Six years after the state’s House of Representatives voted to install a term limit to the body’s highest position, the legislators last week voted, 110-40, to do away with it, allowing Speaker Robert DeLeo to retain the position beyond the eight years, or four terms, he was limited to under the former rule.
All Dorchester-based representatives voted in favor of doing away with the limit, a move, some said, that protects their interests and ability to deliver for their constituents.
“I’ve seen personally how, in negotiations, whoever is a junior member, whether it’s between the governor and the speaker or some other configuration, when you have seniority in the speakership, it lends more power to the membership as well,” said Rep. Dan Hunt, adding that DeLeo’s “seniority over the Senate president and governor right now lets us be more effective as House members.”
A leader with a bigger seat at the bargaining table can be seen as boding well for every House member, and maybe especially beneficial for newly elected Dorchester representatives. Rep. Russell Holmes has seniority in the Dorchester delegation with just four years and counting in the House. At the very least, some say, it spares the rookies from having to pick sides in a leadership fight.
“Knowing that I don’t have to deal with a leadership fight in the next two years speaks volumes. I’ve heard horror stories about these fights and it’s nice not to deal with it,” said Rep. Evandro Carvalho.
Opponents, however, say the move gives current House Speaker Robert DeLeo, a Winthrop Democrat, unfettered power.
“It’s like magnetic north. All compasses tend to swing in its direction and by eliminating term limits we will make it more powerful still,” Rep. Jonathan Hecht, a Watertown Democrat, told the State House News Service in asking who would want to “cross swords” with a speaker who wields power over budget priorities and committee assignments and is nearly unbeatable in his or her district.
“If we’re honest with ourselves, we have to admit that absent term limits, there are no real checks on the speaker’s longevity in office,” Hecht said. “The strength of the House lies not in the longevity of its leadership but the vitality of its membership.”
For Holmes, the speaker vote “was one of the most difficult votes that I had,” he said. He does not believe in term limits and said he had a difficult time reconciling the fact that DeLeo was a strong supporter of a term limit when it was approved in 2009.
“This is a much different body than when term limits were instituted,” said Rep. Dan Cullinane in justifying his vote. “Of 160 members, the speaker said that less than half of the body has been in office for five years or less. So for around half the House of Representatives, this was their first opportunity to weigh in on term limits.”
Last week, DeLeo defended his actions.
“I wouldn’t say I’m going back on my word as much as the fact that over six years, rightly or wrongly, I have learned and feel I have learned in terms of what the importance is of doing away with the term limits we have in the rules,” he told reporters after discussing his plan to scrap the limit with fellow Democrats.
DeLeo has not said whether or not he will run for a fifth term as speaker in two years. Hunt noted that the term limit can be re-instated next time around if that’s the will of the House whose members can always take no-confidence vote in any given speaker.
“This speaker has done an amazing job at ushering through complex, controversial legislation that can sometimes split 50-50 in the general public,” Hunt said, “and he can get general reforms through in a timely manner, a reference to DeLeo’s successful initiatives on buffer zones outside of abortion clinics, transportation reform, and gun control. “He’s really hitting his stride and has the overwhelming support of the body,” Hunt added.
During a closed-door membership caucus ahead of Thursday’s vote, Holmes said, representatives had a “very frank” discussion with the speaker over their concerns about his motives for the term limit abolition, including influence, pay, or other motivators. Holmes, like Hunt, Carvalho, and Cullinane, said they heard barely a peep from normally outspoken constituents about the term limit issue.
“That also factored into my decision,” said Holmes. “Not a single constituent corresponded to me in any way in regard to this issue. It showed that this was inside baseball.”
Reporting from the State House News Service was used in this report.