The Ctrl+Alt+Del Inauguration of the Massachusetts General Court…
BOSTON—There was no al fresco swearing-in ceremony in the cold. No members received admonitions to stay away. There was a feast in the Great Hall and cake in the Senate reading room. If Bay State government has ever approached full normal after the shroud of the coronavirus fell upon the world, it was at the inaugural festivities of the 193rd General Court that formally installed the House and Senate.
A vibe of rebooting defined the affair, with callbacks to the world everyone seemingly departed 34 months earlier. The throngs of proud family and friends, banished from the ceremony two years ago, were back. Legislators who took office under socially-distanced circumstances could feel like a frosh for a day at a normal event. There were goodbyes too, including a delayed one from a character whose departure had muted two season ago the pandemic.
“Instead of being together in the warmth and comfort of this Senate chamber, we stood outside—apart—so that we could keep each other healthy and, in turn, keep our friends and loved ones alive,” Senate President Karen Spilka said after winning another term leading that body. “We were still reeling from the shock of the COVID-19 pandemic, but we stood, determined, to fulfill our duties as public officials and elected leaders.”
Senators Will Brownsberger and Jo Comerford nominated Spilka from the floor.
Northampton’s Comerford, in particular, emphasized the trust Spilka placed in her colleagues. Spilka deputized Comerford to lead the Public Health committee through the pandemic and the COVID-19 panel to look into the commonwealth’s missteps.
“Senator Spilka’s faith and trust in us is yet another cornerstone of her presidency,” Comerford said.
Spilka focused her speech on hope. Noting the two mental health bills that have passed last session, she acknowledged the trials everyone has been through. In addition to COVID-19, there was the unrest after the murder of George Floyd and then January 6th insurrection.
Two years ago, while Massachusetts legislators took office masked and distance with unusually tight security but otherwise as normally as possible, rioters began storming the US Capitol where Congress was counting the vote.
“Against this backdrop, there are many reasons why we may find ourselves giving into sadness, anger, and despair, especially as we, and the people we serve, face more uncertainty, including potential economic instability and a deeply divided nation,” she said.
“And yet, as I stand here today, in the beauty of this historic Senate chamber, surrounded by friends, loved ones and all of you, my Senate colleagues, I cannot help but feel one thing: and that is hope!” Spilka continued.
Among the colleagues she was welcoming was Becket Senator Paul Mark and Ludlow Senator Jake Oliveira. They succeeded Senators Adam Hinds and Eric Lesser respectively.
In the House chamber, Shirley Arriaga of Chicopee and Aaron Saunders of Belchertown took their seats in the House. Arriaga succeeded now-former Western Mass dean Joseph Wagner while Saunders took Oliveira’s rep seat.
“The spirit of collaboration here is more important now than ever as the sense of common purpose in our national politics—you don’t’ have to look far to see that—continues to deteriorate in Washington,” Mariano said, referencing branches of Massachusetts government working together as Covid set in.
But the road back to governmental normalcy was bumpy. Massachusetts became the last state to reopen its State House and downshift remote legislative operations
Still, the inauguration was remarkably normal, not just in that the page appeared to have turned on the pandemic. That normalcy was the defining feature. Senator Elizabeth Warren, Boston Mayor Michelle Wu, and the then-incoming governor and lieutenant governor Maura Healey and Kim Driscoll sat in on the process.
There was no explicit demographic shift either, though the number of minority legislators has continued to grow. Three years ago, there was only one senator of color. Today there are four. Still too little relative to the share of the population that persons of color hold in Massachusetts. Yet, it is marked improvement given sorting and how white the commonwealth remains.
Excited for our new historic session.
Humbled, honored and hungry to get things done with @AdamGomezMA, @Payano, & @LizForBoston. Congratulations @KarenSpilka on being elected Senate President. #tenpercent #poc #mapoli #bospoli pic.twitter.com/RgvDwTM2Q9
— Lydia Edwards (@LydiaMEdwards) January 5, 2023
Despite that air of normality, the strain of the last half-decade—not just those in which the coronavirus reigned—was evident, as Spilka’s remarks observed. While this Carolean age under Baker has only been eight years, the national and global events in that time has made it seem, for better or for worse, much longer.
Indeed, giving the oath to legislators was also among the final tasks Baker performed as governor. Nearly every speech had a breath about the collaboration between him and the legislature. While such kumbaya is a double-edged sword, Mariano was right that the branches did come together to face COVID-19.
The closure of the Baker era came with some normalcy. Yet, the end of Robert DeLeo’s reign over the House occurred amid high Covid.
“He was denied the opportunity because of the pandemic to address the body in his exit from this building he loved so much,” Mariano said.
Mariano introduced DeLeo and they embraced before DeLeo was finally able to say goodbye.
“I got the chance to see people in a Zoom screen and what not, but never really got the opportunity to say goodbye to members,” DeLeo said. However, he noted that the distance from his departure in December 2020, also gave him a chance to reflect.
Thinking back to his start, during William Weld’s governorship, he meditated on the impact of public work
“What I did not realize, but believe now, is this House is a family now led by Speaker Mariano who is a mentor to so many.” “Like any family, there are moments of tension. There are moment of squabbles. Even we sometimes have also disputes, but there is also that collective sense of public purpose and commitment to getting things done. That’s what this House is all about.”
On a substantive level, both Mariano and Spilka laid out priorities for the coming session. Childcare and the ever-struggling MBTA topped the list of both.
However, Spilka made several noteworthy commitments. Reflecting on the opportunities it provided her, Spilka said she would work to make community college free in the commonwealth.
She also committed to ensuring the new revenue the Fair Share Amendment—which taxes incomes over $1 million an additional 4%–went to its intended purpose.
“I can assure you that as long as I’m Senate president, every last Fair Share dollar will go to new investments in transportation and education,” she said.
The language of the amendment dedicates the funding. However, it cannot ensure a legislature would not divert existing funds to other purposes and backfill with the amendment’s revenue. Spilka committing to oppose such fiscal shell games.
As the speeches ended and legislators went about taking pictures, the air of normality became especially clear. Senator Oliveira’s family, banished from his Covid-conscious swearing in to the House, got choice seats next to Senator Warren. Senator Mark cheesed it up on the Senate balcony. Senators Lydia Edwards, Adam Gomez, Liz Miranda, and Pavel Payano took a group photo with Spilka.
Back at the House, members chowed down on the spread and took photos. Later that night, the newly sworn of both chambers clinked glasses at Beacon Hill’s watering holes. It was a day of celebration, as in the Beforetimes, but only a day. One normality had never left.
The deadline to file bills now looms.