Big Changes Are Coming To the Massachusetts State Senate

Whatever party or ideology prevails, the next session is going to be very different than the ones that came before it.

I’m not a fan of term limits, but there is an argument to be made that the eight-year state Senate presidency cap has produced some positive effects. Therese Murray, one could well argue, has tried to use her temporary power to get things done, rather than channel it toward maintaining power indefinitely—because that wasn’t an option. You might or might not like her preferences or priorities, but you have to grant that her time on top has seen a pretty remarkable stream of legislative accomplishments, from environment/energy to casinos to health care cost containment to ethics reform and much more.

One potential downside of the limit, in theory at least, is that the leader might be tempted to channel that temporary power toward a post-leadership career. Generally speaking, it’s better for the democratic system to have a Senate president or House speaker worried about keeping his or her members happy—and re-elected—than worried about making his or her next employer happy and funded.

Perhaps to her credit, this does not seem to be a problem in Murray’s case. Term-limited out of her Senate presidency in early 2015, it has been long assumed that she will not run for re-election this year and that she would walk away from Beacon Hill as soon as she lined up the right landing spot. For the past year, Murray’s imminent resignation has been a constantly recurring rumor, and speculation about her next job has carried on without respite.

And yet, here we are: She is still there, and according to reports, she informed her colleagues Thursday that she will stick around through the end of the year. (The scuttlebutt continues to be that she can’t find anybody willing to hire her for anything she’s willing to do.)

It’s an increasingly ticklish situation. Stan Rosenberg has already claimed victory in the battle to succeed her, and that appears secure now that his chief rival for the job, Stephen Brewer, is retiring. Rosenberg is practically forming a presidency-in-exile at this point. Meanwhile, Murray won’t even say whether she’ll run for re-election; that’s caused some statehouse insiders recently to raise to me concerns that she might ultimately ask her colleagues to extend her presidency through 2016. However, when I relayed those sentiments on Twitter, Murray responded to shut them down quite firmly:


So I guess we can relax and let the big gavel-passing take place in either January or March 2015—right around the same time a new governor, treasurer, and attorney general are setting up shop. Whew! Polish your resumes, folks. A lot of staffing-up is coming to Beacon Hill.

The change coming to the state Senate might not be earth-shattering, but it’s significant—and it runs beyond the singular personality of Murray. Coincidentally or not, several of her top lieutenants are not sticking around for the post-Murray senate. As mentioned, Brewer is leaving; Steve Panagiotakas, Fred Berry, and Jack Hart have already gone. This is, of course, one of the other potential downsides of this kind of term limits: it flushes out those with experience and political skill.

In fact, by my count, only 17 of the current 40 senators have been in their office since before Murray took over from Bob Travaglini in March 2007. Subtract Murray and Brewer, and perhaps Gale Canderas (supposedly planning to run for Hampden County register of probate) and it’ll be 14—and that’s including two Republicans.

Speaking of whom, that party could come out of this change period stronger in that chamber than it’s been since the Weld days. Don Humason just scored a nice victory to keep Mike Knapik’s seat in the party, and the caucus at four. The special election in Katherine Clark’s district should be winnable. So should the coming election for Brewer’s district, and the likely one in Barry Finegold’s district if, as expected, he runs for treasurer. Maybe even the one that would open up if Eileen Donoghue takes the open Lowell city manager job as she admits she is considering. And pretty much everybody assumes that Vinny deMacedo will win Murray’s seat, whenever that election happens. And who knows what gains the GOP might make if Charlie Baker wins a decisive victory at the top of the ticket.

On the other hand, the Republicans in this state are utterly hapless, so they’ll probably screw those up somehow. But whatever party or ideology prevails, the next session’s state Senate is going to be very different than the ones that came before it. As with the changes coming elsewhere on Beacon Hill, we just don’t yet know exactly what the new look will be.