Inquiring Minds Want to Know, Who Will Ascend to Dean of the House in 2021?

Friday, July 10, 2020

Let others obsess over Trump vs. Biden and Markey vs. Kennedy.  Me, I'm keeping my eyes on the process that will produce the next dean of the House of Representatives.

"The Dean."  There's something about the title and role I find interesting...and I don't really know why.  It has to do, I think, with its paradoxical place in the legislative scheme of things -- a place where meaninglessness and significance strangely combine.

Being the dean -- that is, the officially recognized longest-serving member of the body -- is an honorary deal.  The dean does not, for example, get a bump in pay or a special State House office with The Dean on the door.

And the dean does not get to duck any of the normal duties, responsibilities or problems of a state representative.  As for the responsibilities of being the dean, those are like being a member of the British royal family: you're mainly there to make people feel good.

Members of the House are fond of hailing the dean and enunciating his title before audiences small and large, as in, "You're looking especially dapper today, Dean," and "It's time, now, that we hear from The Dean in this debate."

Whoever is dean is not supposed to get too puffed up about his title and (honorary) stature, except in a mock serious way, as perfected by the late David Flynn of Bridgewater, who was the dean one dean ago.

The ideal dean, rather, wears the honor lightly and thereby enhances the ways in which the use of the title can lighten the mood in the chamber, like the sun breaking through the clouds of the turgid action on the floor.

However, once every two years, the dean gets to exercise actual authority.  For a brief spell, the senior member holds the reins of power usually held fast in the grip of the speaker.

It happens on that day in early January when the representatives elected or re-elected the previous November have taken the oath of office and the members of the majority party have gathered in one place to choose their leaders for the new two-year legislative term.  The dean is the official presiding officer of that caucus.

On those occasions, if the dean is on good terms with an incumbent speaker waiting to be re-elected, he will dispense with his duties speedily and hand the gavel to the speaker.

If the opposite is the case, as has been the case since Angelo Scaccia of  Boston became dean in 2012, the dean will do as much as possible to drag out the process.  He will deliberately prolong his time in the spotlight to get under the skin of the speaker, Bob DeLeo in this case, who's held the position since 2009, and the speaker's leadership team-in-waiting.

A digression is in order to explain the endearingly generous way the House allots deanship "points"...

There are representatives like the late David Flynn, and like Ted Speliotis of Danvers and Tom Walsh of Peabody, who have served in the House, left to take up other professional endeavors, and later ran for the House again and were re-elected, sometimes decades later.  In every such case, their "gap years" are treated as if they did not exist when it comes to designating the dean.  In other words, the House bases dean eligibility on the very first time one takes the oath of office as a representative.  Flynn, for example, served from 1964 to 1972, was out of office from 1973 to 1997, was elected to the House again in 1998, and stayed in the House for 12 years before retiring at age 78.  When Flynn "re-upped" in 1998, he was, by House custom, immediately recognized as the dean because his eligibility was rooted in the year 1964, the first year of his first term.  Flynn was that rare bird, an instant dean!

Now back to the main narrative..

Scaccia's decision not to seek re-election this year -- and a reasonable decision it was, given his age (77) and the 40-plus years he's served as the representative from Hyde Park -- has created the opportunity for a new dean to step up in 2021.

Waiting behind Scaccia, in terms of longevity in the lower branch, are Ted Speliotis and Tom Petrolati of Ludlow.

Speliotis has had two House stints, the first beginning in 1979.  Petrolati started in the House on Jan. 7, 1987, and has served there continuously since.  Neither will become the dean in 2021 because both are retiring from politics at the end of this year.

Waiting behind Speliotis and Petrolati, longevity-wise, are Rep. Kevin Honan of the Brighton section of Boston and Tom Walsh, both of whom were sworn in for the first time on Jan. 7, 1987, more than 33 years ago, in the same freshman class as Petrolati.

In cases like those of Honan and Walsh, whose eligibilities for dean are both measured from 1-7-87, the tie is broken, by House custom, by date of birth; that is, the older one wins.  Walsh was born on July 15, 1960, and is nearing his 60th birthday; Honan was born on June 5, 1959, and is 61 years old, meaning he will get the prize -- provided he's re-elected in November.

To take dean honors, Honan needs to prevail in a fight for re-election against Jordan Meehan, an energetic, young (29) challenger.  If Honan loses, Walsh will be the dean.

I intend no disparagement of Mr. Meehan when I say that I hope Kevin Honan is re-elected, number one, because I have tremendous respect and admiration for him as a human being, and, number two, because I know he will make a great Dean of the House.

Moulton Defends Hong Kong Protestors and All Who Stand on 'Ramparts of Freedom'

Monday, July 6, 2020

I like how Seth Moulton, the U.S. representative for the Sixth Massachusetts District, used his official statement on Independence Day this year to call out the Chinese communist government for its relentless suppression of democracy in Hong Kong, and how he reminded his fellow citizens that we could lose our own democracy if we do not guard it.

I like how Moulton, the pride of Salem, Harvard University and the United States Marine Corps, drew a direct line, in his Fourth of July statement, from the rebels in Boston in 1776 to the protestors in Hong Kong today.

Since March of 2019, Moulton said, the "brave people in Hong Kong have stood up to mainland China's powerful communist party with nothing but umbrellas and spray paint."

"As we celebrate Independence Day," he said, "we must never forget that throughout history, through good times and bad, people always choose freedom and self-government  over tyranny.  We also know that the success of bold experiments in democracy, including our own, are far from guaranteed."

It disturbs Moulton that the Chinese communist party is "persecuting these protestors with abandon," and that the party has now "passed a 'national security' law that falsely equated peacefully protesting to secession, terrorism, subversion of state power, and collusion with foreign entities."

He stated, "We have already witnessed protestors arrested under the new law for actions as simple as holding a flag that carry possible sentences of life imprisonment."

Moulton pointed out that, on the night of July 1, the body in which he serves passed a bill imposing sanctions on Chinese companies that violate the "political and economic autonomy of Hong Kong."

To the leadership of the  Chinese communist party, he declared, "The world is watching."

On this "most unusual Fourth of July," Moulton concluded:

"Let's recommit ourselves to the cause of freedom, self-government, and the fundamental rights of free speech and free assembly -- the ideals upon which we were founded that we share with the people of Hong Kong.

"Let's celebrate this because of what American patriots started in Boston in 1776: We are ruled not by kings, dictators, or tyrants, but by the people we choose.

"And let's work to support the people who today stand on the ramparts of freedom around the world, struggling to achieve the same ideals: freedom, liberty, and government of, by and for the people."

So it is that, on the 244th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, a 41-year-old Congressman with no seniority and little actual power, is a stronger voice for freedom and human rights than the man who holds the office established by George Washington.

Holyoke Catastrophe Figures in Hypothetical Healey v. Polito Guv Contest

Monday, June 29, 2020

When the coronavirus engulfed the Holyoke Soldiers Home this past spring, Attorney General Maura Healey faced a choice: defer to Governor Charlie Baker as he methodically and openly dealt with the catastrophe or launch her own (now in progress) investigation into it.  Independence won over deference.

The consequences of that choice could have a significant impact on the 2022 election for governor, whether Baker runs for re-election -- which I doubt he will -- or his second-in-command and heir apparent, Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito, runs as the Republican nominee.

Healey, a Democrat, has not indicated whether she will run for governor in the next election cycle.  Nevertheless, she's widely seen as the favorite to win her party's nomination should she pursue it.  There's still time for her to decide on a gubernatorial run.

If Healey does run, her comments now on the carnage in Holyoke (76 veterans dead from the virus) have put her in position to lay the blame on Baker, Polito or both.

Last week, Baker released a lengthy report on the Holyoke Soldiers Home investigation, which he had commissioned by Atty. Mark W. Pearlstein, a former federal prosecutor.  It justifiably caused an uproar.

Healey quickly released a statement that the Pearlstein Report "lays bare systemic failures of oversight by the Baker administration in adequately preparing, staffing, and responding to this crisis to protect our veterans."

The statement was broad enough to conceivably cast aspersions on others in the administration, including some in the Executive Office of Health and Human Services.

But if I'm Karyn Polito and interested in becoming governor -- What lieutenant governor is not ? -- I'm taking it narrowly.

If I'm Healey, I want Polito to take it narrowly, personally.  It was almost as if Healey was announcing to her, You won't be able to duck this in '22.

Without Managers Like Tesler, Government Cannot Truly Deliver

Sunday, June 21, 2020

The Baker administration removed the "acting" from the title of Acting Registrar of Motor Vehicles Jamey Tesler this past week, suggesting that the overhaul of the management of that agency, a critical public safety bureaucracy, remains a work-in-progress.

Otherwise, I suspect that Tesler would, just about now, be taking on another high-level assignment in the Baker administration or a better paying job in the private sector.

You may recall that, in late June, 2019, the RMV was shaken to its foundation when a young man from Western Massachusetts, whose driver's license should have been suspended, drove a pick-up truck pulling a large trailer into a line of motorcyclists in Randolph, New Hampshire, killing by blunt force trauma five men and two women.

In the aftermath, the Registrar of Motor Vehicles was forced from her job and Tesler was persuaded by the governor and Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack to quit his job as chief of staff at Suffolk Construction, become acting registrar, and make the big, difficult changes needed at the RMV to avoid a repeat of this horrific event.

In the early going, that primarily involved clearing up a backlog of thousands of cases where Massachusetts drivers who had run afoul of the law in other states -- and who should have had their Massachusetts driving privileges summarily suspended -- continued to operate vehicles here, often for incredibly long spells.  They constituted a major threat to public safety on our roads.  And no one had really done anything about it.

In announcing last week that Tesler's appointment had been made permanent, Secretary Pollack said:

"After stepping up to lead the Registry of Motor Vehicles at a difficult time, Jamey has reprioritized and re-oriented the RMV and MRB (Merit Rating Board) around public safety responsibilities and functions, while transforming the RMV's service model in the midst of a pandemic.

"He has built a strong leadership team and excellent relationships with the workforce while demonstrating the ability to identify and implement changes in longstanding practices that failed to ensure that the Registry met its core safety and credentialing functions."

Like many who serve in government positions, including a slew of highly educated and motivated legislative aides at the State House, Tesler defies negative stereotypes of public employees; for example, that they don't have the stuff to work in the private sector, that they don't do much when on the clock, and that they care mainly about their pensions and other benefits.

Tesler is Exhibit A of your tax dollars actually at work.

He's a graduate of the Ivy League (University of Pennsylvania, 1995) and a Big Ten law school (University of Michigan, 1998).  In addition to significant work in the private sector, such as at an international law firm, he has more than 16 years of experience in senior management roles in the public sector.

Tesler has been the general counsel in the office of the Massachusetts State Treasurer, the deputy legal counsel at the MBTA, the deputy legal counsel in the office of the governor, and both chief of staff and chief operating officer at MassDOT.

Tesler is not a pal of mine; we are not related by blood or marriage.  He would say hello to me if we passed each other on the sidewalk because of his inherent politeness, but he probably would not remember my name.  I stipulate to these facts in the hope you'll see my admiration for him as on the level.

The last time I was in his presence was on a client matter -- for the Massachusetts Railroad Association, the trade group for the freight-hauling railroads, I believe. It was around ten years ago, when he would have been serving as a deputy secretary at MassDOT.  I cannot remember the subject matter; it may have had something to do with the state's Industrial Rail Access Program.  Tesler asked good, pointed questions. He didn't say much. He listened sincerely, thoughtfully. In my line of work, that's a good outing.

Thank you for entering public service, Mr. Registrar, and for returning to same, sacrificing much in the process!

Toll in MA Lives and Dollars Remains Terrible Even as Opioid Deaths Drop

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Although fewer Massachusetts residents are dying of opioid overdoses, the number of such deaths still exceeds 2,000 a year.

According to preliminary data released this week by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, 2,015 persons died of opioid overdoses in 2019, which represented a 4% decrease since the historic peak of 2,102 overdose deaths in 2016.

The downward trend continued during the first quarter of this calendar year.

There were 28 fewer opioid overdose deaths in January, February and March than in the same period of 2019: 467 fatalities versus 495.

Amidst this welcome development there can be no joy.  The size of the continuing problem is just so huge...and hugely depressing.

Two thousand and fifteen persons succumbing to opioid abuse works out to more than 5 deaths in every day of 2019 in Massachusetts.

The deadly toll of the never-ending opioid epidemic  upon Massachusetts families, as well as the suffering of family members and dear friends of those with opioid use disorder, are incalculable.

The fiscal impacts of the epidemic are measured, with results that overwhelm cognitive abilities and shake the soul.

A November, 2018, report from the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, "The Massachusetts Opioid Epidemic -- An Issue of Substance," pegged the financial burdens of the opioid crisis on the state, in terms of  "lost productivity, increased health costs, and increased expenses for public safety and criminal justice," in the billions of dollars annually.

Here are two of the particulars from that report:

  • "The cost of lost productivity from those who are unable to work due to opioids, those who have died from overdoses, and those whose productivity is compromised by having to manage their own opioid addiction while working, reached approximately $9.7 billion in 2017."
  • "Health care costs related to the opioid crisis, including excess costs to businesses, MassHealth (Medicaid) and other state programs, and (to) health care providers, reached $4.5 billion in 2017." 

Think how much good could be accomplished with those billions, how much better life in Massachusetts could be, if there were no illegal opioids, and if we humans were not so vulnerable to addiction.

Admit It, Massachusetts, You Love the Legislature Just the Way It Is

Sunday, June 7, 2020

More than 60 percent of the members of the Massachusetts legislature are virtually guaranteed re-election this fall because they will have no opponents, or possibly only token opposition.

Last week, the State House News Service reported that "a total of 125 incumbent lawmakers, including members in both parties, were the only major-party candidates in their districts to file nomination papers with Secretary of State William Galvin by Tuesday's (June 2) deadline...."

Referring to these unopposed incumbents, the SHNS said, "They could still receive challenges from write-in campaigns. But the ballots are largely set, and as it stands now, none of those 125 legislators -- representing 62.5 percent of the General Court -- will face a declared Republican or Democratic opponent in either the Sept. 1 primary election or Nov. 3 general election."

With the Democratic Party holding supermajorities in both the House and Senate, Massachusetts is essentially a one-party state.  It's been that way for a long time, so most voters must be satisfied with the situation.

Yes, the state's highest elected office holder, Governor Charlie Baker, is a Republican. But his approach to governing has no ideological tinge.  He's a born manager/problem solver.  Baker never has difficulty finding common ground with centrist Democrats.

Between this year and next, there will be some turnover of the normal kind in the legislature because a number of incumbents have opted not to seek another term.  Fourteen members of the lower branch, for example, fall into that category, including four Dems who embody the truth that incumbency is a highly attractive trait in Massachusetts:

Angelo Scaccia of Boston, first elected in 1973; Ted Speliotis of Danvers, first elected in 1979; Tom Petrolati of Ludlow, first elected in 1987; and Lou Kafka of Stoughton, first elected in 1991.

Familiar faces.  We can't get enough of them in Massachusetts politics.

Advocates for Granting Driver Licenses to Undocumented Point to Pandemic

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Because it can take a long time to enact a bill, and because many bills wither and die half-way to the goal of enactment,  advocacy groups often add new wrinkles to their lobbying campaigns in the hope of re-energizing their causes, generating positive publicity, and spurring movement in the legislature.

What happened earlier this month in the project to pass a bill allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain Massachusetts driver licenses is a case in point.

During the current legislative session (and in previous sessions as well), advocates for licensing the undocumented have presented the cause as a commonsensical response to the transportation needs of a vital, hardworking, family-oriented sector of the population and as an evidence-based step toward improving  public safety.  Now, they're adding this argument:

Allowing the undocumented to drive legally would serve to inhibit the spread of the coronavirus and simultaneously boost the state's economic recovery from the COVID-19-related recession.

Here's Natalicia Tracy, executive director of the Brazilian Workers Center and co-chair of the Driving Families Forward campaign:

"This bill -- to license all drivers, regardless of immigration status -- needs to be an essential piece of our public health and economic security policy.  Without driver's licenses, many of our essential workers have to crowd onto buses or subway cars to get to work.  This puts their lives and our community's health at risk."

The above was excerpted from an article published online May 21 by the State House News Service and headlined, "Driver's License Bill Reframed as Public Health Priority."

In that article, the other Driving Families Forward co-chair, Roxana Rivera, an officer in the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), was quoted thusly:

"Before the pandemic, this policy (licensing the undocumented) was common sense.  Now, it is about protecting lives and helping workers put food on the table.  If undocumented workers are better able to access good jobs safely, they will help our economy bounce back more quickly and help the state generate more revenue in the long term."

Last year, the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center estimated that 185,000 undocumented immigrants were residing in Massachusetts.  The folks at Driving Families Forward predict that, if these immigrants were permitted to drive, up to 78,000 of them would obtain licenses during the three years following enactment of such a law.

Senate Bill 2641, An Act Relative to Work and Family Mobility, and its identical lower-branch companion, House Bill 3012, would change Chapter 90 of the Massachusetts General Laws by, one, eliminating the portion of it stating that "no license of any type may be issued to any person who does not have a lawful presence in the United States," and, two, adding language to it making persons who cannot provide "proof of lawful presence" eligible for driver licenses "if they meet all other qualifications for licensure and provide satisfactory proof" to the Registry of Motor Vehicles "of identity, date of birth and Massachusetts residency."

SB2641/HB3012 were heard before the Joint Committee on Transportation last September.  On April 21, the committee voted 14 to 4 to send a redrafted version of it, with a favorable report, to the Senate Ways & Means Committee.  No action on it has since been taken.

The bill sent by the Transportation Committee to Senate Ways & Means would, if enacted, require an undocumented immigrant who is seeking a license to furnish two forms of identification, including at least one with a photograph and one with a date of birth.

Rep. Christine Barber, D-Somerville, a co-sponsor of the bill in the House, said in April, "The minute the bill was released favorably, we started hearing directly from colleagues who are really supportive and happy that the bill is moving.  There is support.  We're continuing to build support." [Source: State House News Service]  Rep. Barber also said:

"Undocumented people actually have a lot of documents.  They're not just legal permanent residents of the United States...Most of these folks are people who have lived here for a really long time.  They're members of our community.  They need to drive to either get to work or to take their kids to a doctor.  They are probably driving anyway and we'd rather have people have insurance, have passed a driver's test, pass a vision test, and actually have a license when they get pulled over, than to have them driving and not be insured."

In all, 84 members of the House and Senate have signed onto SB2641/HB3012 as sponsors or co-sponsors.  That number represents 42 percent of the 200-member legislature, which consists of 40 senators and 160 representatives.

Also recorded in favor of the bill are Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, Cambridge Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui, Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera, Lynn Mayor Tom McGee and Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone.

Some legislative leaders are reportedly cool to the idea of advancing  An Act Relative to Work and Family Mobility any farther than Senate Ways & Means in this session.  And Governor Charlie Baker is flat-out opposed to the bill.

This past February, explaining his opposition, Baker said, "I've said for many years that I think it's really hard to build the kind of safeguards into that kind of process that would create the kind of security that would be hard to live up to some of the federal and state standards with respect to security and identification.  And, for those reasons, I don't support that legislation."

The driver licenses envisaged by SB2641/HB3012 would not be compliant with the new federally-tailored REAL-ID program; licensees could not use them, for example, to board a plane or gain entry to a federal building.

In matters of prognostication, I am as accurate as a chimp tossing darts at a board.  Something there is about the m├ętier of blogging, however, that rather foolishly invites/encourages predictions.  I'll rush in then to predict An Act Relative to Work and Family Mobility will pass the Senate but never come to a vote in the House this year.

If I'm wrong, and if the House does take up the bill and enact it, and if the governor vetoes it, I predict there will be enough votes in the Senate, 27, to override the veto, but not enough in the House, 107, to effect a successful override, meaning the long, hard-fought campaign to provide qualified undocumented immigrants with the opportunity to legally drive a motor vehicle in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts will have expired tantalizingly short of victory.