“Merci.” With that note of gratitude to her former colleagues on Beacon Hill, Marie St. Fleur this week brought an end to ten and a half years in the state House of Representatives. The Dorchester Democrat resigned Friday from her Fifth Suffolk District House seat and started her new job in City Hall the following Monday.
A few hours before she would give an emotional farewell speech, a State House custom afforded to outgoing legislators, to the 159 lawmakers gathered in the House chamber, St. Fleur sat down with the Reporter to reflect on her time in office, her new job as Mayor Thomas Menino’s chief of advocacy and strategic investment, her thoughts on a governor running for re-election and the candidates vying to succeed her.
“I’m satisfied with the course I’ve taken and the results. And I’m appreciative of the people of the Fifth Suffolk,” she said. “Marie who? That was the reaction when I first decided to run.”
But her new $120,000-a-year job is more “hands-on,” she said, in providing services to her neighborhood and coordinating education and job creation initiatives supported by local, state and federal investments. She will oversee the intergovernmental relations office.
“I’m where I’m supposed to be in order to continue the work,” she said.
“It’s about helping people and educating people, but in a different realm.”
Asked where she sees herself five years into the future, St. Fleur said that she is for the “first time in a long time just going to see what life brings.” “Once I turned 40 I learned you don’t control everything,” she said.
Mentioned by some as a potential candidate for mayor whenever Menino chooses not to run for re-election, St. Fleur said the top job in City Hall has “never been a life dream.” Sitting in her new City Hall office on the ninth floor, with a view of the plaza and Tremont Street below, she added: “Being a state rep was never a life’s dream, either.”
She said she has “always eyed” a seat in Congress. While Congressman MichaelCapuano was running for U.S. Senate last fall, St. Fleur told Democratic Party leaders she was interested in his seat.
With Capuano staying put, the seat is not available. “Not at the moment, anyway,” St. Fleur said with a smile.
The first Haitian-American legislator, St. Fleur says she won’t be endorsing a candidate in the four-way battle for the seat. The candidates include Boston schoolteacher Barry Lawton, community activist Carlos Henriquez, former state Rep. Althea Garrison and perennial candidate Roy Owens. All are Democrats and all have unsuccessfully run for office before.
The candidates have all “shown that they want to be in office,” St. Fleur said. “It’s not about the office, it’s about the work. The title gives you the bully pulpit and the access to do the work.”
As for Gov. Deval Patrick, who is facing a tough re-election battle, St. Fleur said she has felt a “different spirit of cooperation” from him with the Legislature.
Earlier this year, Menino gave Patrick a “C” for his first three years and a “B+” for the first couple of months of this year.
“What are we grading him against?” St. Fleur said with a chuckle. “I don’t know about this grading.”
She added: “It’s my observation he’s refocused and re-energized.” He is also reaching out to lawmakers more while understanding that “all of us are necessary to run this commonwealth,” St. Fleur said. “Each branch has a job and must do that job,” she said. “It’s checks and balances and give and take.”
Like Menino, St. Fleur backed one of Patrick’s rivals in the 2006 gubernatorial election, then-Attorney General Thomas Reilly. Reilly picked her as his running mate until media reports of financial troubles caused her to withdraw within 24 hours. She handily won re-election to the Fifth Suffolk later that year.
For St. Fleur, her legislative work has been focused around education. “I got into the business because of education,” she said, pointing to her support for the MCAS standardized test and charter schools. Both were not as popular when she first elected in 1999, she said.
The MCAS test has pointed to where the state needs to address the undereducated and led to a redirection of resources. “To me that’s a success, when you can shed a light on the problem,” she said.
Another point of pride is her hand in the creation of the Department of Early Education and Care in 2005 to oversee early education and care and after-school services for families. “Education is a continuum that begins at birth,” she said.
She also pointed to the One Family scholarship, a program for which she included money in the state budget. The program focuses on homeless families headed by single mothers. “My life story is so similar,” she said.
“It’s not about giving people subsidies,” St. Fleur said. The women in the program graduate from school, become self-sufficient and, for example, purchase three-deckers in Dorchester, she said.
“It’s about wealth creation,” St. Fleur said.
“Poverty breeds what we’ve seen,” she said, referring to the spate of gun violence that has hit Dorchester and Roxbury and caused the death of two 14-year-olds.
The two key moments of her tenure, as she recalls them: Her appointment as the first woman and person of color as vice chair of the budget-writing House Ways and Means Committee, and her vote to keep gay marriage from being put to a statewide referendum.
In the gay marriage debate, St. Fleur, who grew up Roman Catholic, said her support of gay marriage pitted her against family and friends. “It caused a lot of conflict for me personally,” she said.
St. Fleur recalled the “joy of the people who reclaimed a piece of their humanity that had been denied.”
She said it was “not the same as being delivered from slavery,” but there were similarities between the fight to abolish slavery and the right to marry. “Thank God it’s a living document,” she said of the U.S. Constitution. If it wasn’t, “I would not be freely talking to you right now.”
In her farewell speech, she touched on those issues and others, adding that helping Haitians deal with the devastating January earthquake was a “deeply rewarding experience.” She thanked lawmakers for helping her through “so many ups and downs.”
“You’ve helped me bury my father,” she said. “You’ve helped me bury people I love.”
She also briefly broke into a gospel song, “I Won’t Complain”: “I’ve had some hills to climb/I’ve had some weary days/And some sleepless nights/But when I look around/And I think things over/All of my good days/Outweigh my bad days.”
House lawmakers stood and applauded.
“I’ve had struggles in my life but none of it has been worthless,” she told the Reporter. “I’m just blessed. I’m still idealistic. I’m a realist, I’m pragmatic. But I do believe in the better angels.”
Material from State House News Service was used in this report.