The crying game

House Speaker Robert DeLeo tolerates dissent. Then why do some call him a bully?
By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  March 1, 2010


If you are wondering why Democrats in Washington can't get anything done, even though they control both houses of Congress, take a look at the glacial pace we often see closer to home on Beacon Hill. With nearly unanimous power, Massachusetts Democrats still find themselves at odds over progress, and frequently end up with failure or watered-down compromises.

The other extreme, however, can be equally unpleasant, as when the sheepish behavior of Democrats under Speaker Sal DiMasi led to a highly productive 2007–'08 session — and, allegedly, massive behind-the-scenes fraud.

Today, a year after Robert DeLeo took over as Speaker (following DiMasi's scandal-plagued resignation), dissention seems to be on the rise in the state House of Representatives. Most notably, a group of eight disaffected Democrats, calling themselves "Representatives for Reform," are asking for more transparency and accountability from the leadership. DeLeo's defenders shrug it off as just the usual cries of the unhappy political losers — in this case, mostly supporters of John Rogers, whom DeLeo bested in the battle to succeed DiMasi.

So who's right? Is DeLeo running the same kind of closed, top-down operation as DiMasi did? Or have Beacon Hill promises of reform actually resulted in a change in the way things are done?

By at least one measure, the answer is: a little of both.

The Phoenix, in a review of roll-call votes since DeLeo became Speaker, has found an easing of the lock-step voting habits seen by Democrats under DiMasi. Overall, House Democrats have been twice as likely to vote against DeLeo and his leadership team as they were under DiMasi.

The sheep-like voting under DiMasi was the subject of a Phoenix article two years ago — just before the scandals began to reveal what the Speaker had been getting away with behind that wall of acquiescence.

The Phoenix found, at that time, that a little more than halfway through the 2007-'08 legislative session, the 141 Democratic House members had cast a total of only 567 votes against their leadership — "voting off," as it's called. That was about one-third of the pace in the '05–'06 session, and one-fifth of the pace in the final session under former Speaker Thomas Finneran.

There are now 144 Democrats, who since DeLeo became Speaker have cast 1623 votes off — not quite Finneran-era numbers, but far, far ahead of the DiMasi days.

Under DiMasi, Democrats were voting off, on average, once every 40 votes on bills, amendments, and rules. Under DeLeo, the average has been roughly once every 19 votes.

That's probably a healthy sign that DeLeo is not forcing his will upon every representative, according to some State House insiders. They point to a relatively robust debate over the sales-tax increase, ethics and pension reform, changing the US Senate succession law, and the recent education bill.

Even one of the Representatives for Reform, William Brownsberger of Belmont, sees it that way. "I think Bob DeLeo has run a more open process than the last Speaker," says Brownsberger, "and that probably does reflect itself in voting patterns."

But the voting-off data shows that one thing hasn't changed: there is still tremendous loyalty — and a lack of voting off — from DeLeo's leadership team of more than four dozen members. That group's loyalty may come at a price: the extra salary that comes with those leadership positions.

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