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Best of Boston 2009

Youth infusion

The surprisingly diverse leaders of team DeLeo. Plus, do environmentalists have reason to worry?
By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  February 19, 2009

As the dust settled from new House Speaker Robert DeLeo's massive re-shuffling of state legislative leadership this past week, insiders and pundits pored over the assignment lists like high priests reading entrails, divining the winners and losers on Beacon Hill — and clues to the style and ideology that might prevail for the new two-year legislative session and beyond. 

Largely unnoticed, though, was a trend that mere names on paper failed to convey: the move away from leadership by aging white men.

The state's House of Representatives, as a whole, still looks like a throwback in our new age of government diversity — and the new 58-year-old Speaker is no Barack Obama.

But in DeLeo's restructuring, white, non-Hispanic men older than 45 fell from power in droves. Among those taking their places in leadership roles were a number of ambitious young DeLeo loyalists from Greater Boston. First-time chairs — all under the age of 45 — include Linda Dorcena Forry of Dorchester (Community Development and Small Business), Jeffrey Sánchez of Jamaica Plain (Public Health), and Michael Moran of Brighton (Election Laws). Kathi-Anne Reinstein of Revere, who is 38, is on the leadership team as one of DeLeo's four Division chairs.

In addition to those from the immediate Boston area, the under-45 crowd in the House includes the new majority leader and the new chairs of Ways and Means; Bills in Third Reading; Economic Development and Emerging Technologies; Financial Services; Telecommunication, Utilities, and Energy; and other high-profile committees.

DeLeo, in an interview with the Phoenix after announcing the new assignments, says that he was not specifically looking for young chairs — just people with knowledge on the issues, who were willing to work hard.

One observer suggests this is the "Flaherty model," referring to former Speaker Charlie Flaherty: "Find the people who are serious and smart, put them in positions of power, and give them enough room to either rise or fall."

Sal DiMasi, and Tom Finneran before him, both preferred lower-profile loyalists, who would follow orders from command central.

DeLeo says he wants the new chairs to be leaders in shaping the agenda, and will give them some latitude. "I didn't name them a chair just to be a lapdog of the Speaker," he insists. On the other hand, he says, ideas will have to be vetted through the Speaker and leadership team.

Women are well represented among the leadership positions, despite comprising just a quarter of House Democrats. Close to 60 percent of the female House Democrats have leadership positions, according to Marty Walz of the Back Bay — who was named chair of the Committee on Education.

"I do think it's a benefit" to have women in those positions, says DeLeo. "A lot of these women . . . have been untapped resources, to be very frank with you."

While African-American and Hispanic representatives are still few and far between in the House, DeLeo found spots not only for Forry and Sánchez, but also for Byron Rushing, Cheryl Coakley-Rivera, and Elizabeth Malia.

Walz is also one of several liberal appointments, which sparked interest from those worried the House might take a rightward turn under DeLeo. Another is Alice Wolf, the legendary Cambridge leftie, who at age 75 has received her first chair assignment.

"People don't know how to pin me down [ideologically,]" says DeLeo, who seems to want to be thought of as pragmatic. "I didn't pick people based on ideology. I just want you to work hard."

Of course, the decisions were also based on rewarding those who helped DeLeo rise to Speaker. Some picks, like Walz, suggest that women and young progressives were with DeLeo, at least in part, because they felt he would allow them to thrive. After all, if DeLeo is calling all the shots, it doesn't matter whose faces surround him.

Green concerns
Young Boston-area state senators also made out well, in the relatively limited reshuffling done by State Senate President Therese Murray. Jack Hart of South Boston moved up, and Anthony Petruccelli of East Boston and Anthony Galluccio of Cambridge, each with less than a full term in the chamber, were made chairs of the Environment, Natural Resources, and Agriculture and Higher Education committees, respectively.

Petruccelli's appointment took local environmental advocates by surprise — he has little track record on the issue, and Eastie is not normally thought of as one of the tree-hugging capitals of Massachusetts. And with less than two years in the Senate, Petruccelli doesn't seem to bring much clout to the committee, some say.

Petruccelli realizes that his selection might come as a surprise. "People look at it and scratch their heads out of curiosity," he says.

Adding to environmentalists' worries, DeLeo appointed a new House Environment chair, William Straus of Mattapoiset, who is also largely unknown on the issue.

This is a big shift. The Committee on Environment, Natural Resources, and Agriculture had been co-chaired by State Senator Pam Resor and Representative Frank Smizik, both considered friendly to eco-interests. Resor did not seek re-election in 2008, and Smizik will chair a new House global-warming committee.

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Related: Financial fallout, Money talks, Global warming, More more >
  Topics: Talking Politics , Alice Wolf, Anthony Galluccio, Anthony Petruccelli,  More more >
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 See all articles by: DAVID S. BERNSTEIN

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