Taking Beacon Hill by surprise, House Ways and Means Chairman Brian Dempsey (D-Haverhill) announced his resignation from the House of Representatives last Wednesday, to take a position at the corporate lobbying firm ML Strategies in September.
Dempsey, a conservative Democrat who has overseen the drafting of several austerity budgets, was widely viewed as next in line for Speaker of the House. He also played a leading role last session in weakening the solar incentive bill and the omnibus energy bill, and sided with the big business group AIM on the Equal Pay bill, Noncompetes, and the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act.
One of ML Strategies’ clients is Wynn Casinos–perhaps a reason for a last minute addition to the FY18 budget allowing casinos to serve drinks until 4 a.m. Needless to say, Progressives in Massachusetts will not be missing him.
A New Way on Ways & Means?
Ways & Means is by far the most powerful committee. Any legislation that involves public money must go through both the W&M in both the House and Senate. In that space, W&M can—and sometimes does—change legislation, with zero transparency or democracy. Any policies that require funding can be rendered ineffective by W&M’s level of funding for it, too.
These Ways and Means Committees are not required under the Legislature’s rules to report out any bill that is referred there. Therefore the Committees are frequently graveyards.
And, yeah, Ways and Means Committees write the budget. As they say, whoever holds the purse strings holds the power.
Over the weekend, Rep. Jeffrey Sanchez (D-Mission Hill) was named the next chair of the committee. Sanchez represents one of the most progressive districts in the state. What does this mean for the committee?
In our scorecards for the last two legislative sessions (188th, 189th), Sanchez fared modestly better than Dempsey and Speaker DeLeo. Each case, the difference was a result of Sanchez standing up for the rights of undocumented residents. And unlike Dempsey, Sanchez is a co-sponsor of the Safe Communities Act.
However, beyond those votes, Sanchez has a history of voting in lockstep with the Speaker, right or wrong. And his name is missing on the list of co-sponsors of key bills this session–from the $15 minimum wage to paid family and medical leave to single payer health care to ending mandatory minimum sentences. And under his chairmanship of the Health Care Financing Committee, the House has not taken the necessary steps to improve the quality and reduce the cost of care. Last session, Sanchez as the House chair sent single-payer legislation to study.
How will Sanchez be as the new chairman of this most powerful committee? Will there be a new spirit of transparency, collaboration in this new tenure? We’ll find out.
With his ascension to this powerful position, the role of progressive organizers within his district–like the great activists at JP Progressives–becomes even more important to the state as a whole.
Stepping Stones and Musical Chairs
As noted above, the Ways & Means Chairmanship is often seen as a stepping stone to the Speaker’s office. Although the House has abolished term limits for the Speaker, DeLeo may ultimately choose to retire. And it’s important to make sure that the next Speaker has a progressive vision for the state.
A strong coalition can be built, as noted by Rep. Russell Holmes (D-Mattapan):
Now is the time for the Massachusetts Black and Latino Legislative Caucus, the Progressive Caucus, the Women’s Caucus to be strong and united in our selection of the next speaker of the House. We should not do this individually; we should do this together so our voices are heard.
We couldn’t agree more. If the Progressive Caucus is to exist in more than name, then it should take on a more assertive role in shaping the direction of the State House.
Apparently, Speaker DeLeo doesn’t agree. In the committee shakeup that followed Sanchez’s promotion, DeLeo stripped Holmes of his vice chairmanship of the Joint Committee of Housing. Two years ago, DeLeo stripped Rep. Jonathan Hecht (D-Watertown) of a vice chairmanship after Hecht spoke out against abolishing term limits.
The centralization of power in the Speaker’s office has been a hurdle to the progressive legislation that would make Massachusetts live up to its liberal reputation.
If DeLeo stays at the helm for another four to five years, progressive legislators need a plan to push the Speaker for a bolder legislative agenda to invest in our schools and infrastructure, reduce inequality, reform our broken criminal justice system, model a transition to clean energy, protect and expand the rights of marginalized populations, and on and on. And if they don’t have a plan, then activists need to make them.
Four to five years is a long time. For persons suffering under injustice and insecurity, two is a long time, too.
But progressives, both inside and outside the State House, need to think long-term as well. The caucuses described by Rep. Holmes could place their support for the Next Speaker behind one person, and dramatically alter the future of progressive legislation. While the very rapid ascension of Sanchez to W/M chair puts him on an important stepping stone towards speakership, it is not by any means a fait accompli, and certainly the rank and file have the option of exercising their power for larger progressive goals.
This would take discipline, focus, and an ability to put the Common Good ahead of individual legislators’ narrow self interests—which too often are reduced to fears of conservatives’ wrath, and almost never liberals’ disappointments. It would be a glorious thing to see; there are moments of stepping up and changing the narrative—this is one of those for House Progressives (and every caucus whose aims have been stepped over for austerity budgets and corporate comforts).
At the very least, or, less inspiringly, come up with a key set of issue priorities, expectations, and rules reforms that the leading contenders for the next Speaker of the House would commit to.
Given that the House has already sought to water down or stop even very modest progressive policies in recent years, the stakes could not be higher.