State House News: Top 10 Stories of 2020

BOSTON, DEC. 31, 2020…..Let’s face it. There’s not much suspense over this year’s top story.

Without officially giving it away, it arrived like an unwelcome visitor in early March and has refused to leave since, touching every part of daily life in Massachusetts, and overtaking its politics.

Given that fact, this year was certainly not the 2020 that was expected back in January when Beacon Hill seemed on the verge of its first major tax debate in years and the campaign trail was abuzz with the possibility that Massachusetts could send someone to the White House for the first time since 1960.

Gov. Charlie Baker pulled on a mask, branded with the state’s #MaskUpMA slogan, after announcing a series of reopening rollbacks and other measures like tightened facemask requirements on Dec. 8. [Sam Doran/SHNS]

As it turned out, a long streak involving the Kennedys did end in 2020, but it didn’t involve the unlocking of the doors to the White House residence.

The pandemic infused everything that happened over the past 10 months and it colored all of our top stories this year. COVID-19 also pushed some storylines off the front page, and off of this list.

Remember in January when Gov. Charlie Baker gave his State of the Commonwealth address, declaring that Massachusetts would go carbon neutral by 2050? It’s still the goal, but the energy future looks different now.

Rep. David Nangle’s pre-pandemic arrest on a raft of tax and bank fraud charges also faded from view as his federal case ran into delays, and the non-COVID-19 death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg led to passage of a significant expansion of abortion access laws over the objection of Gov. Charlie Baker. The 2020 elections went forward,with voting by mail leading to record raw turnout in November, and the pandemic pushing campaigns even more so online.

But enough reminiscing about what’s not on the list. Here are the top 10 political stories of 2020, as voted on by many of the state political reporters who write and report daily on the people and issues that preoccupy state affairs, either over Zoom or in-person behind a mask on Beacon Hill. – Matt Murphy

1) COVID-19 and The State’s Response

More than 12,000 people dead. Three hundred and fifty-two thousand people and counting infected. Families separated. Businesses closed, many for good. Students learning remotely. Those who can, working from home. Tens of thousands more without a job to go to. And the list goes on. A deadly strain of coronavirus arrived in early March and began spreading at a Biogen conference at Long Wharf. It hasn’t stopped since. The worldwide COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted everything from education and commerce to the mere act of getting together with one’s family to celebrate any occasion. On March 23, Gov. Charlie Baker issued an executive order closing all non-essential businesses, one of the most significant of a series of actions taken by state government to try to slow the spread of the virus. It would be mid-May before businesses would begin to reopen in phases and under strict safety protocols. After a summer slowdown, a resurgence of the virus is again prompting governments to clamp down on business and social activity to keep hospitals from being overrun. From gathering size limits to mask advisories, Baker and the Legislature, with assistance from the federal government, spent the year reacting to the evolving public health circumstances and still are. On Beacon Hill, this has meant lawmakers adapting to remote voting and Zoom debates as everyone waits for vaccines to become widely available. Some of those vaccines have been developed and manufactured here in Massachusetts by Pfizer and Moderna, and the state’s plan calls for vaccines to be available to the general public by the spring, giving hope that 2021 could bring back some type of return to normal. – Matt Murphy

2) Reckoning on Race Leads to Police Reform

When George Floyd, a 46-year-old unarmed Black man, died on Memorial Day under the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer, not even a global pandemic could keep people from the streets. That included the streets of Boston and cities and towns around Massachusetts where protesters demonstrated against police brutality and demanded a response to the racial inequities that have gone unaddressed in society for so long. In the halls of the State House, the response to that reckoning on race took the form of legislation to restrict the use of certain types of force by law enforcement, including chokeholds and tear gas, and to make sure police officers could and would be held accountable for their actions. Gov. Charlie Baker filed a bill to create a Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission, which would begin licensing law enforcement officers and have the power to decertify police for misconduct. The Senate and House followed with their own versions, and within two months, by the end of July, the legislation was before a conference committee. It would take another five months, however, before legislators and Baker could find common ground as they wrestled with issues like who should sit on the POST Commission, should police have access to facial recognition software and under what circumstances should a police officer lose their qualified immunity from civil prosecution. Lobbying was intense on both sides, with the powerful police unions opposing some of the key changes reformers were insisting upon, and there were times when the bill’s biggest champions thought Beacon Hill might lose the momentum and miss the moment. But in the end, compromise on all sides produced a landmark bill Baker has said he’s proud to sign. – Matt Murphy

3) DeLeo Leaves Beacon Hill

The rumors were bound to be true one of these years. When the buzz picked up in early December that the longest-serving House speaker in Massachusetts history, Robert DeLeo of Winthrop, was planning to step aside and retire from State House life, it somehow felt different from the rumors that would pop up and circulate around the speaker from time to time over the years. Just a month after his reelection, DeLeo, 70, decided to call it a career on Beacon Hill — after 30 years in the House and 12 at its helm, guiding the legalization of casino gambling and passage of landmark health care, gun control, and criminal justice reform laws. “I felt that we accomplished quite a bit. I think when you feel it’s the right time, you sort of know it’s the right time,” he told the News Service as he left the State House for the last time as an elected official on Dec. 29. DeLeo left the House for a temporary limbo: he is still in the midst of conversations about his exact role at Northeastern University, but it beats how his predecessors went out — DeLeo is the first in a line of four speakers to not leave under a cloud of suspicion or legal trouble. Over three decades in the House, DeLeo became known as a moderate and a consensus builder who shielded his caucus from politically-sensitive or risky votes. Many saw DeLeo as a jovial and approachable leader who was just as interested in talking sports as he was politics. To others, he was a vindictive speaker who used the power of the gavel to punish representatives who crossed him, support loyalists, and to keep the business of the House behind closed doors. The new year will begin with a new speaker atop the House rostrum: Quincy Democrat Ron Mariano, who served as majority leader and led some of the most significant negotiations for the House over the last decade, ascended to the speakership just before 2020 came to a close. — Colin A. Young

4) Markey Puts JKIII Into Early Retirement

This one lived up to its billing. The looming contest between U.S. Sen. Ed Markey and U.S. Rep. Joseph Kennedy III came in at number six on the 2019 Top 10 list and, after an eventful campaign, culminated with Markey handily fending off the challenge and cruising to another six years in the U.S. Senate. Kennedy began with an edge in the polls and fundraising but the pandemic changed the contours of the campaign and it was Markey’s team that capitalized. Despite being 74 and having spent more than four decades in Congress, Markey (and his digital team) presented himself as something of a hipster — the senator’s love of ice cream and the vintage Nike basketball sneakers he wore became points of fascination online — and he leaned on endorsements from people like U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and his co-sponsorship of the Green New Deal to frame himself as a progressive champion to young, liberal voters. At the same time, Kennedy was never really able to develop a cogent case for why Markey needed to be retired from the U.S. Senate and his argument for a new voice and fresh leadership did not resonate with voters the same way it did when Ayanna Pressley successfully challenged Michael Capuano for a U.S. House seat in 2018. Markey won about 55 percent of the Democratic primary votes and then rolled over Republican Kevin O’Connor with nearly 65 percent of the general election vote en route to a second full term in the U.S. Senate. Kennedy, who gave up his seat in the U.S. House to challenge Markey for his Senate seat and reported in October that his campaign violated campaign finance laws by spending $1.5 million raised for the general election on the primary contest, has not announced what he intends to do next. — Colin A. Young

5) Holyoke Soldiers’ Home Mismanagement and Tragedy

The story of COVID-19 in long-term care facilities has often been a tragic one, and the deadly outbreak at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home was a particularly grim tale of the pandemic’s devastation, costing at least 76 veterans their lives, prompting the resignation of Veterans Affairs Secretary Francisco Urena and leading to felony charges against two former officials at the home. Attorney General Maura Healey brought charges in September against former Superintendent Bennett Walsh and former medical director David Clinton, alleging they put residents’ lives at risk by combining two dementia care units and housing some veterans who were COVID-positive and others who did not display any symptoms in a confined area. A report by former assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Pearlstein quoted staff describing that move as “total pandemonium” and “when all hell broke loose,” with one recreational therapist saying she felt like she was “walking [the veterans] to their death.” Healey described the criminal case against Walsh and Clinton — who have pleaded not guilty — as the first in the country relating to COVID-19 nursing home deaths, and the fallout could spill into 2021 as other probes into the Holyoke outbreak continue. U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling also opened an investigation and a special legislative oversight committee has a March deadline for its report. Families of Holyoke home residents shared heartbreaking stories with lawmakers, telling them about wondering if their loved ones were alive or dead. Though Gov. Charlie Baker filed a bill seeking to change the way the Holyoke superintendent is appointed and require the Department of Public Health to annually inspect the facility, legislators have indicated they want to complete their own investigation before acting. Three new trustees now sit on the Holyoke board, and a new chapter began for soldiers’ home’s residents this week as COVID-19 vaccinations began. – Katie Lannan

6) Warren Runs for President

She had a plan for that. Critics and opponents of Sen. Elizabeth Warren had been saying for years that the Cambridge Democrat was angling for a White House run while serving in the Senate, and whenever her campaign dreams did begin, they officially came to an end two days after Super Tuesday. One of four Massachusetts pols to run for president this cycle, Warren had seemed to have the best shot, and her campaign — featuring a pile of policy plans pledging structural change, cameos from her dog Bailey, pinkie-promises to little girls and hours-long “selfie lines” that became such a phenomenon they earned their own interactive breakdown in the New York Times — was at various points considered among the top tier in a crowded Democratic field. Contrasting her presidential bid to her pre-political life when “tens of people” heard her ideas for helping working families, Warren said after casting her ballot that the run gave her a chance to “talk about real solutions” and elevate ideas around universal health and child care, a wealth tax and canceling student loan debt. But as Democrats began to coalesce around Joe Biden — erstwhile candidates Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar endorsed the former vice president the day before he’d win Massachusetts — Warren came in third place at home (not to spoil another item on this list), and did not win in any other states. She suspended her campaign on March 5, saying she’d been told when she first entered the race that there were “two lanes” — a progressive one led by Sen. Bernie Sanders and Biden’s moderate one — and “no room for anyone else in this.” “I thought that wasn’t right, but evidently I was wrong,” she said. Speculation about Warren’s future — her Senate term runs through 2024 but there was lots of talk about whether she’d leave for a spot on Biden’s ticket or in his administration — has continued past the end of her campaign and will likely keep going. – Katie Lannan

7) Baker Remakes the SJC After Gants’s Death

Gov. Charlie Baker knew he would have to nominate a new justice to the Supreme Judicial Court this year as Justice Barbara Lenk in December approached her 70th birthday, the mandatory retirement age. But the sudden death of Chief Justice Ralph Gants in September following a heart attack upended the process, suddenly requiring additional action to restore the state’s highest court to its full membership of seven. Baker tapped SJC Justice Kimberly Budd to step into the court’s top role, in turn opening up her associate justice seat as another for the governor to fill in a flurry of action. Both of his new picks to join the state’s highest court, former Appeals Court Judge Dalila Argaez Wendlandt and former Boston Municipal Court Judge Serge Georges Jr., cruised through the nomination process this fall and earned unanimous confirmations from the Governor’s Council, as did Budd. Now that the latest members have all taken the oath of office, Baker has accomplished a nearly unprecedented — and often unattainable — feat in Massachusetts history: he nominated each of the seven judges currently sitting on the SJC, successfully putting them up for decades-long appointments deciding the most high-profile cases about state law. The flurry of activity also transformed the court’s makeup: Budd is the first Black woman to serve as chief justice. She, Wendlandt and Georges also ensure that three out of seven justices on the highest court are people of color. – Chris Lisinski

8) Pandemic Leads to Historically Late Budget

Better late. The $45.9 billion fiscal 2021 state budget was signed by Gov. Charlie Baker on Dec. 11, the latest of the modern era. But in another nod to the weight of the pandemic, no one really had much of a beef with the timing because there were more important things happening. When tax revenues and jobs tanked early in the pandemic, lawmakers seemed paralyzed by the depth of change, and uncertain about when and how to proceed. But as jobs and tax receipts started to come back in the warmer weather, top Democrats in the Legislature and Gov. Baker made an important decision – they would not rush a budget merely to have one in place for the July 1 start of the fiscal year. They’d wait. And wait and wait and wait. For five months, and under three bare bones interim budgets, Baker alone called the shots on state spending. Beacon Hill leaders announced in the summertime that they would hold local aid harmless from cuts, and even bump it up a bit. And as the months went by, the state’s fiscal picture leveled out. Initial forecasts of a revenue implosion of more than $6 billion didn’t materialize and tax collections, so far, have not declined at all in fiscal 2021. By late December, the House and Senate were feeling good enough about the situation to close out the year with a succession of veto override votes to restore spending over Gov. Baker’s objections. But there’s a wildcard in all of this. To avoid cutting programs and services or raising taxes, lawmakers built this year’s budget on more than $3 billion in non-recurring revenues, from federal aid and the state’s rainy day fund – which will force tougher budget calls in early 2021 unless economic growth or more federal help can backfill the disappearing one-time revenues. – Michael P. Norton

9) Biden Wins Massachusetts, Presidency

When Joe Biden jetted out of New Hampshire after a dismal fifth place finish in that state’s primary, his presidential hopes seemed on the rocks. President Trump was trying to deride the Delaware Democrat as “Sleepy Joe” and progressives were feeling good about their chances of electing one of their preferred candidates to the nation’s highest office. Finishing behind Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren, Biden headed to South Carolina seemingly unfazed by his performances in the Granite State and Iowa, and looking ahead to Super Tuesday. Four months later, as Newsweek pointed out, Biden would prove it was possible to win his party’s nomination for president after losing both Iowa and New Hampshire. Massachusetts played a role in his turnaround. In 2008 Biden barely registered in Massachusetts among the Democrats seeking the presidency that year, finishing behind Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and even John Edwards. Biden headed into the March 3 presidential primary here, after losing Nevada but posting a big win in South Carolina, and with the vice presidential credentials he’d earned while serving two terms with Obama he claimed a convincing win, with his nearly 474,000 votes topping his nearest competitor, Bernie Sanders, by nearly 97,000 votes. His Super Tuesday performance left Warren’s candidacy reeling from a loss in her home state. While many electeds here backed Warren, a few were with Biden, including former U.S. Sen. Kerry, former U.S. Rep. Bill Delahunt, former U.S. Sen. Paul Kirk, former Democratic National Convention CEO Steve Kerrigan, state Sen. Marc Pacheco, and Reps. Claire Cronin, Angelo Scaccia and Paul Tucker. In November, Biden topped Trump in Massachusetts by a more than two-to-one margin and mail-in votes helped Biden capture crucial swing states. Ultimately, he defeated the president by winning the big portion of the electorate that lives in the middle, outside the politics of the left and right. – Michael P. Norton

10) MBTA Finances Again in Shambles and Services Cut

It comes as no surprise that the MBTA once again faces a budget shortfall after years of structural deficits, but the COVID-19 pandemic pushed the T into an unprecedented challenge. Ridership dropped precipitously this spring when the state went into near-lockdown, and as is the case at many transit agencies across the country, it has remained at a fraction of pre-pandemic levels — roughly 30 percent on average, with variations between lines and modes — more than nine months into the crisis. Because the MBTA generates about a third of its budget from fare revenue, the drop punched a massive hole — forecast at more than $500 million in fiscal year 2022 — into its already-shaky financial outlook starting in fiscal year 2022. Lawmakers showed little interest in hiking taxes or redirecting funding to help the MBTA, and Baker administration officials opted to include a package of significant service cuts in their plan to rein in spending and realign schedules during this period of low ridership. After months of deliberations and mixed signals, the longevity of the cuts approved this month remains unclear: MBTA officials had indicated changes would be difficult to reverse and last for years, but recently have hinted they could either reverse some cuts or expand them in February and March when they determine the agency’s FY22 spending plan. Another $52 million in projected state tax revenue and at least $250 million in additional federal support in the latest stimulus bill will factor into the budget, but T officials have been mostly mum on how those injections will affect service levels. And a year that began with an expectation that a revenue debate would lead to ways to address overcrowded trains ended with no clarity over when or even whether many riders will return to the T. – Chris Lisinski