[Globe] In the Mass. House, newly elected women are fighting to be heard
By Stephanie Ebbert Globe Staff, October 20, 2019, 7:47 p.m.
Like so many women around the country who were adamant that their voices be heard in politics after 2016, Maria Robinson , Tami Gouveia, and Lindsay Sabadosa launched their first campaigns last year and won.
Now they’re stung by how little they’re being heard — not necessarily because they’re women, but because the body they were elected to is the Massachusetts House of Representatives, a tradition-bound, top-down organization where they say they are expected to fall in line with the Democratic leadership and shut up. You can be an elected official who speaks for 40,000 constituents and still not be permitted to speak on the House floor.
“Not letting people speak is incredibly disrespectful,” said Sabadosa, who wasn’t called on last week in the House chamber, though she stood up, called out, and even waved her arms in her efforts to be recognized. Asked if she feels heard in the House, she answered quickly, “No. No, I think every attempt is made to make sure that you’re not.”
Last Wednesday, the trio tried to push back against a corporate tax change the governor had proposed in his supplemental budget, which had been reported out of the House Ways and Means Committee on Tuesday.
Robinson raised concerns in a closed-door Democratic caucus about the measure. Sabadosa feared it would create big new corporate tax loopholes. They may have been wrong; this was the easiest and quickest way to resolve a discrepancy with the federal tax code, advocates said. Without it, Massachusetts businesses could find themselves at a disadvantage.
But they were trying to understand the language in the legislation and weren’t satisfied with the answers they were getting. So Robinson, a Framingham Democrat, filed an amendment to stop the tax change. Soon, she was summoned to the office of House Ways and Means Chairman Aaron Michlewitz, a Boston Democrat.
But when she showed up with several other members, Michlewitz would not meet with them, she said. (In an interview, Michlewitz declined to explain why the meeting didn’t happen but said that Robinson’s amendment was “drafted incorrectly for what was the intent.”)
Robinson pushed the amendment to the floor, where she did get to speak — for 56 seconds. Then the vice chair of the Ways and Means Committee, Representative Denise Garlick, asked through the speaker if she would “yield” for a question.
“May I finish first?” Robinson asked, according to a recorded video of the proceedings.
“Does the lady yield?” repeated state Representative Paul Donato, the Medford Democrat who was presiding over the session.
“No,” Robinson said, soon adding: “I’m happy to yield for questions. At the end.”
It was not a T-shirt-ready slogan like “Nevertheless she persisted,” or “Reclaiming my time,” but her retort sprang from the same instinct that motivated US Senator Elizabeth Warren and US Representative Maxine Waters.
If she yielded the floor, Robinson feared, she might never get to make her point. She’d learned that lesson in a January debate where Representative William M. Straus, a Mattapoisett Democrat, similarly refused someone’s attempt to cut in.
“For the new members, as you begin your education in the rules,” Straus schooled his colleagues, “there is only yielding. There is no such thing as yielding for a question. There is only yielding the floor.”
True, Straus said in an interview, yielding is “the preferred etiquette,” and he later apologized to the colleague he’d rebuffed. “It’s considered somewhat rude not to yield,” he acknowledged. But he was trying to finish the flow of his idea.
Likewise, Robinson dug in to make her point — that the House was rushing a significant revenue-related decision without fully vetting the measure’s language.
Then Garlick got a chance to make hers.
“It is striking to me in a chamber in which we speak of collegiality and respect that an individual would not yield for a question,” said Garlick, a Needham Democrat. She raised her questions and urged her colleagues to vote against Robinson’s amendment.
Garlick said in an interview she was merely seeking clarity about the amendment.
Couldn’t she wait to make her point until Robinson had made hers?
“No,” Garlick said. “It’s very appropriate to ask a question for clarification when somebody’s speaking. That is not out of the norm. You can ask someone to yield. And it’s particularly important if somebody is making a presentation you can ask a question at that time. It’s an appropriate thing to do.”
In the end, neither got the answers she was seeking. Donato didn’t recognize Robinson a second time — even to answer Garlick’s questions. (“Because Representative Robinson did not stand up and say, ‘Mr. Speaker, Mr. Speaker.’ That is the only way that I would know someone is looking to be recognized,” he told the Globe on Sunday. Robinson maintains she was standing and waiting to be recognized again.)
Instead, Donato recognized Revenue Committee Chairman Representative Mark Cusack, a Braintree Democrat, and called for a vote immediately after he finished speaking. Donato said he neither saw nor heard Sabadosa or Gouveia, both of whom were standing and trying to get his attention. One of them can be heard on the House video, calling “Mr. Speaker!”
“I didn’t hear her,” Donato said. “I called for a vote. The vote came, and once the vote is called for, you can’t interrupt the vote.”
Speaker Robert DeLeo defended his leadership team.
“If the presiding officer failed to acknowledge a member seeking recognition, I have to believe that it was the result of nothing more than an inadvertent oversight,” he said in a statement. “For anyone to suggest, without any evidence to the contrary, that there were improper motives behind such an inadvertent oversight or to attempt to politicize an inadvertent oversight via social media is both unfair and cynical.”
The women got a different message entirely.
“It was clearly a coordinated effort to make sure we spoke as little as possible,” said Robinson.
To them, it’s emblematic of the lack of debate in a chamber where votes are decided behind closed doors with little input from rank-and-file members.
“There are no close votes,” said Robinson. “Everything is determined in advance. And that does not seem fair to the public and it doesn’t seem good for democracy.”
“Some of us have been told, ‘you’ll lose this vote and it will look bad for you,’ ” said Gouveia, an Acton Democrat. “I have a very different measure of success.”
Gouveia would rather register her viewpoints about issues, and she feels she has a mandate to speak up. She’s representing constituents whose sense of civic duty has been heightened over the two years of the Trump administration.
“We’re looking at it with completely fresh and different eyes in the age of Trump, in the age of the Women’s March,” said Gouveia, who founded the Massachusetts chapter of the Women’s March on Washington. Sabadosa, of Northampton, organized the Pioneer Valley Women’s March.
Now they are among the 46 women who have edged into an old boys’ club of 160 members.
They are not there to yield.