In This Temple of Tradition, Everything Stops for the Ritual of the Maiden Speech

Friday, April 29, 2011

One cannot profess to understand the Massachusetts House of Representatives if he has never witnessed a maiden speech in the grand, wood-paneled oval that is the House chamber.

This past Wednesday, I had the good fortune to see not one but two representatives deliver their maiden speeches within an hour of each other. Sheila Harrington, Republican of Groton, was the first; Carlos Henriquez, Democrat of Dorchester, was the second.

Wednesday was the third straight day the House was in session for the purpose of finalizing its version of the new state budget, a project that requires legislators to take up and decide upon hundreds of proposed budget amendments.

These deliberations cover a tremendous range of programs, and often deal with line items running into the millions of dollars. Yet the process becomes uninteresting within 30 minutes and fatiguing within an hour. It's like watching a snow plow clear a perilous mountain road while travelling at one mile per hour. You know the thing could tumble off a cliff at any moment, but the tedious pace kills your interest. Against this backdrop, a maiden speech is a dose of excitement, a welcome reminder that politics is always about people even when (or especially when) the topic is money.

It's not the subject matter or diction of a maiden speech that make it noteworthy, it's the uniqueness of the moment.

Anyone elected to the legislature has been dreaming of the day he or she would enter the State House, be addressed as Representative or Senator, and shown to an office. Inauguration day, in other words. The next threshold moment comes when he or she rises to speak for the first time on the floor, when they finally get to add their official voices to the never-ending conversation of democracy.

Rep. Harrington gave her first speech in advocacy of an amendment (#590) she had filed in the hope of cutting spending in the public defenders program, which provides lawyers to indigent persons charged with crimes. This put her at odds with leadership; there was little chance her amendment would be adopted.

Nevertheless, House Speaker Robert DeLeo left his private office and came to the podium for the express purpose of introducing Rep. Harrington and encouraging members to give her a warm and attentive reception.

She spoke for about 10 minutes, earnestly and with patent conviction. Everyone in the chamber listened respectfully for the entire time she was at the mic, which is not what usually happens when someone is addressing the House, not by a long shot.

Then every member in attendance -- 154 out of 160 reps were there -- lined up in the center aisle to shake her hand, congratulate her, tell her what a good job she had done. Many embraced her and kissed her on the cheek. It actually took more time for Rep. Harrington to be extolled than it did for her to speak on her amendment, which went down to defeat anyway, 118 to 36, when action resumed.

The maiden speech of Rep. Henriquez was devoted to a section of the consolidated amendment on the judiciary adding $3 million to the community safety initiative named in honor of the late state senator, Charlie Shannon of Winchester, who entered politics after retiring from the State Police.

Again, Speaker DeLeo arrived to make the introduction. Rep. Henriquez spoke passionately but with careful self-control about how the "Shannon grants" had helped reduce violence and death while he was growing up on the streets of Boston. "Even a young man like me, raised in a loving household with two hardworking parents," he said, "was exposed to the reality of gang and gun violence, often tempted by fast money, peer pressure, or the camaraderie that gang life offers while parents may be at work."

Like Rep. Harrington before him, Rep. Henriquez commanded the attention of the pin-drop-quiet chamber throughout his remarks. And like her, he received a spirited round of applause from his colleagues, who then eagerly lined up to shake hands and congratulate him, and to prophesy for him a sparkling future at the State House.

Now, there were scores of budget amendments that had to be dealt with, and everyone knew the session would drag on into the warm spring night, but no one hurried. For a few minutes, they were happy to put aside partisan roles and maneuvering for their districts to follow an ages-old custom: the taking of the new one into the tribe.

Legislators who have served for two decades or more, and who have given thousands of speeches on the floor, can tell you still what their maiden speeches were like and who charged up to greet them first when they were done.

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