Rep. Mike Connolly’s blog offers a critical look behind the curtain of Mass politics
The Massachusetts State House is not a bastion of democracy. I think a growing number of people in the Commonwealth are pretty clear on that fact. Dominated for decades by a series of imperial House speakers, and to a lesser extent by its Senate presidents, it’s a great place to watch if you want to see America’s oligarchy in action.
On issue after issue, corporations and the rich get their way—aided and abetted by legislative leadership. And working people get the shaft. Though there is always a thin veneer of social conscience laid over the almost uniformly capitalist policy decisions made there. And how could it be otherwise given that the legislature is controlled by conservative Democrats? Who reflexively talk left but break right.
Most of whom, let’s face it, are just old-school Republicans by another name—in an era when the new Republicans are focused on building concentration camps for little immigrant kids. They’re not the old machine Democrats who, sure, sucked up to money and power, but at least remembered to get real stuff for their constituents. Like public schools, colleges, housing, transportation, and jobs. And supported reforms like rent control that did indeed force the real estate industry to settle for mere profits in parts of the lucrative Boston area housing market. Rather than the super profits they’ve enjoyed since they bankrolled the statewide referendum campaign that killed it. With the assistance of the Mass legislature (and the Mass Supreme Judicial Court), it must be remembered.
However, there is a wind of change blowing on Beacon Hill. Well, not precisely a wind… more like a breeze of change. Because while there has long been a fairly sizable left-leaning Progressive Caucus at the State House, the bulk of its members find themselves going along to get along shortly after arriving there. Since they know that they simply won’t get anything done for their districts if they challenge leadership directly. Especially in the House where they’ve rarely had much power. Nevertheless, a new breed of politician is starting to get elected in numbers far too low to take control of the legislature anytime soon, but large enough to start shaking up the joint.
Now starting his second term, Rep. Mike Connolly (D-Somerville) represents the leading edge of this nascent political current. Part of a generation that was inspired by grassroots democratic movements like Occupy and Black Lives Matter, that was enraged by the election of Trump, and that has an increasingly favorable opinion of socialism, he first showed up at the House chamber a couple of years ago. After beating Cambridge’s Tim Toomey—the pol who owned the 26th Middlesex district seat for 24 years—in a tough race.
One of the things that makes Connolly different than many other state legislators is that he writes a blog. Not merely a typical politician’s blog—replete with tripe about how many babies were kissed in the previous quarter and how giving millions to multinationals like Amazon will somehow trickle down to the unwashed masses in the misty future. Rather, in between more prosaic entries, he occasionally writes very detailed accounts of key policy issues that sometimes involve him challenging not just House Speaker Robert DeLeo, but also Gov. Charlie Baker and major corporations. In doing so he gives readers a very good education on how the State House actually works… on behalf of our region’s ruling elite.
As someone who once organized lobbying and protest campaigns at the legislature in support of a variety of popular (and therefore doomed) bills for labor and community nonprofits, and who has written about state politics for many years, I am thrilled to see any Bay State legislators willing to write critically about their workplace in the light of day. Which helps journalists like me—and constituents as well—get a better handle on what’s happening in state government. But Connolly isn’t just talking the talk, he’s walking the walk—that is, taking real political risks. And writing about battles he’s fighting while they’re still happening. This is highly unusual behavior for a Massachusetts politician, and worthy of note.
Two recent examples of this practice are blog entries about his late 2018 action to delay a problematic housing initiative by the governor and this year’s early attempt by some of the legislature’s new blood to change the rules used to elect the House speaker to make them more democratic.
After Thanksgiving—toward the end of yet another two-year legislative session that saw every decent initiative to reign in the powerful real estate industry in the service of legions of screwed working class renters taken off the table—a sadly typical coalition of dominant private sector real estate industry groups and supplicant public sector municipal lobbyists was “calling on the legislature to enact Governor Baker’s housing production bill in an ‘informal session,’ where debate and roll call votes are not allowed, and few legislators are in the room.” This according to Connolly’s December blog entry titled “Inherent Inequity: The Push to Enact Gov. Baker’s ‘Housing Choices’ Bill In An Informal Session.”
The bill in question was called the Act to Promote Housing Choices—which had already died in committee earlier in 2018. Ironically because it lacked real estate industry support. Its main innovation was to help increase the production of more housing in the suburbs by forcing local zoning boards to make decisions about allowing developers to build certain types of structures by a simple majority vote rather than the usual two-thirds vote. Particularly multifamily housing developments of the type that is woefully lacking outside Boston’s already-crowded urban core and inner suburbs.
A reasonable reform, he agrees. But without protections for tenants of the type that had already been forced off the legislative table last year after real estate industry pressure, Connolly felt that the bill was not going to end up aiding the populations that the governor and his allies were claiming it would. Instead the benefits would end up going to the same interests that always seem to profit from such housing schemes: the big companies that make up the real estate industry. And there would be no tenant protections in the unamended “clean” version of the bill the lobbyists were trying to get passed on the sly.
Connolly then lists several significant criticisms of the bill that he explains “constituents, activists, advocates, and fellow legislators have raised.” Starting with this telling point:
No affordability requirements for “Housing Choices” zoning. Amazingly, under “Housing Choices,” a municipality will be able to change zoning to facilitate denser development with a simple majority vote, but new affordability provisions, such as inclusionary zoning, will continue to require a two-thirds majority vote. This means “Housing Choices” is writing inequity into law. Why not allow deeper affordability measures to pass by a simple majority, too?
The blog entry goes on to explain how Speaker DeLeo was on the record in July stating that he was essentially taking marching orders from commercial real estate lobbyists and municipal lobbyists who had made an agreement that they would only accept the governor’s bill if legislators weren’t allowed to make any amendments to it. And as the 2017-2018 session came to a close, Connolly heard that those same lobbyists were trying to organize the very legislative maneuver—the informal session—that would allow them to do just that. Which, I will add, is one of the many undemocratic tricks the legislature can use to ram through bills with little or no public oversight. Tricks that are not as frequently discussed in that light in the news media as they should be.
Fortunately, a single representative is allowed to block informal sessions under House rules. And that’s what Connolly did, despite being a low-ranking backbencher on the outs with House leadership. He wrote a letter to DeLeo indicating that he could not support the governor’s bill without tenant protection and affordable housing amendments and said that the bill really needed to be held in committee until the 2019-2020 session and go through the normal legislative process again to make sure these concerns were heard.
He stuck to his guns as the year drew to a close. Despite some surprise attacks from people the average observer would expect to support his strategy. Like the failed last-minute attempt by Cambridge City Councilor Denise Simmons to get a council vote enjoining the Cambridge House delegation—which includes Connolly—to support the governor’s bill. And some truly strange social media slams from partisans of nonprofit housing developers and YIMBY groups that tried to frame his defense of largely low-income tenants as somehow racist.
The Somerville representative would have none of it. Defending his position toward the end of his blog entry, he said:
Call it a pro-equity, pro-growth agenda. Call it development without displacement. Or maybe call it YIMBY Socialism. It’s time to bridge the gap that too often exists between the pro-growth/YIMBY movement and the pro-equity/anti-displacement movement. It’s time for progressives to have a really progressive housing agenda. When it comes to supporting housing production, I say: “Yes…and…”
As in, ‘Yes, we can promote housing production across the region—and—we can also work to protect tenants and boost housing affordability.’ It’s really easy to say. So why can’t more of our elected leaders (or the Boston Globe and Wall Street Journal) use those words?
Hopefully, his antagonists among supposedly forward-thinking “rational development” activists will take this position to heart going forward and work with Connolly on these matters—rather than fighting him in the interest of making the same kind of easy compromises with the real estate industry that have resulted in the housing crisis we now face in Massachusetts. The predictable outcome of government at all levels allowing corporate developers to build far too much expensive “luxury” housing, and far too little “affordable” housing… that all too often isn’t really affordable to many Commonwealth residents. Whatever nonprofit developer types might say to the contrary.
In any case, he won the fight. The governor’s bill now has to go through the entire legislative process again over the next year and a half.
Rep. Connolly’s other intriguing recent blog entry recounts last week’s unsuccessful effort by Rep. Maria Robinson (D-Framingham), himself, and a handful of other reps—both new and veteran—to reform the way the House speaker is elected by its Democratic majority. On Robinson’s first day in office:
As the meeting was called to order, Rep. Robinson stood and proposed an amendment to the Rules of the Democratic Caucus that would reform the process for how the Caucus picks its nominee for Speaker. The proposed change would implement a private ballot within the caucus, while retaining an open and transparent roll call vote for the election of the Speaker during the full formal session in the House Chamber. The proposal would take effect the next time there is an election for Speaker.
He explains that the benefit of the approach is that it would allow House members to judge support for various speaker candidates before taking the final roll call vote. Which would likely result in making it easier for incipient leadership groups to emerge from session to session. As long as the Democrats are in power, anyway. Connolly concludes with a helpful discursus on the history and use of such secret ballots by numerous legislative bodies.
Fascinating stuff. We can use much more of it from the better area politicians. Check out the blog at repmikeconnolly.org/blog.