Amidst crisis, Mariano plunges into speakership

New Speaker Ronald Mariano addressed his colleagues on Dec. 30 after being elected leader of the Massachusetts House. Sam Doran/SHNS photo

The Ronald Mariano era is here, and there will be no gently paced transition period in the Massachusetts House.

Mariano, a 74-year-old Quincy Democrat and longtime deputy to now-departed Speaker Robert DeLeo, ascended to the speakership on Dec. 30 with only six days remaining in the unusual 2020-2021 lawmaking session, against the backdrop of a still-raging pandemic, and with three conference committees still working to find compromise on major bills, one of whom is “very far apart,” according to the speaker.

The state’s ongoing Covid-19 response is “job number one” for Mariano, he told lawmakers in his inaugural speech, but it is not the only topic on which he has set his sights.

Mariano listed a range of other priorities, including housing production, investing in community colleges, helping community hospitals survive, improving rural internet access, strengthening infrastructure, expanding offshore wind, and lowering pharmaceutical costs.

He also offered a glimpse into how he will approach the job: While he praised the value of vocal advocacy, the new speaker placed emphasis on consensus-building and finding compromise.

“I welcome these new voices, hungry for change, who are not afraid to press for more, and who expect us to be bold,” he said. “But it’s also my job to know that just agreeing in principle to calls for bold change is not enough. In the reality of governing, we must live in the world of the possible and not make perfection the enemy of progress.”

No worker should have to commute more than an hour to get to a job, Mariano said. He called for the Legislature to renew its commitment to more robust K-12 school funding made in the Student Opportunity Act, whose promised first-year increases were trimmed due to the budgetary impacts of the pandemic.

Warning that Massachusetts stands at a “breaking point” for housing infrastructure, Mariano suggested that zoning reform could be a solution, in a possible reference to a long-sought Gov. Baker proposal to lower the voting threshold for local zoning changes.

“People want to live and work in Massachusetts, but we don’t have the housing stock to welcome them,” Mariano said. “Meaningful zoning reform can change that.”

As part of economic development bills they passed, both branches approved language that would lower the vote needed at the local level for many zoning changes from a two-thirds majority to a simple majority. However, the legislation has been stuck in House-Senate conference committee negotiations for more than five months.

A 30-year veteran of the House who first went up to Beacon Hill when William Weld was governor, Mariano described his election as speaker as the “culmination” of a career in public service and pledged that his “door will continue to be open.”

DeLeo didn’t disclose his interest in pursuing a new job until last month, during the ongoing lame duck session and after his election to a new two-year term. But, Mariano said in an interview, DeLeo floated the idea of stepping down with him just before Covid hit.

“I thought I might go out the door with him. I was tired,” Mariano said. “I never set out to run to be the speaker, and I was quite happy being his majority leader, so he decides to leave and I have to decide, do I want to go through this again with my fourth speaker? Or do I just want to hit the road with the guy who’s been good to me?

“But after talking to a few folks and listening to their urgings to retain some institutional memory during the pandemic, some experienced leadership, they convinced me that the race – there would be no race – that it would be fairly easy for me to win the speakership rather than an intense personal campaign or battle,” Mariano said. “That was sort of the defining issue.”

He faced some opposition: Rep. Russell Holmes, a Mattapan Democrat and former leader of the Black and Latino Legislative Caucus, who complained about a about a pattern of insular and secretive succession decisions stretching back to the departure of former Speaker Sal DiMasi. A contested speaker’s race, Holmes said, would ensure “we won’t just roll over and hand over the speakership in another backroom deal like they did 12 years ago.

“It’s a pattern. It literally does not matter,” Holmes said last month. “Many of us have been elected since DiMasi, and still his corrupt poisonous tree still determines who the speaker is 15 years later. That’s unacceptable to me. It’s like none of us matter. This is what I call structural racism personified.”

Holmes took himself out of the race last week.

All 31 members of the House’s Republican caucus cast their votes for Minority Leader Brad Jones, who said in a statement that he looks forward to “continuing and building upon the professional and cordial relationship” he shares with Mariano.

Only three Democrats did not back Mariano: Rep. Jonathan Hecht of Watertown voted present, while Rep. Denise Provost and Rep. Tami Gouveia — the only one among the three who will still be a member of the House next session — did not cast votes.

In a statement after the vote, Gouveia said she did not vote for Mariano because she was unable to communicate with the majority leader beforehand and thus did not have “ample evidence that Speaker Mariano would be the bold leader that my constituents expect and our state needs during this perilous time.”

Several Democrats who declined to support DeLeo two years ago opted Wednesday to back Mariano. Reps. Maria Robinson, Nika Elugardo, and Patrick Kearney all voted for Mariano after voting “present” on the speakership decision in January 2019, as did retiring House Dean Rep. Angelo Scaccia, former DeLeo opponent Rep. John Rogers, and Holmes.

Scaccia, who introduced Mariano to the rostrum for his acceptance speech, prayed for “wisdom and knowledge for you, Mr. Speaker, in these trying, testy, and turbulent times.”

“This gift will serve you well as our leader of the greatest institution conceived by man,” Scaccia, the only lawmaker other than Mariano who gave remarks Wednesday, said. “Be wise, be just, be sagacious in your new role, and history will record you as one of our finest. This role of dean reminds me of the barracks refrain of long ago, that old soldiers never die, they just fade away. Like that old dean and soldier, I, too, fade away from this chamber. But Mr. Speaker, may God bless you in all your future endeavors.”

Mariano in response praised Scaccia, indicating he would “miss those acrimonious debates on the film tax credit every session,” and other members of the House who are set to depart at the end of the current session.

Senate President Karen Spilka, alongside whom Mariano will now need to work on the most critical Beacon Hill efforts, offered brief congratulations to the new speaker.

“Enjoy this special day,” she said in a statement. “I look forward to working closely together to accomplish great things for the residents of our Commonwealth!”

Sam Doran and Chris Van Buskirk contributed reporting.