Sunday, May 26, 2024

The House of Representatives’ chamber at the Massachusetts State House in Boston. (Photo: Joe Passe via Flickr)

All but one of Cambridge’s five state representatives voted Wednesday against reinstituting term limits on the speaker of the House. This was a vote to uphold the State House’s longtime oppressive power structure and toxic internal culture that disproportionately excludes the voices of BIPOC, the working class and renters – essentially everyone but corporate lobbyists. Constituents demand change in our State House, and that starts with empowering our rank-and-file legislators to stand up to conservative leadership.

Last December, as an organizer with Act on Mass’ “Transparency is Power” campaign, I published an op-ed detailing the urgent need for more transparency in the Massachusetts Legislature. I explained how, for decades, leadership in the State House has diminished transparency, centralized power in the hands of the speaker and shut out constituents from the lawmaking process entirely.

Our campaign’s grassroots challenge to oppressive institutional powers within the State House terrified leadership – so much that, in January, speaker Ronald Mariano announced in an unprecedented move that the House would push its rules vote to July. The House intended to use the six extra months to review its internal rules.

While Mariano and his cronies were busy deflecting accountability and shrouding their work from the public, we continued to organize. “The People’s House” campaign, co-led by Mijente, Indivisible Mass Coalition, Our Climate and Sunrise Boston, launched April 21. And on Wednesday, House lawmakers overwhelmingly struck down our three amendments that would have made all committee votes public, mandated that bills be made available for 48 hours before receiving a vote (an even weaker version of our initial demand for 72 hours before votes), and reinstated term limits for the speaker of the House.

I believe this last amendment was the most important – and proved to be the most controversial – of the three. Massachusetts’ State House has one of the most powerful speakers of any statehouse in the nation. Unlike the U.S. Congress, which has democratic leadership elections and practices pay parity, our State House has a speaker with unchecked authority over leadership and committee chair appointments. He therefore controls the salaries of more than 54 percent of all representatives and 66 percent of the Democratic representatives, ensuring leverage over two-thirds of Democrats and a majority of the chamber with the ability to threaten to demote them at any time and cut their paychecks.

Many rules reforms are needed to end the speaker’s authoritarian control, but term limits are a simple first step that would help ensure more democratic control and diverse representation in one of the most powerful positions of our state government. While I don’t support term limits for legislators themselves, a position such as the speakership that isn’t directly elected by the people deserves to be limited.

There is a history of abuse of power from the position: former speaker Bob DeLeo reinstituted term limits when he was first elected, but later reversed his position so he could gain complete authoritarian control over the House and ultimately serve more than 11 years as speaker. During DeLeo’s last full term in office, on average each Democrat voted against him fewer than two times per year. And the three speakers preceding DeLeo had left office only amid investigations and later convictions of fraud, corruption and bribery.

Why is this amendment to reinstitute term limits controversial? Simply put, it is a direct challenge to leadership’s hegemony. And rank-and-file legislators’ fear of the speaker – who could demote them, decrease their salaries and number of staffers, or move them to a moldy basement office – too often outweighs their commitment to actually representing constituents. Not every representative lets this fear stop them from doing what is right: Erika Uyterhoeven and Tami Gouveia introduced the amendment for speaker term limits and were joined by four other Democrats in voting in favor, including Cambridge’s Mike Connolly.

It is clear that some of our state representatives have no intention of ending their obedience to leadership. My biggest takeaway from the past nine months I have spent organizing to make the State House more democratic is that our goals will not be achieved with the current makeup of the House. We need substantial change in membership, and that will come only through electoral gains. That means challenging powerful members of leadership as well as the rank-and-file legislators who willfully enable them.

Cambridge is widely considered one of the most progressive cities in the nation. I consider it truly embarrassing that so many of our state legislators have missed the moment on a basic issue of good government. I am turning 18 in 2022, and I hope to be able to cast my first ballot for a true champion of transparency and democracy. I implore Cambridge’s state representatives to start standing up to House leadership or look out for a primary challenge – because constituents deserve legislators that work for us, not the speaker.

Calla Walsh is an organizer for Act On Mass and has previously worked in climate advocacy and on federal, state and local campaigns