Sanchez Possesses the All-Important Trait of a Ways & Means Chair

Monday, July 17, 2017

This past Thursday, July 13, Haverhill’s Brian Dempsey surprised most everybody in the Massachusetts legislature -- and everyone who follows the workings of the legislature -- when word got out that he will soon be resigning from the House and relinquishing the chairmanship of Ways & Means Committee to direct a large Boston lobbying team.  

The House chair of Ways & Means is one of the five most powerful persons on Beacon Hill, the others being the governor, the president of the Senate, the Senate chair of Ways & Means, and the speaker of the house.

For years Dempsey has been seen as the speaker-in-waiting, the man destined to succeed Bob DeLeo when DeLeo decides to step down, whenever that may be. 
The sound of long-held expectations shattering is always loud.  It echoes impressively, like the blast from a large bomb dropped in a mountain range. 

Immediately, speculation began on DeLeo’s choice of a new Ways & Means chair.
Although his name wasn’t mentioned in the initial press accounts, I thought the safe choice was Steve Kulik, the Democrat vice chair of House Ways & Means, who grew up in Newton and has represented a collection of 19 small western towns for 27 years.  Kulik, age 66, has been a faithful No. 2 on Ways & Means for a long time. Promoting him would have enforced the notion that diligence and loyalty are rewarded in the lower branch.

Another potential advantage for the speaker in choosing Kulik, I thought, was that he does not have the political heft of some of the bigfoot House committee chairs who, if gifted now with the chairmanship of Way & Means, would automatically be seen as DeLeo’s hand-picked successor.
Kulik’s elevation to Ways & Means chair, I thought, would also give DeLeo time to evaluate carefully the pros and cons of every other putative speaker on his leadership team and to make at his leisure the painstaking choices required for the development of an optimal plan of succession.        

If, after the 2018 legislative elections, the time came when DeLeo wanted to appoint someone other than Kulik chair of Ways & Means, I thought, DeLeo could assert that Kulik’s leadership of the committee, by mutual understanding, had been provisional from the start and that he’d always had other things, of equal or greater importance, in mind for his esteemed colleague from the Berkshires.
Before leaving the office this past Friday, I went to the web site of our legislative tracking service, MassTrac, and printed out the biography of each of the House committee chairs I considered a strong candidate to succeed Dempsey.  In alphabetical order, they were:

  • Thomas A. Golden of Lowell, Committee on Telecommunication, Utilities and Energy
  • Harold P. Naughton, Jr., of Clinton, Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security
  • Jeffrey Sanchez of Boston, Committee on Health Care Financing
  • William M. Straus of Mattapoisett, Committee on Transportation
  • Joseph F. Wagner of Chicopee, Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies

Over the weekend, Speaker DeLeo made his choice of a new chair of Ways & Means and it was…Sanchez! 

The Sanchez news broke Sunday afternoon.  Several accounts last night and this morning described him as a surprise choice, while justly trumpeting that DeLeo has set in motion a chain of events that could culminate in the election of the first Latino to head a branch of the Massachusetts legislature.  Sanchez was born in Puerto Rico and came to the mainland U.S. as a young boy.   
The commentary on Sanchez also centered on his progressive views as a contrast to the usual centrist or conservative inclinations of legislators normally put in charge of the budget process.

I remember the period in 2005 when former House Speaker Sal DiMasi surprised a lot of people by naming Bob DeLeo, then a quiet, deliberately-low-profile chair of the Committee on Bills in Third Reading, chair of Ways & Means.
I remember talking about DeLeo’s promotion one day soon after with a friend and fellow lobbyist, a gentleman who had served with DeLeo in the House and is a member of DeLeo’s “class,” i.e., they both entered the legislature in 1991.

“You’ve known DeLeo a long time,” I said.  “Why do you think he was chosen?”
“Like most things,” my friend said, “it’s kind of simple:  Bobby DeLeo was the only one of Sal’s close friends who can say no to people.”

Saying no is a big part of running Ways & Means.  It’s not easy, it's no fun, being Mr. Bad News, especially when you have to reject pet proposals from persons you've served with for years, men and women you may be very fond of, personally.
Say all you want about Jeff Sanchez being a progressive, which is kind of a complimentary term for liberal.  Sanchez is a progressive.  What's truly salient are two attributes he's exhibited during his chairmanship of Health Care Financing:  he's willing to do the hard and tedious work of mastering the numbers, and he can say no to any colleague seeking his support for a new and ostensibly promising health care initiative if he's not convinced it's worthwhile, financially or operationally.  Sanchez is a hard sell.

Sanchez is also a good man, a serious legislator, and, wonder of wonders, a non-jaded idealist at age 48. 

The Speaker made a good call.