As the sun set on his time in the Massachusetts House, Speaker Robert DeLeo took to the House floor one last time Tuesday to reflect on a three-decade Beacon Hill career that he said he tried to center around one overarching philosophy: that "what this job is all about, very simply, is helping people."
The Winthrop Democrat resigned from the House effective 6 p.m. Tuesday and hopes to soon begin working for his alma mater, Northeastern University. So with less than three hours left in his career as a representative, DeLeo stood at the lectern in the well of the House Chamber to address the body he has been a part of for 30 years and has led for the last 12 years.
"I stand before you with great humility. Sitting in my office last night for one of the last times, I thought back to the night before I was elected as speaker. I remember it was around dusk time and I was sitting back there ... and feeling immense gratitude that I would be leading this esteemed institution; an institution I had revered my entire career," DeLeo said. "Sometimes it feels like those 12 years went by in an instant."
In a 30-minute speech peppered with the kind of self-deprecating asides that endeared him to many of his colleagues, DeLeo thanked his family for staying at his side through "both triumph and, well, less triumphant times," recognized staff members past and present, and reminded members of the House what the chamber was able to accomplish during his tenure as speaker.
DeLeo pointed to gun safety legislation and health care cost reform laws that have become national models and said they represent "the power of what we can achieve when we approach policymaking with open minds — leaving behind entrenched ideas — and a commitment to being a force for good."
He thanked members of his leadership team for their work on major legislation, like Rep. Claire Cronin's work leading recent criminal justice reform efforts, Rep. Alice Peisch's role in passing a new education financing law last year, and Rep. Sarah Peake's work to guarantee protections for transgender individuals.
"During my years as speaker, the most impactful meetings I've had have been with young folks and families facing hardships, often in situations I couldn't relate to," he said. DeLeo added, "As I look back, I can see the faces of the young people I've spoken to, their passion and their pain. And I know this, that this House made a difference."
The speaker became most animated during his speech Tuesday when he talked about the pride he has in the House and each of its members, a section of the speech that was not in his remarks as prepared for delivery and that he appeared to deliver off the cuff.
"The thing I remember most is that to a person, each and every one of you spoke what you felt would help your district, what was important to the people of your district," he said. "That is something I will never forget about each and every person in this chamber. You're all good people. And you all fought hard for the people in your district to make their life better. And I hope that people realize that."
DeLeo left his office for the last time at 5:30 p.m. with several senior members of his staff, including chief of staff Seth Gitell and deputy chief of staff Whitney Ferguson. He was led down the Grand Staircase and into the Great Hall where his staff had set up a virtual meeting on a large-screen television with dozens of lawmakers who did not attend his farewell in person because of the pandemic.
"This is unbelievable," DeLeo said multiple times, thanking them for their partnership over the years.
In a brief interview with the News Service afterward, DeLeo called it "an emotional day," but said he was comfortable with his decision to step down.
"I can't say there was one thing in particular. I was proud of the work that we've done for so many years. I love this place. But on the other hand, now having grandchildren, I think, was one thing, and spending more time with the family was important to me at this point," he said. "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 added.
DeLeo wouldn't say what he hoped to do at Northeastern University. "That we'll let you know, but we're working on it," he said.
A diehard Boston sports fan, DeLeo made annual trips to catch up with the Red Sox at spring training and was typically surrounded by a large cast of representatives at the Beanpot tournament each February. In his speech, he made frequent mention of his love for baseball, and also called attention to the success of the Patriots, Red Sox, Bruins and Northeastern Huskies during his tenure atop the House.
"Our sports teams have exceeded my wildest expectations. During my time as speaker, which I'll take credit for, we've seen six sports championships — three Super Bowls, two World Series, and a Stanley Cup, and those trophies have all come to this chamber," he said. "And let me not forget the multiple Beanpots that Northeastern University has won as well."
He also addressed his presumed successor, Majority Leader Ron Mariano, directly. Mariano has been DeLeo's number two for a decade and has been part of leadership throughout DeLeo's tenure as speaker, often handling some of the most sensitive and complicated negotiations for the House.
"With your commonsense know-how and your understanding of how policies affect people, you have provided inordinate value to the House of Representatives. You are a tremendous friend and a wise counselor," DeLeo said to Mariano, who was seated nearby. "Perhaps most importantly, in our three decades serving together ... I have witnessed you mentor many members. The House is better off because of your openness to the relationships that make the House what it is at its best. I want to thank you for that."
Though DeLeo would sometimes give an agenda-setting speech to the House early in a new legislative session, it is unusual for the speaker to address the membership in full as he did Tuesday. Representatives who resign, retire or are otherwise leaving the House are typically given an opportunity to offer farewell remarks.
DeLeo made his so-called maiden speech on the House floor 10,613 days earlier, on Dec. 9, 1991, while the House was debating a bill that dealt with full funding of public pension systems, according to News Service coverage of the session.
The freshman representative from Winthrop spoke about the local aid his district had lost and the impacts as municipalities had to lay off employees. He mentioned a fire in Revere that damaged a home just 100 yards from where there was a firehouse before the city had to close it for lack of funding.
"When local aid is cut, it is the cities and towns that bleed," the News Service wrote in its summary of DeLeo's remarks.
DeLeo alluded to his earliest days on Beacon Hill in his speech Tuesday, recalling how he arrived with "a strong desire to represent my district" and how an older member of the House once told him, "Bob, you're not a selectman any more."
Over the years, through conversations with representatives of different stripes — like former Rep. Ellen Story of Amherst, whom DeLeo mentioned by name — DeLeo said he learned the importance of listening to other members, learning about the issues in their districts and finding solutions that work across the state. He said he came to learn that "central to the role of speaker is recognizing that each and every member, regardless of their political persuasion, is sent to Beacon Hill with the exact same mandate: To ably represent their 40,000 constituents."
"Throughout my tenure, I strove to listen deeply to my colleagues, keep an open mind, and identify solutions that work for the commonwealth -- from the Berkshires to Boston," DeLeo said. He added, "And while our solutions may not receive accolades with those who want us to move faster or win the blessing of political pundits, our legislation fulfills the exact mandate I spoke of earlier. Our deliberative process results in laws that are representative of the diverse perspectives and needs of this great commonwealth's constituents."
Though the Democrats who control the Massachusetts House will choose the next speaker, the constituents of the 19th Suffolk District, which includes Winthrop and part of Revere, will select their next representative during a yet-to-be-scheduled special election since DeLeo ran and won re-election last month but will not take office when the new Legislature is sworn in next Wednesday.
Four Democrats have already filed papers with the Office of Campaign and Political Finance to run for the seat DeLeo is vacating: Juan Pablo Jaramillo, former legislative director for Sen. Joe Boncore; Tino Capobianco, chief of staff to Sen. Paul Feeney; Revere Beach Partnership President Jeffrey Turco; and Marc Silvestri, the director of veterans services in Revere.
After concluding his remarks Tuesday, DeLeo shook the hand of Mariano, seated behind him, and fist-bumped Rep. Paul Donato, who listened to the speech from the rostrum.
He then made his way over to Minority Leader Brad Jones, and the two men embraced. DeLeo then walked up the aisle to his office, bumping fists with some of the roughly two dozen members who attended the remote session in-person to witness his farewell speech, and hugged Ways and Means Chairman Aaron Michlewitz.
His made his exit from the chamber after choking up as he concluded his remarks.
"Finally, as I close I want to say thank you," DeLeo said. "It's so hard to say goodbye to this place, and to the people with whom I've worked so closely and love, and to emphasize the word love because that's the way I feel today."