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Mark explains why he backed the removal of term limits for Mass. Senate President

Josh Landes

This week, the overwhelmingly Democratic Massachusetts Senate voted to abolish term limits for the body’s president by a 32-6 margin. The fall of the eight-year limit instituted three decades ago will allow incumbent Democrat Karen Spilka – who entered the Senate in 2005 and became its president in 2018 – to remain in the role indefinitely. No debate preceded the vote, a rarity in a body where discussion is common even on longshot issues. The move was made before Spilka issued the prized committee assignments that kick off the start of the legislative session. One of those 32 yes votes came from Democratic State Senator Paul Mark of the Berkshire, Hampden, Franklin and Hampshire District. He spoke with WAMC.

MARK: I think what stood out as the overwhelming reason to be supportive was the fact that the Senate president position is essentially the only position in all of state government that had a term limit. And so, you have a House speaker with no term limit, a governor with no term limit, the minority leader in both the House and the Senate having no term limit, and both of those gentlemen have served, I believe, 12 and 20 years respectively. And so, when you talk about, as a senator, trying to get bills you care about, bills your constituents care about past and over the finish line, a problem that often happens in negotiations is breakdown of talks and going back and forth between the House and the Senate. And I think there was a feeling- Therese Murray, God bless her, she was the senate president, and she served eight years and she decided she was going to stick with the term limit and she didn't ask for any change to that and she voluntarily didn't run for reelection as either a senator or as senate president. And I think that was admirable for her to do. And at the same time, I think the other people that were really involved in that process watched her be kind of looked over by the speaker at the time, the governor at the time, and when it came down to negotiations over bills and budgets and that kind of thing, that they knew they could wait her out. And at the same time, when you have a term limit, and we see this with the presidential election as well, when you have a term limit, and the person in charge is going to leave, well, the jockeying for the next person to take over begins. And back to Therese Murray, it was very clear early in that final year of hers that Senator Stan Rosenberg had the votes to replace her. And well, he was not going to replace her but to succeed her, and I think that also created kind of an awkward condition where you’ve got a senate president in waiting. And so, some people that think they can get a better deal with him looking to him and just a general awkwardness. And so, all in all, I think the argument made in our caucus for the removal of a term limit was the right one. And yeah, the overwhelming majority thought it was right. And just like as an aside, personally, I generally think term limits aren't a good idea. And I know there's an argument in a leadership position that there's a bit more power, and so they want to see turn over, some people in the public. I think we're going to see that turn over anyway. I don't think the intention here is for Senate President Spilka to try to serve 20 years or anything like that.

WAMC: Well, some would say that the abolition of term limits- Certainly in a state like Massachusetts, where as you yourself observed moments ago, there are a lot of inherent advantages to incumbents digging into roles and serving them for a pretty incredible amount of time. The term limits were originally imposed in the Massachusetts Senate after then-Senate President William Bulger spent 18 years or so in the post. We're talking about people like our Secretary of State, William Galvin, he's served a remarkable amount of time in his position, stretching back to 1995. So are you concerned at all that this contributes to an ongoing centralization of power on Beacon Hill?

I think incumbents always have an advantage. And that's part of the role, that, when you're in an office, you're out there doing the job, you're out there visible to the public, you're out there answering constituent cases, whether you're the Secretary of State or whether you're a state representative or even a city councilor. I mean, so that's a natural part of the service and the nature of the positions that we hold. And I also, I get the argument that there's this idea on one hand, that if that is left unchecked, the same people are going to stay in. And then the counterargument is, well, people keep electing us. Like, we have a term limit every two years, every four years, whatever it might be. And for some reason, people like Secretary Galvin, people like Speaker [Robert] DeLeo keep – or former Speaker DeLeo – are repeatedly elected. And so, there's also something to be said for, are they doing something right? Is there something that the general public likes? And now as someone that is actually a student of government, someone that has a law degree, that teaches government and civics from time to time, and spends a lot of time with a group called the Council of State Governments, which kind of brings together legislatures and executive branch and even judicial branch governments from all over the country together to kind of learn best practices and kind of see what works in one place and what doesn't, you go to a state like Nebraska, or even California – so you have a liberal state and a certainly a more conservative state – and they have these term limits. And what I find from talking firsthand to legislators – now, this is a legislative sphere, specifically – is because they're term limited, I think at a point, their idea of service goes from, how do I best serve the people that are electing me, to, what do I do next? Where do I find the next position? Where do I find the next job, whatever it might be? And so, they complain about, there's too much jockeying to become, like, the Senate President from almost the day you're elected. There's too much jockeying for, well, we're all going to be competing for the congressional seat, so maybe I don't want to vote in favor of Senator X’s bill, because if I make her look good, then she's going to be my direct competitor for congressional or statewide office. And so, it's tough because it always cuts both ways. And I know ultimately the people that care about this, what they care about is how do the people get the best results and how the people have the most say. And so, I say to that in Massachusetts specifically and especially in the Senate where there's only 40 of us, like, the atmosphere I'm already experiencing only a month in is you have access to the Senate President, you have access to the Chair of Ways and Means, you have access to the majority leader. There's a lot of collegiality, there's a lot of give and take. And so, I think we saw it with my former colleague Senator Rosenberg, that when something is going wrong, when senators don't like what is happening, they're not going to keep a person that shouldn't be there in office. And I think the Senate moved very quickly at that moment where there was whatever allegations at the time that they, there was there was a movement for the senator, Senator Rosenberg, to step down from that position. He did it. And then the Senate did what they thought was right. So, I think the limit exists. It exists in the people, members of the Senate know that they want the Senate to look ethical, to look transparent, to be a place where the people feel heard. And when they need to make that decision, I think they're going to make that tough decision.

WAMC: Something remarkable about the vote was that there was no debate before the vote. This is from a body that has often been deeply divided and engaged in long contentious arguments over any number of issues. Some have noted that Karen Spilka, that the senate president has yet to assign positions to committees and such. Can you speak to why there was no public debate before this vote? And do you think that the fact that the assignments have yet to be distributed at any impact on that decision?

I would have preferred assignments be out upon both the House and Senate side before we take votes like the rules, and I understand the perception that maybe members are afraid to vote a way that is unpopular with the leader of either respective chamber because they're afraid of where they're going to end up in committee matters. And just in general, I wish the committee assignments were out already, because, you know, it's been a month, and a month is not a long time, but until committees are set, we can’t even refer bills to them. So, I had a gentleman checking in on a bill that was personal to his service time in the Massachusetts government. And having to answer, it’s yeah, sorry, your bill hasn't been referred yet, that the bill can't be referred until committees are set up. So yeah, that's a little disappointing. And I know, having been in the house for a decade, that, yeah, this is about the timeline, it usually takes about six weeks or so before you get those assignments. And I think people watching would certainly prefer if we knew the assignments before we take votes that are perceived as tough. But I also think that this in the end wasn't really a tough vote, that the argument was, we need to be on a level playing field with the other chamber and the other branch of government, the executive branch. And so, I think that's why you saw a pretty overwhelming result that included some of the most progressive members of the Senate, some of the more moderate Democrats in the Senate, really coming together and saying we want our voice to count the same as the voice of the members of the House.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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