to House Ways and Means chair, the quick transition ensures that Dempsey himself won’t be handling budget vetoes and amendments from Governor Charlie Baker in a difficult budget season.

But he might still be voting on them as a state representative, because Dempsey’s office hasn’t revealed the exact departure date. After an inquiry, a spokesman for Dempsey said it was his understanding that the resignation will be sometime this week, but that the legislator is working on setting an exact date.

When he departs, Dempsey will be subject to a one-year cooling off period before he can lobby his former colleagues. But he clearly has an immediate conflict for as long as he holds his seat.

Consider just one example: The House budget proposal included a provision to extend hours that casinos can serve alcohol until 4 a.m., a measure that Dempsey oversaw and approved. Wynn Casinos is one of ML Strategies’ biggest lobbying clients and would obviously benefit tremendously from the amendment.


Dempsey’s lack of clarity on his resignation date also affects when a special election will be held to fill the seat, which includes most of the city of Haverhill. Ideally, the election should be held on Nov. 7, the same day as municipal elections, to ensure higher turnout. Dempsey would need to notify Secretary of State William Galvin of a resignation within the next two weeks.

But resigning legislators — or the legislative leaders who schedule special elections — have been known to time votes to avoid high-turnout dates. About a quarter of all Massachusetts legislators were originally elected in special elections, which ensured that by the time they faced their first regular election they already had the advantage of incumbency. It’s a bad tradition that rewards insiders able to mount a campaign on short notice. Dempsey deserves congratulations for his new job — and then a quick push out the State House door.