WHERE PROGRESSIVE REFORM DIES: Dealing with the State House of Representatives

For those of us in Massachusetts involved in pushing for progressive legislation around a variety of issues, the past Legislative session was a disappointment. Some good things did get through, perhaps most significantly the criminal justice reform bill. But even on that issue, and on issue after other issue, after spending months negotiating compromises to get progressive proposals approved in the State Senate, the bill would get watered down or buried in the mud of the House of Representatives. The list of issues is long: transportation safety and climate protection, civil rights and penal reform, education funding and public health, immigrant protection and tax reform, housing and zoning, and more.

If progressives hope to win victories in Massachusetts, we need a better understanding of why the House is such quicksand and better strategies for dealing with it.


At first glance, the House’s resistance may seem counter-intuitive. The standard political wisdom is that small is good. The smaller the district the better, allowing a more direct voice for individual citizens, increasing the chance for personal interaction between candidate and voter, and facilitating greater accountability from elected office-holders. Massachusetts’ House districts are bigger than town meetings, but they are much smaller than the Senate’s – the 160 Representatives each have about 41,000 constituents; the 40 Senators each have about 164,000. Yet it is the Senate that has been the leader on a broad range of issues. It seems illogical that the Massachusetts House of Representative is the more conservative branch of the State legislature, the graveyard for so many of progressive measures. It’s not a total deathtrap. Usually, something gets passed, but watered down and stripped of the more progressive or systemic aspects that survived the Senate’s own trimming process.

Unless advocates can agree on strategies for countering this dynamic, future efforts are not likely to succeed either. We will remain stuck in the “blue stagnation” hitting many northern states – a smug feeling that our anti-Trump sentiment makes us progressive even though we allow our state and city policies and practices to increasingly fall behind today’s needs.


Getting elected is a high cost effort, taking much more than money. You lose most of your private life and family time. You put your non-governmental career on hold, or decide that politics will be your career. Your personal finances become public knowledge. The higher the office the higher the priority you have to give to fund-raising, an endless task of sucking up. Your every decision will be criticized by at least some of your constituents. Getting through all this requires enormous effort and sacrifice, it’s a huge investment. So, once elected, it is not surprising that politicians are greatly interested in being re-elected.

However, even in dark-blue Massachusetts, there are many relatively conservative districts in which candidates don’t feel that they can take re-election for granted. It’s true that theState’s remaining Republican Party faithful are increasingly Trumpish, making them generally unelectable. But Charlie Baker, who won 2018 majorities in all but 5 municipalities across the state, has shown that candidate who can present himself as a “moderate” with a friendly style and lots of money can win. The fear among many of the non-urban Legislative Democrats is that a local businessman will invest $50,000 of his family’s money into a campaign and duplicate the feat at the district level. It makes the politicians nervous about appearing “too far left” and “out of touch” with local voters – and, even more, with the local power structure of media, business, religious, fraternal, and community civic leaders who tend towards the political mainstream if not the conservative side.


When complaining about the obstructionist tendencies of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, people inevitably talk about the cautious and conservative old-school politics of House Speaker Robert DeLeo – who first ran for the office promising to only serve four terms, and is now into his fifth. The State Senate and House operate under relatively similar internally-set rules – so it seems logical that it is DeLeo’s leadership, as compared with recent Senate Presidents Murray, Rosenburg, Chandler, and Spilka, that contributes to such different outcomes in each. And it’s obvious that personality does make a difference – when Billy Bulger was Senate President, the chamber ran in a more authoritarian manner than today.

(There’s a good chance that DeLeo won’t be Speaker for too many more years. He pushed through a significant pay increase for elected officials a couple years ago and, rumor has it, he’ll retire as soon as he vests for a pension at the new levels a couple years from now. Unfortunately, the current most likely successor is even more conservative.)

Beyond personality, a theory often raised by journalists and Republicans is that the overwhelming Democratic Party majority is the source of the problem. However, in 1996, Tom Finneran, who did not have majority support among his own party, cut a deal with the House Republicans to gain the Speakership. Despite his betrayal of Party loyalty, once elected he was able to use the Speaker’s power to bring the Democrats under his control. It seems pretty clear that his power ultimately derived from the Office rather than from partisan imbalance.

Another explanation is that, unlike European parliamentary parties, US political parties are mixed-bag coalitions without ideological discipline over their members. Unlike the Governor, who is able to promote a singular position across the entire Executive branch, the multi-person Legislature has a cacophony of voices. One theory is that the larger size of the House, with members spread over a broad political spectrum despite their common Democratic label, requires a strong focal point of coordination, if not control. There is probably some truth to this – the centrifugal impact of trying to advance the particular interests of each Representative’s own district can override consideration of the larger good. But the repeated use by House leadership of blatantly authoritarian, behind-closed-doors maneuvers, along with their inexcusable practice of preventing final votes on so many major bills until the last days or even hours of each two-year session – making it almost impossible for the public (and even other House members) to see what’s going on – go way beyond any functional requirement. It is simply an abuse of power.

There is, however, at least one way that the larger number of members in the House does create different dynamics. Because the Senate has just as many bills and issues to deal with as the House, committee chair-ships must be spread out to include a higher percentage of the total membership – inherently making for a less exclusive leadership team. In contrast, on the House side, the leadership team is a much smaller slice of the whole; the Speaker’s total control over who gets what position provides greater leverage. Getting a chair-ship not only provides more salary, better offices, and additional staff (which is crucial for both constituent service and being effective in the Legislative process), but also helps legislators’ standing among their peers. After re-election, most politicians, like most of us, care most about gaining the respect of their colleagues – being seen as a good person, as smart, as someone who gets things done, as a leader. The enormous power of the Speaker’s office allows him to kill any legislation he opposes – letting it die in committee, changing its wording, refusing to allow it to be voted on, and more. Or let things pass – including bills and earmarks for projects sponsored by home-town interests and groups: achievements that figure largely in re-election campaigns. Working with the Speaker is a proven path forward. Opposing him, even obliquely, is a prescription for demotion – as shown by the removal of Dorchester Representative Russell Holmes as Vice-Chair of the Ways and Means committee after he suggested that the Progressive, African-American, and women’s caucuses should work together to get their bills passed.

Reinforcing this dynamic, few Representatives have deep knowledge about most issues. They are happy to follow better-informed committee and party leaders. Going along with leadership lets local reps focus on constituent services: acting as an expediter, fixer, concierge, or ombudsman for district voters. This is a valuable role, often seen as the foundation for re-election, but it should not be the major function of the people whose constitutional function is to set public policy.


Some bending towards business interests is standard for the Legislature in every state. Most elected officials see their primary public responsibility to be facilitating economic growth and maintaining social stability. In practice, this means creating conditions that allow major (and many smaller) businesses/employers to flourish, which mostly means enacting policies that business says they need. Indirectly, this also means facilitating the continued smooth operation of established institutions and agencies, which means tinkering with things, but not radically upsetting the societal power relationships embodied in, and reinforced by, those system-supporting programs. Together, these priorities mean either enacting the policies and regulations that business wants or, and even more commonly, ignoring the issues and problems that business doesn’t want dealt with.

Of course, the Speaker’s ability to control legislation attracts corporate donations – he gets more than anyone else in the Legislature – with all the implications of differential access and influence that money implies. The Speaker can also influence the flow of campaign donations and Party resources to others, a huge boost for re-election. In years past, this has led to corruption: all three of DeLeo’s predecessors were convicted of felonies*. (The Senate also has a questionable past, although its recent behavior – more open, more transparent, more democratic, and more liberal, creates hope for an improved House as well. See below for some Legislative history.)

To his credit, DeLeo has personally stood up for a variety of progressive non-business issues, most recently adding his name to efforts to preserve transgender protections. The Speaker’s power also leads more progressive legislators to bend to his will in exchange for becoming part of the leadership team – which increases their ability to get their own bills passed. It’s important to remember that Massachusetts is a national leader on many cultural and social welfare issues. Of course, these accomplishments are only allowed if they don’t undermine any of DeLeo’s business relationships or his business-oriented focus on what will keep the State’s economy humming.


While “playing the game” is an attractive strategy during “normal” times and allows some important positive steps to be taken, it puts would-be reformers in a tight box. The compromises they have to make can alienate the progressive voters who first elected them, leaving them vulnerable to challenges. This was painfully discovered this year by Assistant Majority Leader Byron Rushing and Ways and Means Committee Chair Jeffrey Sanchez, despite the fact that both of them have been important and successful legislative champions over the years in fights for civil rights, public health, education, and many other progressive issues. Ironically, given Rushing’s defeat for (among other reasons) being “too close” to the Speaker, is the fact that he led the last major reformist attack on a sitting Speaker – an unsuccessful, 2003 effort against Tom Finneran. After that defeat, most of Rushing’s liberal allies were exiled to the fringes of the legislative process and lost much of their ability to affect legislation. Rushing may have concluded that that if you can’t beat ‘em, it’s better to join.

Contributing to the two election upsets: the challengers in both districts signed on to the “No Fossil Fuel Money pledge” while Sanchez didn’t. Sanchez’s base was also furious about the lack of immigrant protections in the bills emerging from his committee. And, as Boston-based representatives, they got sideswiped by the successful Ayanna Pressley insurgency versus liberal but long-time Congressman Mike Capuano. But the political lesson still holds.

Making the Massachusetts situation worse is that the Legislature’s Progressive Caucus has been relatively quiet. In other states, the Tea Party showed how a small minority can be so aggressive that it wields power far beyond its size. But that hasn’t happened here, from either the Right or the Left. In fact, Massachusetts has gone through wave after wave of reformers’ attempts to democratize the legislative process in the House – the high tide probably being the successful 1978 League of Women Voters’ campaign for a Constitutional Amendment reducing the House from 240 to 160 members, significantly increasing the size of each district. Every one of those efforts, from the outside and from within the House itself, has had at least some small positive effect. But every one has been absorbed into the institutional dynamic, with the Speakership remaining as powerful as ever.

Of course, ultimately the Speaker rules because the House membership allows him to. The Speaker is an elected position with the voters being the entire body of Representatives. However, in the legislature, as in all other areas of life, the institutional context limits what people perceive as their options and shapes their choices: DeLeo’s strenuous efforts to protect incumbents by preventing votes on issues that might make it harder to be re-elected probably contributes to some degree of at least tacit support for his leadership. Unfortunately, that also gives disproportionate influence to more conservative members.


It’s likely that some of the Senate-House difference stems from political realities outside the Legislature itself. While constituents – especially friends, neighbors, family, and business associates – can always get an audience with a local rep, the people who set the context for election and re-election are the district’s power elite – the biggest employers and leading business people (or their representatives), media owners (or editors), other successful politicians, sometimes local business groups (Chamber of Commerce or Kiwanis and Rotary), perhaps leaders of religious congregations or one of the few remaining labor unions. In both large and small districts, they are the guardians – and sometimes the major beneficiaries – of local prosperity and well-being. Their investments, needs, and contributions to local events and organizations (including political campaigns) have major impact and often shape the attitudes of local “grass-top” opinion leaders – the family and social group members, civic leaders (PTA), fraternal (VFW) or sports club activists who set the tone for their neighbors and peers. It is very hard to get elected without the approval and support of significant parts of these networks.

Large districts may have large enough populations to also contain alternative networks. They may have a sizable number of people who are not tied to the local power structure, or who are newcomers. They are likely to contain businesses or organizations that are not being adequately served by the old guard’s deals, or who are part of newer social or economic networks not yet brought into existing community arrangements, or whose clientele and members are at the fringe of, or entirely outside, the traditional networks. These people might form the base – providing volunteers, money, and votes – for someone to run outside the community’s norms, from either the Left or the Right.

Small districts have a narrower playing field – a smaller population, fewer alternative social and resource networks. This makes it much harder to paint outside the political lines. And the “normal” political lines in most towns are rather conservative – don’t rock too many of the boats that currently bring jobs and benefits, don’t allow too much change to happen too quickly, play the game and get your share. Even if people are doing poorly, unless there’s a cultural shock that shakes them loose from a candidate, or unless the local power structure splits over some internal controversy, and unless there is a viable alternative, most people’s consciousness and actions are shaped by the human default of social inertia. In most cases, without the apple-cart-upsetting of demographic shifts, small means conservative even more than it means democratic.

(The positive side of small district democracy: they are more responsive to new waves of voter unrest. Nationally, the labor upsurge of the 1930s, the Civil Rights and anti-war mobilizations of the 1960s, the Tea Party insurgency of the past decade, and now the “blue wave” of women entering Congress -- all first made their mark in the lower house.)


Demographic shifts are often the harbinger of political upset in both small and large districts. Years ago, when I began community organizing with the Somerville Tenants Union, it was the declining ability of the old patronage machine (a network of landlords, contractors, police, gangs, and politicians) to provide payoffs to anyone outside their narrowing circles that set the stage for our efforts; but it was the presence of former students radicalized by opposition to the Vietnam War that allowed the housing-rights campaign to begin. Social networks and therefore voting patterns changed nationwide as a result of the move of African-Americans to the urban North, the influx of students to areas around expanding universities, the return of aging professionals and managerial baby-boomers to downtown, the settling in of immigrants who now form the foundation of our working class.

Today, the “big sort” transformation of neighborhoods into more culturally and politically homogeneous communities based on people’s preferences for particular types of churches, entertainment venues, stores, and recreational activity (as well as their employment options and income) is probably one source of the increased polarization of our political culture. Liberal districts are more open to more progressive politics. Conservative districts are moving the other way – often helped by Republican gerrymandering, voter suppression and the long-reach of right-wing billionaire money. It should not be surprising that the headlines are full of stories about both a progressive upsurge in Democratic Party primaries, as well as a rightward radicalization on the Republican side.


Changing all this requires a multi-dimensional strategy. While past campaigns for full-scale reform of House rules have failed, it might be possible to demand that bills be dealt with in a timelier and more transparent schedule and manner. Electing more pushy progressives would change the balance of power in the House – something that a successful Speaker has to take into account. Creative progressives could also begin framing issues in ways that facilitate connection with grassroots groups around the state, making it harder for Representatives to ignore the pressure.

While it may be unrealistic to entirely eliminate the influence of big money over politics, it is worth the effort to minimize its direct influence. Massachusetts once had a public financing law, but House Speaker Finneran refused to fund it, despite being ordered to, by the State Supreme Court, and neither the Governor nor the Attorney General in office at the time were willing to force the issue. Finneran’s successful manipulation of a state-wide ballot initiative cancelled the authorizing laws. But the concept has been implemented in other states and is worth revisiting, updating, and re-enacting.

Similarly, instituting “instant runoff” elections, instead of our “plurality is enough” winner-take-all system, would increase the opportunity for less mainstream candidates to run. The State Democratic Party has already endorsed this technique, following successful implementation in Maine and its support from Democratic Parties in California, Colorado, Maine, and Minnesota. But rather than wait for Voter Choice Massachusetts to win its use in general elections, progressive advocates should demand that the Party immediately begin using it in primaries, as the Republican Party in Utah and the Democratic Party in Texas and Iowa already have.

Without undermining the relationship between Legislators and their constituents, we need to find better and less patronage-based ways of making sure that public agencies properly respond to people's needs, reducing voters’ dependence on “constituent services.” This will help open the door for demanding changes within the Legislature’s own method of operations.


Regardless of who is in office, advocates need to run more sophisticated campaigns. Early in each two-year session, groups need to pick their priorities and identify which legislative committees will have to approve their proposals. They then need to dig into the districts whose “electeds” sit on those committees, especially the chair and vice-chairs. Advocacy groups have to focus on increasing and mobilizing their own membership and forming closer relationships, if not full alliances, with local groups in those districts whose areas of concern overlap in some way. If social justice is of any concern (and it should be), particular effort needs to be made around connecting with local groups representing low-income, non-white, and non-native born groups – including civic and cultural groups, social service agencies serving those communities, as well as more explicitly advocacy/political groups. (The Massachusetts Public Health Association has done a particularly good job at this.) And these local partnerships need to be echoed by similar joint efforts among state-level advocacy groups.

These kinds of broad but grass-roots-based coalitions allow advocacy campaigns to effectively lobby Representatives using local constituents whose legitimacy and intimate connection with the issue cannot be denied. It also lays the groundwork for running candidates for the State Legislature on platforms that push beyond DeLeo’s limits. In the most conservative districts, it is often worth running a progressive campaign even if the candidate loses – the effort can help bring district progressives out from their personal lives, allow the creation of new communication and social networks, and lay the foundation for future mobilizations.


After years of Legislative frustration, some groups end up deciding to mobilize a state-wide Initiative Petition campaign – doing an end-run around the Legislature by passing a new law through the direct vote of the people. These multi-year campaigns, requiring repeated gathering of around 100,000 “valid” signatures from every part of the state, are incredibly hard, expensive, and problematic. They can easily absorb a group or even a coalition’s entire attention and energy for many years. If the effort falls short at any step along the way, the group or coalition may have little resources left with which to regroup. If it gets all the way to the ballot, but doesn’t pass – perhaps by the many millions of dollars that wealthy opponents can throw against it -- the Legislature can then become even more resistant to addressing the issue on the grounds that the voters have spoken.

Because an Initiative Petition is by definition an end-run around the “normal” legislature and regulatory processes, its proposals have to be worded and designed to mobilize voters rather than as a final blueprint for program implementation. As a result, the ballot question often contains ideas that are an awkward fit – if not a disruptive intervention – with current laws and organization’s business models. Giving opponents plenty of room for discrediting attacks and providing a legitimizing cover, if it passes, for the State’s regulatory apparatus to find ways to “soften” and delay its implementation, as is was done with cannabis legalization. (Despite the delay, it’s important to remember that marijuana legalization is happening, that young African-American men are no longer getting arrested for that “crime”, and thousands of past convictions are being voided.)

Still, despite the difficulties and risks, Initiative campaigns sometimes work. The successful 2014 campaigns by Raise Up Massachusetts for increasing the minimum wage and earned sick time leave led to Legislative action on the first and a nineteen-percentage point ballot victory on the second. Following a similar strategy in 2018, the group secured negotiated victories around a $15 minimum wage and paid family leave – huge wins even after the State Supreme Court ruled that the proposed Fair Share Amendment (adding a small surcharge on incomes over a million dollars and directing that the money be used for education and transportation) could not be on the ballot because it combined “unrelated” parts.

Local referendum are a less risky, but less powerful, alternative that allows local groups to gain the benefits of using a petition campaign – enormous opportunities for public education, new member recruitment, media exposure, and connections with local political leaders. These campaigns gather signatures to put an “advisory” question on the city or Legislative district ballot. In the most recent election, an advisory question in Speaker DeLeo’s home base of Winthrop and Revere asking if the district Representative should “be instructed to vote in favor of the global warming solutions implementation act which would require the State to create a clean energy roadmap for meeting 2050 emissions limits” set by a 2008 piece of state legislation. It passed with a 61% majority – and creates political space for local activists to push the Speaker for being “out of touch” with his constituents.


It is likely that legislators will always have to do some amount of constituent service. It helps connect them to voters and provides a nudge to unresponsive public programs. But it would be good to make those programs more responsive and effective – thereby freeing up time for Legislators to attend to the policy-making role that civics textbooks assign them. Perhaps every large public agency, or even every major program, needs an independent Ombudsperson. Perhaps the State should have “fix your problem” service offices in every region as well as an easy to use telephone and/or email and web complaint line similar to the way some Mayors have neighborhood centers and 311 call centers. Smart businesses have empowered customer service systems, why can’t the public sector?


These days, stuck in the stink of Republican imposition of right-wing policies in every possible area of public life, most progressives are focusing on national politics. But we also have to pay attention – and put our money – into state and local rejuvenation. The same effort needed to get through the conservatizing roadblock of the State House of Representatives will pay dividends in gubernatorial and federal elections. We need to begin. Now.


Thanks to Craig S. Altemose, Larry Rosenberg, and several people who prefer to remain anonymous, for feedback on earlier versions.


All of these thoughts are my own, and are not representative of the thoughts and policies of LivableStreets Alliance.


*House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi was convicted of accepting bribes; Speaker Tom Finneran – who first won the Speakership even though he was opposed by a majority of Democrats by cutting a deal with the Republican minority -- was convicted of lying under oath about his efforts to gerrymander Dorchester to preserve seats for his allies, and Speaker Charlie Flaherty went to jail for income tax evasion.

The Senate-side story highlights South Boston’s Bulger brothers, who pulled off an influence-peddling trifecta that lasted decades. Whitey Bulger dominated the Boston criminal world, and the local FBI office, torturing and brutally killing anyone who annoyed him while portraying himself as a mixture of Godfather and Robin Hood, protecting his neighborhood from the black children being sent to Southie schools. His shine didn’t fade until some of the parents whose kids were dying of heroin overdoses began realizing where all the drugs were coming from. Brother John Bulger got appointed Commissioner of the State Probation Department; his nephew, Christopher was appointed Legal Counsel. Together they filled the department with politically connected people and people who had given at least $500 to state legislators, bypassing applicants with legitimate credentials and skills. The Probation Department became a patronage zoo – and, not coincidentally, hugely inadequate to its mission – replacing in that function the old Boston School Department when Court-imposed controls took it out of the Irish political machine’s orbit. But the leader of the team was politician Billy Bulger. Secure in his Southie base (no one was crazy enough to run against Whitey’s brother) Billy eventually rose to the Senate Presidency, replacing Joe DiCarlo after his conviction on extortion charges. Bulger stayed in power longer than any other Senate President in state history, helping place his family in the Probation Department (Chris was his son), refusing to provide any information that might help the police find Whitey, and ending up hugely increasing his pension by getting himself appointed as President of UMass.


Related Previous Posts:

Protest, Pushing, Partnership: The Three Phases of Advocacy

Advocacy for the Common Good: Action, Organization, Power

Candidate Forums and Questionnaires: Using Elections for Effective Advocacy

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