Dempsey leaves DeLeo with tough choice

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BOSTON — The blockbuster announcement that House Ways and Means Chairman Brian Dempsey plans to resign shook up the legislative leadership ranks on Beacon Hill, opened up a power base in the House, and may kick off jockeying for pole position in the line of succession to the speakership.

Dempsey, 50, a Haverhill Democrat who wields great power in Speaker Robert DeLeo's House, announced that he is resigning his elected position to take a job at the high-powered lobbying firm ML Strategies. He is slated to start as senior vice president and chief operating officer at ML Strategies after Labor Day and expects to officially leave the House sometime in the next "couple of weeks."

"I have spent 26 and a half years as a state rep, I served on the Haverhill City Council for four years and I love public service, but I think it's time for a change, time for a new chapter," Dempsey said. "It's time to move in a different direction and time for a new challenge."

ML Strategies approached him, Dempsey said, and asked that he consider joining them in the chief operating officer role and Dempsey said he told them he would be interested in talking about that possibility further.

"I certainly wasn't looking for a position," he said.

Things moved quickly, Dempsey said. He and ML Strategies sat down this week, he said, and the firm made an offer. On Tuesday, Dempsey filed a letter with the House clerk disclosing that he was "negotiating prospective employment opportunities" with ML Strategies.

Dempsey has served on Beacon Hill since 1991 and his imprint is all over the state's laws. He is the primary author of the last seven House budgets, including the state's first spending plan greater than $40 billion, he co-authored the 2011 expanded gaming law, co-wrote the 2008 Green Communities Act, and helped write a $100 million economic stimulus package in 2003.

He appears to be filling a role at the firm left by the departure of former U.S. senator and chief legal counsel to Gov. Deval Patrick Mo Cowan. Cowan started at ML Strategies with a similar title to the one Dempsey will take on before being promoted to CEO. He left this year for a job at General Electric.

Some of ML Strategies' biggest clients include General Electric, Spectra Energy and Wynn MA, which is building what is slated to become the second resort casino in Massachusetts in Everett when it opens in 2019.

Prior to becoming Ways and Means chairman, Dempsey headed the Economic Development and Emerging Technologies Committee for the House and helped write the expanded gaming law that legalized casinos in Massachusetts.

Many have considered him as a possible successor to the long-serving House Speaker Robert DeLeo, who trusted Dempsey with significant responsibilities.

DeLeo, who like Dempsey was a freshman in the Legislature in 1991, called the outgoing chairman "an outstanding individual who has brilliant political and fiscal mind."

"It appears to be a, you know, just a wonderful opportunity. I wish him the best. I'd have to say that in terms of the job he did as chair of Ways and Means, he's been one of the best that I've ever seen at it," DeLeo, who served as Ways and Means chairman himself before becoming speaker, told reporters Thursday. "He'll be deeply missed by all of us here, but it appears as though it's a great opportunity for he and his family, and I can't say enough for him. We came in together. Not only is he a colleague but he's a close and dear friend."

Asked how he plans to fill the void left by Dempsey's departure, the speaker said he has already been mulling it over and will make an announcement at "the appropriate time."

"That process will start now in earnest," DeLeo said of finding a successor. "Obviously been thinking about it but I'd have to say it will really begin now in earnest and think about the various folks that are out there."

DeLeo in 2011 tapped Dempsey for the Ways and Means chairmanship in a stunning move in which he simultaneously stripped former Rep. Charley Murphy of the Ways and Means post. At the time, Murphy had spoken to colleagues about his interest in a potential future bid for the House speakership.

On Thursday, Rep. Stephen Kulik, a Worthington Democrat who is vice chairman of the House Committee on Ways and Means, would not say if he wants the chairmanship.

"I'm just going to talk about Brian Dempsey today with all due respect to your question," Kulik said.

Kulik said he was also surprised by Dempsey's announcement. Asked what he thought Dempsey's departure said about the House, Kulik said, "It says to me that he's had a very good opportunity brought to him."

While DeLeo searches for a successor to Dempsey, others in the House may angle for the job, which could make put them a step closer to the speaker's office.

Legislative leaders have historically not been fond of succession talk, but Dempsey's departure raises obvious questions about succession since Dempsey was thought by many to be the speaker in waiting.

"I've always been flattered that members would suggest that or mention that. It is always a great honor to be thought of for that position, but at the same time I loved serving as chair of Ways and Means and we have a great speaker," Dempsey told the News Service when asked if the possibility of someday becoming House speaker had factored into his decision-making. "It's more about just a new chapter for me after 27 years. I've been honored to work on seven budgets, gaming legislation, energy legislation and have had the chance to participate in so many interesting subject matters. It feels like the right time to move on."

As Ways and Means Committee chair, Dempsey was a close ally of DeLeo's. Also among DeLeo's leadership team are Majority Leader Ronald Mariano of Quincy, Speaker Pro Tempore Patricia Haddad of Somerset, Assistant Majority Leader Byron Rushing of Boston, and Second Assistant Majority Leaders Paul Donato of Medford and Michael Moran of Boston. All have lengthy track records on Beacon Hill.

Any talk of succession may be premature, too. DeLeo told reporters Thursday that he plans to run for reelection in 2018.

"I don't have any view in my mirror in terms of when I'm looking, you know, that I maybe leave," he told reporters. "Right now I'm just focused on getting legislation done, focused on hopefully getting the marijuana (bill) done hopefully fairly soon, and that's where all my focus is on."

Gov. Charlie Baker, who was in Providence on Thursday attending the National Governors Association Summer Meetings, heard the news when Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito called him during a private governors-only meeting in the morning to pass along word.

"I've known Chairman Dempsey a long time and have tremendous respect for him. Nobody, in my opinion, knows the budget any better than he does," Baker told the News Service between meetings.

The governor, who has now worked with Dempsey through three budget cycles, said the Democrat has a "great temperament about him."

"I'm going to really miss him and I know I speak for a lot of people when I say that," he said.

Asked if he was surprised Dempsey would leave the Legislature at this point in his career, Baker said, "I'm surprised if anybody leaves. This is interesting work, and it's meaningful work, and he's demonstrated over and over again that his commitment to this is really profoundly serious, but the job itself that he's going to I can see why that makes sense to ML Strategies and I can see why that makes sense to him."

Rep. Todd Smola, the ranking Republican on the House Committee on Ways and Means, said Dempsey has "done a great job steering the financial ship of the commonwealth."

"I don't think there's going to be a member of the Legislature that isn't surprised by this news," Smola said. Asked about succession at the top of the committee, Smola said, "I know it's not going to be me and I don't have the foggiest clue who would succeed him."

A disappointed Rep. Sean Garballey, a Ways and Means Committee member, said he hopes whoever succeeds Dempsey will "continue the same example that he has set as the chairman."

"He has been someone I have been able to go to on local aid and higher ed and important issues I care about. So I would like to see the next chairman set the same tone that chairman Dempsey has," Garballey said.

House members in and around the State House on Thursday said the news of Dempsey's resignation took them by surprise and that they had not been clued in that such a move could be coming down the pipe.

"I can't believe it," Rep. Ed Coppinger told reporters after speaking at a Tufts Medical Center nurses strike. He said he had just heard the news.

"I have the utmost regard and respect for that man and it is an incredible loss for the institution -- his institutional knowledge, his spirit of cooperation, his expertise with the way he's handled the state budget through these challenging and difficult times over the last couple of sessions," Rep. Paul McMurtry said upon learning the news. "He is a class act and the commonwealth and the House is going to be at a loss."

Rep. Marjorie Decker said she was "shocked" by Dempsey's announcement and lauded his willingness to engage on issues even when he did not agree.

"I've had a great relationship with him, he has been very respectful, he has always been accessible to me," Decker said. "While we have not always agreed on the same issues, he has always been thoughtful and welcoming to conversations, many that have led to things that I wanted to achieve."

Associated Industries of Massachusetts, an influential employer organization that wields great influence on Beacon Hill, congratulated Dempsey on his new gig and welcomed him to the lobbying and advocacy world.

"Mr. Dempsey has always been willing to consider the opinions of the business community and has been a thoughtful voice of moderation in guiding the fiscal course of the commonwealth," John Regan, AIM's executive vice president of government affairs, said in a statement.

The State House halls are already littered with former legislators who left elected service to become lobbyists. In recent years, Beacon Hill has seen Senate President Robert Travaglini, Sen. Jack Hart, Sen. Anthony Petrocelli, Rep. Michael Costello, Rep. Kathi-Anne Reinstein and others leave to take jobs as lobbyists.

ML Strategies already employs a stable of former public officials, including former Gov. William Weld, former Sen. Steven Baddour, and former Massport CEO Stephen Tocco, who is chairman and CEO of ML Strategies. In 2016, clients paid ML Strategies roughly $4.1 million for its lobbying efforts.

"We are excited to welcome Brian to ML Strategies. Brian is a dynamic leader and someone with a track record for success. He is well-respected not only by his colleagues in the House and Senate, but also leaders throughout all levels of government and the business community," said Stephen P. Tocco, Chairman & Chief Executive Officer of ML Strategies. "We are confident that Brian will bring great depth and a unique perspective to our clients and to our team in his COO leadership role."

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