The political world – yes, even on Beacon Hill – is changing before our eyes. And those who fail to realize that, those who remain in denial, will ultimately find their power diminished.
Not that Massachusetts House Speaker Robert DeLeo is going anywhere anytime soon. But surely the loss this year of his trusted Ways and Means chair, Jeff Sanchez – ousted by Nika Elugardo — ought to serve as a warning that there is a price to be paid for loyalty, that the face of his membership is changing and the face of its leadership should as well.
A record number of women – 46 — will be taking their seats in the 160-member Massachusetts House next month. Along with 11 women in the Senate, that puts the Legislature’s membership at 28.5 percent female. Sure, there are a lot of places where that percentage would be looked upon as pathetic, but here the Old Boys culture dies hard. It has, to date, never produced a female House speaker.
Interestingly the state Senate now has its third female president in little more than a decade and has rarely lacked for smart, powerful women in its ranks. Political leaders still reference the legendary Senate Ways and Means chair Patricia McGovern, who was the first to identify and tackle the state’s “budget busters,” as she called them — Medicaid costs, health insurance for state employees, the MBTA, debt service, and state employee pensions. And if you’re thinking some of them remain budget busters, you wouldn’t be wrong.
Current Senate President Karen Spilka served last year as chair of that branch’s budget-writing committee before ascending to the presidency in July, leaving the Ways and Means post vacant. Vice chair Joan Lovely, who has expressed an interest in being promoted to chair, has already slipped into the role, cochairing the all-important revenue-estimate hearings this month — the first step in coming up with a consensus revenue figure that provides the bottom line in this budget-balancing act. Lovely would certainly be in a position to hit the ground running.
DeLeo, meanwhile, has some critical choices to make as he enters his second decade as speaker. Also among the missing come January will be 75-year-old Byron Rushing, who has represented his Boston district in the House since 1982 and was assistant majority leader at the time of his Democratic primary defeat by Jon Santiago, an emergency room resident at Boston Medical Center.
But Ways and Means is where the real power is — and where the next speaker will probably come from. And that’s all up to DeLeo. A lot of names are being tossed around now – just as they were in July 2017, when Sanchez made no one’s list but DeLeo’s. But the speaker has traditionally favored other urban lawmakers for the post, all of them male. It’s time for DeLeo to get out of his comfort zone.
Alice H. Peisch of Wellesley, the able chair of the Education Committee, is more than up to the task. So too are Jennifer E. Benson of Lunenberg, chair of the Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight; Patricia Haddad , currently speaker pro tempore and third-ranking Democrat in the House; and Claire D. Cronin, chair of the Judiciary Committee.
Each year when the House version of the budget is released, DeLeo holds court for the media in his office with his Ways and Means chair at his right hand. Next year — for the first time ever — it would be entirely right if that person looked a lot like the other 50 percent of the Massachusetts population.