State House News Service

State House Roundup: The Politics Of Transition

BOSTON — The calls came quickly and were specific: resign.

The messages — from Gov. Deval Patrick, House Speaker Robert DeLeo, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh and others — were directed at sophomore Roxbury Democrat Rep. Carlos Henriquez, who headed into the weekend studying the contours of his jail cell and clinging to his public office.

Instead of taking easy votes Wednesday afternoon for more municipal collaboration and to create a “Boston Strong” license plate with proceeds going to the One Fund, Henriquez was led from a Medford courtroom in handcuffs after a jury convicted him on two counts of assault and battery last summer against a former girlfriend.

And just like that, the intermingling of the legislative and judicial branches of government got uncomfortable for lawmakers. In addition to being forced again to distance themselves from the actions of one of their colleagues, lawmakers faced the specter of being hauled into court to testify next month at the trial of former probation Commissioner John O’Brien. The Probation Department hiring scandal of yesteryear reared up again.

Henriquez appeared inclined to take the weekend to consider his political future, which for the next six months will take place behind bars. His resistance to immediately stepping down prompted DeLeo and the full House to empower the Ethics Committee and its vice-chairman Rep. David Nangle (D-Lowell) with subpoena power to investigate and potentially move to expel Henriquez from the House if he won’t go willingly.

Not exactly where DeLeo might have preferred the focus to be on his House to start the year.

So perhaps it was fitting that as the verdict was read House Democrats were huddled in a hotel down the street from the State House discussing their prospects for the upcoming elections. The three-plus-hour meeting lasted so long, as members peppered consultants and pollsters about how to proceed on the campaign trail, that DeLeo had to cancel an official Democratic caucus where House leaders were supposed to be discussing the actual business before the House that day.

Polling shown to the lawmakers indicated that the economy and the accompanying unemployment struggles ranked as the top concern for voters, followed by education and then health care.

According to a senior House Democrat who attended the meeting, lawmakers were particularly interested in receiving advice about how to best sell the accomplishments of the Legislature thus far, and how to distance themselves from the controversies enveloping Patrick’s administration, i.e. the Department of Children and Families and the Connector’s failed Obamacare website roll out.

None of that bodes well for the governor as he enters his final year in office and prepares next week to deliver his annual State of the Commonwealth address and fiscal 2015 budget proposal. After spotting lawmakers on taxes last year, Democrats are even less inclined this year to entertain any Patrick legacy project that could hurt their chances at winning re-election, assuming they want that at all.

Sen. Stephen Brewer, who presumably would have been asked to turn in his keys to the Ways and Means mystery closet when Senate Majority Stanley Rosenberg takes over the president’s office, announced that he would be retiring after this year. The news did not shock his colleagues, who were nonetheless sad to see him go.

Brewer, whether you believe him or not, said losing out to Rosenberg for the Senate presidency played “hardly anything at all” into his decision to retire, which he said was more about wanting to spend time at home in Barre with his wife, possibly teaching, and learning how to play the banjo. At least there won’t be another special.

Senate President Therese Murray hasn’t been in the State House quite as long as Brewer, who started his career during the Carter administration, but most expect her to follow Brewer into retirement, at least from politics. For now, Murray is still playing coy about her electoral future, but after Brewer addressed his fellow Democrats in caucus about his plans, Murray did the same.

The Senate president, according to a handful of senators in the room, put everyone on notice that she plans to remain in the big seat through 2014, and will not be jumping ship early for another job. Whether her announcement was meant as a way to share her latest decision and firmly remove any uncertainty among the members or if she simply wanted to quiet any succession plots in the works, remained subject to interpretation.

While Patrick and Murray navigate the murky waters of lame-duck governance together, the Democrats who want Patrick’s job 12 months from now took the stage together for the first time in Lexington. Because there’s little daylight among them on policy, the would-be governors largely fell back on biography and soft jabs about who arrived at their mutual positions first to distinguish themselves.

There’s time yet for the Democratic race for governor to get feisty, but for those itching to punch there’s always Republican candidate Charlie Baker. Attorney General Martha Coakley delivered one of the first attacks Monday when she accused Baker of not caring about working people because he opposes a minimum wage increase. Baker, however, isn’t exactly opposed to increasing the minimum wage. In fact, his campaign says he’s open to it, but thinks there are better options to put money into the pockets of low-income workers, namely expanding the earned income tax credit.

Democratic Party Chairman Tom McGee, a senator from Lynn, also used Patrick’s announcement this week about investing more than $50 million to prepare for the effects of climate change, to recall a moment during the 2010 campaign when Baker said he didn’t know enough about climate change to say whether he believed in it.

As McGee suggested, Baker probably does owe the electorate an explanation on how he feels about climate change now, four years later. But in 2010, he also said much more about the topic than, “I don’t know,” including this comment to WBZ’s Jon Keller: “We should all rely on the fact that most of the science agrees that temperatures are rising, CO2 levels are rising and it’d probably be a good idea to do something about that.”

Baker, on the other hand, kept his eyes on the state’s transition to Obamacare and repeated his calls for the state to continue a pursuit of waivers from the federal law that the Obama administration has so far flatly rejected.

The week wasn’t all about political positioning. The Senate passed an expansive overhaul of election laws to allow early voting, same-day and online registration and pre-registration for 16- and 17-year olds, while Patrick signed an executive order creating a task force to examine school safety procedures, and Murray initiated a special Senate committee to review drug addiction treatment.

The Patrick administration and House and Senate leaders also showed they can still work together, arriving at compromise on not just a revenue projection for fiscal 2015 at 4.9 percent growth, but also a deal to boost payments into the public retiree pension system that would speed up the schedule to fully fund that system by four years to 2036. Back in 2010, Patrick and the Legislature pushed back the funding schedule by 15 years.

Patrick will give his State of the Commonwealth address next week, and while he isn’t expected to drop any bombshells like last year, he said his message will be simple: “We’re going to run through the tape.”

STORY OF THE WEEK: Rep. Carlos Henriquez is sent to jail as lawmakers seek balance between legislating and re-election.

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