Russell Holmes Supports Term Limits for Massachusetts House Speaker; Ron Mariano Doesn’t

Printed from:

By Chris Van Buskirk
State House News Service

With Massachusetts House Speaker Robert DeLeo expected to step down from his post soon after a record 12-year stint in the office, the perennial question of how long a person should serve as the leader of the lower chamber may surface in the new session.

A push to institute term limits for House speaker appears every so often when the branch meets to reconsider its session rules and the two men running for the top post — Majority Leader Ronald Mariano (D-Quincy) and state Representative Russell Holmes (D-Mattapan) — differ on the matter. While the rules debate for the 2020-2021 legislative session is still weeks, if not months away, State House News Service reached out to both lawmakers last week to find out their position.

“Absolute power corrupts absolutely. I think there should be some rules around it. And we should not as a body just haphazardly change it and find whatever reason we would think of it has to be to keep a person on,” Holmes told State House News Service. “We all need to just realize that we’re here in these roles temporarily, and we need to respect that we have a temporary role to try to help society and then move on.”

Mariano, who is expected to succeed DeLeo after he steps down, kept out of the public eye last week but a spokesman confirmed his opposition to terms limits should the House revisit the idea during their rules debate during the 2021-2022 legislative session.

“Leader Mariano is against term limits and thinks that’s what we have regular elections for,” said Mariano spokesman Joe Masciangioli.

While voters don’t have a direct say over who serves as speaker, they elect the 160 state representatives who decide that question at the outset of each two-year session, or whenever the speaker’s chair is vacant.

At the start of each legislative session, both the House and Senate must agree upon sets of rules that will govern how business is conducted in each chamber.

In 2014, former Senate President Therese Murray announced she would not seek re-election that year, since she was about to hit the eight-year limit on her presidency. During a caucus with Senate Democrats in January 2014, Murray made it clear that she intended to finish out her term and not leave early for another job. Then-state senator Stanley Rosenberg was elected to succeed her in the next two-year term.

Terms limits on the top job in the House have taken twists and turns over the years.

With Speaker Thomas Finneran serving at the time, the House struck down term limits for speakers in 2001 on a 112-39 vote. In 2003, state Representative Ruth Balser (D-Newton) offered an unsuccessful amendment during a rules debate that would have placed a cap on years a speaker could serve.

Term limits for the speaker were reinstated in 2009 after former House Speaker Sal DiMasi left abruptly and DeLeo beat state Representative John Rogers (D-Norwood) in the race to succeed him. At the time, DeLeo said the move could restore public trust in the House after the indictment and conviction of DiMasi on federal corruption charges.

Members were not forced to vote directly on term limits in 2009 as it was rolled into a larger rules package that focused on areas like ethics, process, and voting reform. During an early February session, the 2009-2010 House rules passed 138-16 — Mariano is listed as “not voting” and Holmes was not in office at the time.

As DeLeo was at the end of his allowed tenure of speaker in 2015, a push swelled to remove the measure. The Winthrop Democrat, who supported the 2009 reform, was six years into his term as speaker and members argued that the House would be in a weakened negotiating position with the administration and Senate if DeLeo was viewed as a lame duck.

While the 2015 rules did away with the term limit, then-state representative Geoff Diehl (R-Whitman) offered an amendment that would have kept the cap — and both Mariano and Holmes voted against the proposal, which failed on a 45-110 vote.

“I think, just in general, if a term limit of eight years is good enough for the president of the United States it should be good enough for any one of us in our Legislature,” Diehl said during the 2015 session. “In 15 states, citizens have voted to place term limits on leadership positions, all set at eight years, with the exception of Nevada and Louisiana.”

Then-state representative Garrett Bradley (D-Hingham), who first ran for office against a 24-year incumbent, opposed the amendment and said “we have term limits, they’re called elections and we just had an election in this body.”

“We voted in an individual unanimously to lead this House. And this isn’t about that individual. It’s about this House, this House as an institution, and how we want to be viewed by our co-equal branches of government whether it be the administration or whether it be the Senate,” Bradley said, referring to DeLeo’s recent election as speaker. “Why would we limit ourselves in those negotiations, and I have great respect for both, but why would we limit ourselves by having an individual who is viewed as a lame duck?”

At the time, DeLeo said his position on the matter had “evolved” in the years since the limits were imposed.

“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,” DeLeo told a group of reporters on January 29, 2015, the same day the lower chamber voted to remove the measure.

Diehl revisited the topic during the 2017 rules debate, but his amendment to reinstitute a term limit was ruled “beyond the scope” by the presiding lawmaker — Mariano.

Holmes said he would not be surprised if a representative attempts to insert limits on the speaker’s tenure when the House debates rules in 2021.

“It is not uncommon that someone puts in the rules to go back to a term limit,” Holmes said. “I think it’d be very interesting this year because I don’t think there’ll be a whole bunch of pushback from Mariano, obviously he’s 74 years old. So there was a pushback when it was Speaker DeLeo and he had already extended it but I don’t think there will be that much pushback this year. It will be interesting to see.”