BOSTON — Take a deep breath. It’s almost over.
There was so much news in 2017 that if you didn’t have your head on a swivel, you probably didn’t just miss one story. You missed several.
The following are the top 10 political stories of 2016, as voted on by many of the state political reporters who write and report daily on the people and issues that occupy Beacon Hill.
Counting down the top 10:
10) TSONGAS ANNOUCEMENT TRIGGERS COMPETITION — The announcement may not have been entirely expected, but it came early enough that no one was caught flat-footed. U.S. Rep. Niki Tsongas, after a decade in Congress, decided she would give up her seat on the shuttle to D.C. and retire from the House of Representatives after 2018. The widow of the former Sen. Paul Tsongas made her mark on Capitol Hill focusing on military issues, particularly sexual assault in the military. The August announcement gave prospective candidates interested in the rare opening in the state’s nine-member Congressional delegation plenty of time to measure their chances in the race, and measure they did. The field started filling up quickly, and still hasn’t stopped.
9) BAKER’S COURT — Few governors get to put their stamp on the Supreme Judicial Court as quickly as Gov. Charlie Baker. After putting three new justices on the top court in 2016, Baker, a moderate Republican, added two more this year, accomplishing something it took his predecessor Gov. Deval Patrick eight years. Justices Elspeth Cypher and Scott Kafker joined the SJC bench this year, and Baker likely will have to win re-election next year if he hopes to get another pick. Justice Barbara Lenk is the next justice due to hit mandatory retirement age at 70 in 2020. So far, Baker has preferred to elevate from within the Massachusetts judicial system, tapping experienced judges for the highest court rather looking outside to lawyers or academics.
8) TROOPERGATE — A routine police call to respond to a car crash on Interstate 190 set in motion a chain of events that led to the resignation of the top cop in the State Police and sparked multiple investigations that are ongoing. The episode came to light when Trooper Ryan Sceviour filed a lawsuit alleging that superior officers ordered him to scrub an accident and arrest report of embarrassing details related to the arrest of Alli Bibaud, the daughter of trial court judge. During her arrest for driving under the influence, Bibaud reportedly mentioned her judge father and offered sexual favors to get out of trouble. Those details were later removed from the report, and former State Police Col. Richard McKeon admitted to having them removed because he did not feel the details were relevant to the case. McKeon and his deputy would eventually quit (officially they retired) but the State Police have brought on former Public Safety Secretary Kevin Burke to fully investigate how the order to alter the report came down, and Attorney General Maura Healey is also probing.
7) WHO’S THE NEXT SPEAKER? — Lawmakers may come and go from Beacon Hill. But it’s not every day that the presumed speaker-in-waiting packs up his office and leaves. That’s what Haverhill’s Brian Dempsey did this year, decamping from his powerful post as chairman of the budget-writing House Ways and Means Committee and taking a senior position at the lobbying firm ML Strategies. Dempsey’s tenure in the Legislature started when he was in early 20s and lasted 26 years, a span during which he wrote six state budgets and played an integral role in drafting the state’s expanded gaming law.
6) IT’S TRUMP’S WORLD, WE’RE ALL JUST LIVING IN IT — When voters elected President Donald Trump in 2016, people knew the country was in store for something a little different. Still, it could not have been entirely foreseen how brightly the new commander in chief’s presence in the White House would color 2017 on Beacon Hill. From the Women’s March on Boston Common in January to the debates over Obamacare, tax reform, and immigration, the liberal leanings of Massachusetts put it on the forefront of the resistance. Attorney General Maura Healey has a growing pile of lawsuits against the Trump administration, and Gov. Charlie Baker has distanced himself from the GOP at virtually every turn. The House even created a committee just to monitor what was happening in Washington and prepare for necessary counter responses, and the Senate sent a team of lawmakers to D.C. to try to wrap their heads around how Massachusetts might be impacted by the flurry of change. Legislation was even passed in the House to ban sheriffs from sending inmates to the border to help build a Mexican border wall, and Baker signed a law protecting access to free birth control at no out-of-pocket expense.
5) CRIMINAL JUSTICE GETS ITS DAY — Over the years, legislators have bitten off criminal justice reform in small chunks. Attempts at broader overhaul often got bogged down in emotional debates over punishment versus compassion and certain decisions were punted to a later date, preferably not close to election time. That date came this year when House and Senate leadership made good on a promise to tackle the subject in a comprehensive manner, not piecemeal. Both branches managed to pass bills that addressed the elimination of mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug crimes, restrictions on the use of solitary confinement, the expungement of juvenile records and strengthened laws against fentanyl trafficking, among other things.
4) THE WEINSTEIN EFFECT — The national reckoning over sexual harassment in and out of the workplace started in Hollywood and eventually made its way to Boston. Men in the local worlds of politics, media and music were forced to answer for their past behavior toward women. Driven in large part by the reporting of the Boston Globe’s Yvonne Abraham, the male-dominant culture at the State House came under heavy scrutiny after a dozen anonymous women detailed for the columnist instances of sexual harassment on Beacon Hill that prompted a renewed focus on policies for prevention and reporting. The House and Senate have initiated policy reviews that could lead to enhanced sexual harassment training in the workplace, and the building has been on pins and needles for weeks waiting to see if names attached to the stories in Abraham’s piece will become public. And that doesn’t even cover the biggest story to come out of this thread.
3) POT LAW GETS REWRITTEN, CCC UP AND RUNNING — Much of the establishment on Beacon Hill opposed the 2016 ballot question legalizing the adult recreational use of marijuana, but voters overruled them. Blocking the will of the electorate would have been an untenable position for lawmakers, but didn’t mean they couldn’t bend that will to suit their own preferences. After voting around this time last year to delay implementation of key aspects of the new law, lawmakers spent much of the first half of the year contemplating how to regulate pot. The resulting law put control of the industry under a new Cannabis Control Commission, set tax rates for the sale of marijuana and marijuana products and devised a process by which cities and towns could ban dispensaries from opening in their communities.
2) MO’ MONEY, MO’ PROBLEMS — The tone for the year was set early when the Legislature kicked off its two-year session by ramming through a package of pay raises for itself, constitutional officers and judges that will continue to be an issue in 2018 as re-election campaigns kick into gear. The $18 million package was approved despite a veto by Gov. Charlie Baker, who declined the raise, as legislators worked around their inability to hike base salaries without a constitutional amendment by doling out hefty pay increases that came with leadership and committee chairmanship stipends.
1) SHAKEUP AT THE TOP — Sen. Presodemt Stanley Rosenberg, was forced to give up the post this month after allegations surfaced that his husband, Bryon Hefner, had harassed and sexually assaulted at least four men who work on Beacon Hill. The stories of unwanted groping and kissing, exposed again by Abraham, were accompanied by claims from the victims that Hefner also boasted about his influence over Senate business. Within days, Rosenberg relinquished his position, and his colleagues selected Majority Leader Harriette Chandler to take over as president with the possibility still on the table that Rosenberg could return. For that to happen, a Senate Ethics Committee investigation, being conducted by three high-powered Boston attorneys, would have to exonerate Rosenberg. Guessing whether Rosenberg can, or will, return has become something of a parlor game, fueled by the background maneuvering of four Democrats – Sens. Linda Forry, Eileen Donoghue, Karen Spilka and Sal DiDomenico – to be in position to succeed Rosenberg full-time if he’s unable to make a comeback.