Dr. Strangeoath or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying & Take Office in a Pandemic…
BOSTON—Under the cloud of the coronavirus, Massachusetts legislators took the oath of office marking the start of the 192nd General Court. Some reps and senators—all returning incumbents—took the oath of office through the miracle of Zoom. Others, universally masked, did so in person albeit in somewhat different conditions to maintain as much COVID-19 compliance as possible.
Half of the Massachusetts Senate, including two of the 413’s senators, Eric Lesser and Adam Gomez, took the oath in Ashburton Park just outside the State House. Shortly therafter, several reps, including all freshman, took the oath in person. Then the governor swore in a phalanx of legislators virtually, Zooming into the chamber and checkering screens set up in the back.
However, the seditious riot Donald Trump fomented and his supporters executed in Washington bigfooted the events here. The worst of the siege on Congress began well after the Massachusetts House and Senate did the inaugural deed. Still, the pall over the entire country darkened an otherwise oddly normal moment in state government that had been warped but not destroyed by the coronavirus.
To minimize crowding both the indoor and outdoor proceedings, officials discouraged excess individuals. Guests were verboten for most legislators who took the oath on Beacon Hill in body as well as in spirit. However, there were some accommodations.
Springfield Senator Adam Gomez became the city’s first Latino senator and Massachusetts’s first state senator of Puerto Rican descent. He took the oath in Ashburton Park alongside fellow freshman John Cronin, a Lunenburg Democrat, and 19 other Senate colleagues. Gomez’s family looked on, craning their necks around a monument here.
“I want to make sure that we’re still, you know, socially distant,” Gomez told reporters after the ceremony. “But for the most part, I’m really happy to have my immediate family” here, he said.
Had there been no virus he could imagine “busloads of people” shipping up to Boston. “We’d have Puerto Rican flags everywhere,” he said.
Despite barely brittle temperatures, the open-air affair echoed past ones in the chamber. The sergeant-at-arms was on hand. The dean of the Senate, Taunton Democrat Marc Pacheco, opened the session, perched on a balcony atop the State House’s Ashburton Park entrance. He then turned things over to Governor Charlie Baker to administer the oath.
Joining Baker above were members of the Governor’s Council and Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito. Secretary of State Bill Galvin observed from below.
Gazing out from the low-lying aerie like a lesser, secular pontiff, his Excellency and Polito both offered some perfunctory remarks. Had business been inside—and the other half of the Senate simultaneously sworn in—the oath would have preceded the selection of Senate President. Nobody was seriously contesting President Karen Spilka’s position, but that vote would happen hours later.
Following the oath, the al fresco Senate session recessed. Members went back to schmoozing with colleagues, some of whom they had not seen in person since the Beforetimes. Baker went inside to swear in the other half of the Senate online. One granular detail that became somewhat more obvious was the request that Senators sign some paperwork before leaving Ashburton Park.
Under the Massachusetts constitution, oaths of offices are not only verbally sworn—or affirmed as with Quakers—but also subscribed. Legislators must sign an oath, too. Normally, this would happen under the radar around when the fab forty take the oath in chambers. On Wednesday, Senate clerks stuck the paperwork under the senators assigned chairs and officials urged senators to sign them before leaving.
Nothing should bar the 19 virtually installed senators from subscribing their oaths electronically. However, failure to do so—or physically ink them later—could undermine Senate actions. That explains the math of 21 senators taking the oath in person. A quorum with subscribed oaths was then certain when Spilka won another term as senate president later that afternoon.
As the second half of the Senate took their tele-oaths, the House began its ceremony. Like the Senate, all House freshman attended along with a smattering of incumbents. Occurring indoors, it offered obvious contrasts to the Senate’s event.
The House floor buzzed with activity. While participants mostly practiced distancing, the energy was in stark contrast to the tomb-like silence of the larger State House building.
“I’m in the Fourth Division, and several of the freshmen were located around us,” Ludlow’s new rep Jake Oliveira said, referring the divisions within which reps sit. “We were properly distant, but we were still able to have conversations with one another. So, it was the closest thing to normal I think I’ve had in about eight or nine months.”
The 413 sent four freshman reps to Boston this past November. In addition to Oliveira, among the newcomers were Patricia Duffy of Holyoke, Kelly Pease of Westfield and Orlando Ramos of Springfield.
There is some ritual to summoning his Excellency to administer the oath. While he may have been waiting just inside for the Senate ceremony, the House reception committee likely had further to walk. It is unlikely Baker was just milling around the third floor randomly.
Once reps fetched Baker, Polito and the councilors, he took the rostrum. Unlike outside, Baker never removed his mask in the chamber. He briefly congratulated Quincy Rep Ronald Mariano, who had become speaker last week after Bob DeLeo resigned. He again ceded the mic to Polito, who offered somewhat longer remarks, waxing nostalgic about her own House tenure.
“I’ll always remember the oath of office when I was first taking it,” recalled Polito, a Republican and former Shrewsbury rep. She remembered the chaos in the room as she entered and met with her seatmates. Despite that chaos’ absence today, she added, “This moment is so important.”
The swearing-in for the House took place in five waves. Those present took their oaths first. Aside from the slightly softer din due to fewer voices, it proceeded like any other new legislative session. Then Baker swore in the virtual members by division separately. While the members have not all voted in person since last winter, the House’s four physical divisions remain an organizational tool.
While the screens in the back showed the truly distant members, some technical issues were afoot. On more than one occasion, the sound of a dial tone and dialing reverberated throughout the chamber as some connections dropped, suggesting some far-fetched comedy skit more than the solemnity of the democratic process being realized.
Yet, the strangeness did not diminish anything for the new reps. Springfield’s Ramos lamented that he was unable to bring family. However, he found additional meaning elsewhere.
“It’s a very special day, particularly because I get sworn in on Three Kings Day, which is a big holiday, where I come from in my family,” he said, referencing Epiphany, the day when, tradition states, the Magi visited the Christ child. “I’m humbled, humbled to have this opportunity to serve the people of my district,” he added.
After the quintuple administration of oaths and His Excellency retreated, the House began voting for speaker. Even before the shroud of the coronavirus fell upon the world, this process could take time as reps cast votes for speaker by name as opposed to an electronic yay or nay. In the age of remote voting, reps attend session via phone. Their division leader reports their vote out loud to the House clerk.
With barely any drama, Mariano received all but two votes from the 127 Democrats in the chamber. In brief remarks, noted that officials had worked to allow the 17 new members take the oath in the State House despite COVID-19.
“Today I welcome a new class of state representatives sent to this historic chamber to advocate for their communities,” he said.
He went on to state some of his goals for the session, including supporting residents through the pandemic.
Reps from Western Massachusetts acknowledged the restrictions, but remained grateful for the opportunity to serve.
“Well, I wish my family could be here with me,” Pease told WMP&I. “Many people have told me the pomp and circumstance circumstances are usually you know, are usually much grander.”
“It was kind of weird, but again, it doesn’t matter. It’s still an honor to be here and on the job and representing the people of Westfield,” he said.
Oliveira, who has spent many hours in the building advocating on education issues, said the slimmed-down experience had an upside.
“I thought it was really special for us. You know, most of the time you have all the members or families crowded into the chamber,” Oliveira observed.
While the ceremony was not virtual for him, family support totally was. The folks back home could see everything.
“My mother was yelling at me for to stop touching things and hand sanitize,” he said.