politics

Top 10 Mass. Political Stories of 2021

Recap and analysis of the year that was

Office of Gov. Charlie Baker

The past year brought new faces to the political scene, but old problems persisted as Massachusetts residents and policymakers navigated the second year of a global pandemic.

Widespread vaccination efforts helped lead to the relaxation of lockdowns and attempts were made to return to some sort of normalcy in business, school and social settings. Gov. Charlie Baker lifted the COVID-19 state of emergency as more and more adults got vaccinated and infection rates plummeted over the summer.

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But it wasn't for long as New England's colder temperatures pushed people indoors and a new variant of the COVID-19 virus sparked a new viral wave that has put a weary public back on defense.

With states like Massachusetts adapting to the ever-changing COVID-19 conditions on the ground, an insurrection at the Capitol on Jan. 6 helped set the tone in Washington for the coming 12 months as a new president, Joe Biden, worked with a Democrat-controlled Congress to deliver unprecedented federal aid through the American Rescue Plan Act and an infrastructure package that will send billions more dollars to Massachusetts. But other elements of the president's agenda have stalled in the closely divided Congress.

All of these storylines and more found their way onto reporters' lists of the top 10 stories of 2021, as we surveyed those who cover Beacon Hill day in and day out, in person and remotely.

It's been such a long year that it's almost hard to believe that 2020 ended with longtime House Speaker Robert DeLeo departing for Northeastern University and Quincy's Ron Mariano taking over as the first new speaker of the House since 2009. And it's been so busy that other stories, like the ongoing challenge of opioid addiction and homelessness at Boston's intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard didn't make this list. Neither did the decennial redistricting process that followed the conclusion of a 2020 Census that counted over 7 million people now living in Massachusetts.

But enough of that. Here's our list of the top 10 political stories of 2021, as voted on by the State House press corps.

Number 1: The Highs and Lows of COVID-19

The more things change the more they stay the same. For the second year in a row, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic topped Beacon Hill reporters' lists as the biggest story of 2021. And it's hard to argue with that logic. But the story of COVID-19 in 2021 was certainly different than the first year of the pandemic. The year started and ends with a surge of infections rippling throughout the state, but so much happened in between. After what Baker and his team acknowledged to be a "lumpy" and "bumpy" rollout of vaccinations full of technical glitches and difficulty for residents to book appointments, Massachusetts climbed to the top of the charts for vaccination rates among states, students returned to in-person learning, and the state of emergency order and restrictions on businesses were lifted. In between, there were political battles over masking in schools, vaccine mandates for executive branch employees and lawmakers, and whether the threat of the new omicron variant warrants a return to mandated indoor masking, or if it's sufficient to let municipalities decide for themselves. Meanwhile, worker shortages, inflation and global supply chain issues continue to hamper what is still a relatively strong economic recovery, and understaffed hospitals are again grappling with capacity issues and restricting elective procedures. The new year will begin under a cloud of uncertainty not unlike 2021, but there's always next year for COVID-19 to fall from the top spot on this list. For the record, it's not the first back-to-back top story. According to our records, Gov. Michael Dukakis' presidential campaign was the top story in 1987 and 1988, the gay marriage debate went back-to-back in 2003 and 2004, and the upheaval in the ranks of the Massachusetts Senate was the top story in 2017 and 2018.

Number 2: Baker, Polito Bow Out Of 2022 Race

With an opportunity to make history, Gov. Baker built up Hitchcockian suspense over the course of the year for a decision that succeeded in upending Massachusetts politics - just maybe not the way many thought it would. Though arguably more vulnerable than in his 2018 reelection campaign, the popular Republican was widely considered to have a solid shot at becoming the first governor to be elected to three consecutive four-year terms. In the end, he simply decided he didn't want it. Baker set the stage for a wide open 2022 gubernatorial contest when on Dec. 1 he announced that instead of splitting his attention between a reelection campaign and the state's COVID-19 response, he wanted to spend his last year in office focused entirely on governing. Surprisingly, Baker made the announcement with Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito at his side, herself having come to the same conclusion that she would not seek to succeed Baker in the corner office. Had he run, Baker, no doubt, would have faced strong conservative headwinds from the base of his party. Former state Rep. Geoff Diehl, who is running and has been endorsed by former President Donald Trump, presented himself as the alternative to Baker, and is now the only candidate in the GOP primary race. Meanwhile, Democrats felt energized by Baker's exit from the race, but are now in a holding pattern of their own as they wait to see whether Attorney General Maura Healey, U.S. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh or anyone else joins a three-person field of Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, Harvard professor Danielle Allen and former Sen. Benjamin Downing. 

Number 3: Boston Chooses Mayor Michelle Wu

Twice this year, Boston welcomed a new mayor. Breaking a 199-year streak of white men holding the post, both were women of color. Marty Walsh's departure to become U.S. labor secretary turned the mayoralty over to Kim Janey, who was elevated from city council president to acting mayor. Two other councilors -- Michelle Wu and Andrea Campbell -- had jumped into the race before Walsh's January nomination uncorked a flood of interest and speculation, and the September preliminary contest ultimately featured eight names on the ballot. Wu topped that ticket and went on to claim a decisive win over Councilor Annissa Essaibi George in the November special election, stepping into office as mayor just two weeks later. A former council president who interned under Mayor Tom Menino, the 36-year-old Wu is not a newcomer to Boston City Hall, but her ideas and positions paint its concrete halls in a new light. Rent control and fare-free public transit were campaign platform cornerstones for Wu, and adopting those policies wholesale will need buy-in from Beacon Hill -- putting the new mayor's relationships with lawmakers to the test after she ran with the endorsements of more than 20 legislators. That hasn't stopped her from taking steps toward those goals. Wu put forward a plan to expand a free fares pilot for three bus routes on her second full day in office, and has also announced plans to form a rent stabilization advisory group that will work toward developing legislation for the 2023-2024 session on Beacon Hill.

Number 4: ARPA Leads To Wrangling Over Spending

Nothing comes between friends like money. So perhaps the bickering between the Legislature and the governor over spending $5.3 billion in federal American Rescue Plan Act money should have been expected. Massachusetts' share arrived May 19 and Baker and lawmakers were publicly arguing by June 1 over who got to spend it. Controlling the ARPA purse strings could mean getting the lion's share of whatever credit followed. But as both sides learned since, it also means being blamed for not spending the "rescue" aid fast enough. "We are glad the Governor, who has been in receipt of these funds for two weeks, is now joining the Legislature in this sense of urgency," Senate President Spilka and Speaker Mariano said June 2, blaming Baker for having not sent checks to four federally-shortchanged cities a day after they took the first steps to transfer almost all of the ARPA money into a Legislature-controlled account. Lawmakers took control of the money, but Baker turned the tables and spent the summer regularly jabbing at them for their deliberate and open-ended public hearing process. "The windows are open, the door is ajar and the big question in front of us all is are we going to go through it or not," Baker said in September. When a bill spending $2.55 billion of ARPA money finally hit Baker's desk on Dec. 3, he took his full complement of 10 days to review it and then called out "the considerable amount of time the Legislature took to send us this legislation." The governor sent back a veto and a handful of amendments, too. But lawmakers are expected to wait until next year to put the final bow on the first round of ARPA spending.

Number 5: Biden Raids Mass. For Talent

President Joe Biden turned to the Bay State for several nominations in his first year in office, plucking local pols for the Washington big leagues and touching off a chain of political dominoes back in Massachusetts, some of which have yet to fall as 2022 approaches. News came Jan. 7, a day after the insurrection at the Capitol, that Biden had tapped Boston Mayor Marty Walsh for labor secretary. The former state representative from Dorchester joined the likes of U.S. Transportation Secretary Andrew Card and U.S. Labor Secretary Maurice Tobin as a former House member stepping into a presidential Cabinet role. Two current reps are also bowing out of Beacon Hill: Rep. Claire Cronin of Easton, confirmed Dec. 18 as the U.S. ambassador to Ireland; and Rep. Maria Robinson of Framingham, nominated Sept. 22 as assistant secretary in the federal Office of Electricity. Robinson's nomination is still pending, while Cronin's next stop is the Deerfield Residence, a grand 245-year-old mansion set in a 1,750-acre park in Dublin. Vicki Kennedy joins Cronin overseas with a diplomatic posting to Austria. Most controversial was Biden's choice for who to keep in New England as top federal prosecutor for the Massachusetts district. It took Vice President Kamala Harris breaking a tie in the Senate to confirm Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins as the next U.S. attorney for Massachusetts. And it was no shock that Biden tapped into Massachusetts' health care brain trust for his leader of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, announcing his pick last December of Dr. Rochelle Walensky from Mass. General Hospital, who has since become a familiar face on the pandemic-era national news.

Number 6: New Climate Law, But Major Projects Collapse

Getting to the March 26 signing ceremony for the state's major climate and emissions policy update was no easy road, but the path to actually achieving the law's requirements -- net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 chief among them -- has proved to be an even rockier one. Over the summer, signs of trouble emerged when Connecticut put the controversial regional effort to reduce vehicle emissions along the East Coast on the back burner. The Transportation Climate Initiative was to be "critical" to reaching net-zero emissions by 2050, Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Kathleen Theoharides said in 2020. By November, as support for TCI waned further and gas prices soared, Baker pulled out of the compact, declaring it was "no longer the best solution." Maine voters basically said the same about the New England Clean Energy Connect transmission corridor at the ballot box on Nov. 2 when they retroactively rejected the project that was to connect Massachusetts to Canadian hydropower. Baker has held out hope that a legal challenge could get the project back on track, but that has so far not gone his way either. The governor has said he is talking about a "plan b" with project developers, which would really be a "plan c" for Massachusetts since the state's first attempt to secure hydropower was stymied by New Hampshire regulators. As 2021 neared its end, the Baker administration touted the projects chosen to double the state's offshore wind generation capacity, but the wind projects already in the pipeline have their own hurdles to overcome before they are a reality.

Number 7: MassGOP Infighting Erupts Into Chaos

Fault lines had already existed in the state Republican Party before 2021, and over the course of the year, they deepened into outright chasms. MassGOP Chair Jim Lyons steered the party apparatus further to the right, fully embracing former President Donald Trump in a sharp contrast from those aligned with Gov. Charlie Baker and his more moderate brand of Republican politics. Along the way, intense fights within the party -- and Lyons' willingness to dig in when challenged -- spilled into public view. When State Committeewoman Deborah Martell said she was "sickened" that a gay Congressional candidate adopted children with his husband, Lyons called her remarks offensive but supported her remaining on the job. He stood firm behind that position, accusing nearly every House Republican of giving in to "poisonous woke cancel culture groupthink" for urging Martell to step down. The incident became the "final straw" for MassGOP Vice Chair Tom Mountain, who said in June that he was no longer on speaking terms with Lyons. Some longtime donors pledged they would not direct money to MassGOP if Lyons remained at the helm. And you might never know Baker consistently rated as one of the most popular governors in the country based on the party's practically taunting reaction to his decision not to seek another term in 2022. Lyons said Massachusetts is "turning a new page" and looked forward to rebuilding the Republican Party with the help of Trump, who endorsed former state Rep. Geoff Diehl for governor even before Baker announced his plans to step away. The upheaval comes amid a string of losses for the GOP in state legislative elections that has dwindled the party's numbers to 29 in the House and three in the Senate. Republicans in recent years lost Senate seats it held in Fitchburg, Westfield and Wrentham and House seats in Barnstable, North Attleborough and Taunton. 

Number 8: Lawmakers Keep State House Locked

What started in March 2020 as a brief shutdown of the State House is prolonging straight through 2021 and into next year, and public pressure started to mount this fall (albeit before the rise of omicron) for lawmakers to throw the doors back open. Massachusetts pols often tout when the state is a national trend-setter or otherwise without peer, and so it is in this case. The Globe reported in November that the Massachusetts State House was the only state capitol in the country completely sealed off to the public. House and Senate leaders here often reiterate the complexities around opening a building that is part museum, part office building, and part public assembly arena, although the other 49 found ways to let constituents back inside their seats of government. From lobbyists to protesters, everyone has had to find ways to adapt, and most often it's been through virtual methods. Livestreamed hearings and sessions have become the norm, opening up lots of the State House world that was previously in-person-only. Some activities have been pushed outside when weather allows, and Secretary of State William Galvin is back to hosting school choral concerts this month, but the choristers have been pushed out into the cold of Ashburton Park. The lack of public access was underscored just this week, when the fiscal 2023 consensus revenue hearing got underway, and plagued by a technical snafu, the promised livestream on the Legislature's website was ... not live. As much as the State House tech wizards have worked on ironing out such kinks in the remote workstyle, glitches like that one leave those who are frozen out calling for fairness in access.

Number 9: Mariano Picks Up Where DeLeo Left Off

When then-Majority Leader Ronald Mariano secured the votes to succeed Speaker Robert DeLeo in the House's top job, it felt in some ways like a continuation of the status quo. Mariano, after all, served as DeLeo's top deputy for years, and he coasted into the speaker's chair. In his first full year in the position, Mariano has frequently mirrored the style of his predecessor, keeping most debate behind closed doors. Mariano flexed political muscle early in the term, working with the Senate to revive a sweeping climate policy bill that Gov. Charlie Baker vetoed following the end of the 2019-2020 lawmaking session. He has also carved out offshore wind and its potential for job-creation as a top priority. Still, much like it did under DeLeo, Mariano's House has at times become ensconced in intraparty squabbles with the Senate -- where Democrats also hold a veto-proof majority. Perhaps the most significant shift under Mariano has been the speaker's blunt disposition. Where previous speakers might have offered substance-free public remarks that shed no light on Beacon Hill's inner workings, Mariano has at times shown a willingness to offer a peek behind the curtain, such as when he replied early in the COVID-19 vaccine rollout that he had "no idea" how it was going or when he predicted unanimous support for an American Rescue Plan Act and tax surplus spending bill because it was packed with enough earmarks to "get everybody on board." The Mariano era appears here to stay, too, at least for another few years with the Quincy Democrat planning to seek re-election and another term as speaker. 

Number 10: Zoom Off, Masks On In Schools
This year dawned with many Massachusetts school children still attending class through their computer screens at least some of the time, and with students and their teachers not yet eligible for COVID-vaccines. Now, with 2021 on its way out, students are back in classrooms -- masked in most cases, and staying that way into 2022 under a Department of Elementary and Secondary Education mandate -- and those as young as 5 have been able to get their shots, sometimes even at school-based clinics. The third academic year colored by the pandemic has been a tumultuous one, marked by clashes over the appropriateness of remote instruction, mask protocols, the role of MCAS tests, vaccine plans and working conditions for teachers, and fears around learning loss. Education Commissioner Jeff Riley received -- and then deployed -- new authority to decide when schools can no longer offer remote or hybrid learning, and to mandate mask-wearing in schools. While some parents cheered when Riley began calling schools back to full-time in-person instruction in the spring, others wanted remote learning back on the table when the delta variant brought on a fall case surge. The mask mandate for students and teachers first carried a possible end date of Oct. 1 and is now in place through at least Jan. 15, with a decision on what happens after that hinging on the omicron variant. At one point, state education officials had envisioned lifting their health and safety recommendations -- including mask requirements -- for the 2021-2022 school year. Like with so much else, the virus had other plans.

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