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Mariano: Teachers should go to “Head of the Line”

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Speaker Ron Mariano appeared on Channel 4's "Keller At Large," one of his two Sunday morning TV hits last weekend. [Screenshot]

By Chris Lisinski and Matt Murphy
State House News Service

FEB. 16, 2021…..Seven weeks into his tenure atop the House, Speaker Ron Mariano took to the weekend airwaves to call for prioritizing vaccine availability to educators, outline security policies at the State House, unpack his work with the party’s more liberal members, and more.

In a two-part interview (Part 1 | Part 2) on CBS Boston’s “Keller At Large” and a separate appearance on WCVB’s “On The Record,” Mariano faced a range of questions about the state’s COVID-19 response and his leadership approach.

Mariano Wants Teachers “Into the Head of the Line”
Massachusetts early education and K-12 workers are likely still weeks away from starting to qualify for COVID-19 vaccines, slotted behind another not-yet-eligible group that includes individuals aged 65 and older, those with two or more comorbidities, and residents and staff of low-income and affordable senior housing.

Asked by Keller about worries from teachers, Mariano replied, “I don’t have a problem with the concerns that have been expressed, but I think it’s incumbent upon us to move teachers into the head of the line so that they have access to the vaccine.”

“They can say with some degree of confidence that they’re protected,” Mariano said. “They can take the vaccine, still mask up, still practice social distancing, and be relatively safe, relatively sure in knowing they’re safe from infection.”

Mariano told “On The Record” that under the current conditions he would hesitate to push a teacher back to in-person work, particularly if they may be caring for an elderly or immunocompromised relative, because “everyone’s home situation is different.”

A former teacher and School Committee member, Mariano stressed during both of his interviews that he wants to see students return to classroom learning as soon as possible, if they haven’t already, a goal that Gov. Charlie Baker has been targeting for months.

“The education they’re receiving now is second-rate,” Mariano told Keller. “You can’t send kids to school for one day a week or two days a week or half-days and expect education to go on as it had been. We’re deluding ourselves if we don’t make this a priority. We have to get these kids back into school on a regular basis.”

Growing Vaccine Rollout Criticism
While members of his Democratic caucus pen letters and lob public criticism at the Baker administration nearly every day, Mariano has been increasingly vocal about his frustrations with the distribution since he took the speakership.

In a Dec. 30 interview with WCVB, Mariano replied “I have no idea” when asked for his opinion on the state’s vaccine rollout that at that point had been underway for about two weeks. Asked if he was looking into the issue, Mariano then said, “I just got here.”

His televised interviews Sunday, nearly two months after that WCVB interview, featured far more critical commentary on how the state has been handling the immunization campaign and the more than 1 million doses administered.

Mariano said the distribution has been “problematic,” flagging a lack of “flexibility” in the system during his OTR interview.

“We should’ve been more prepared and had more flexibility in the way we’re dispensing the vaccine,” Mariano told Keller. “What we did was lock ourselves into a procedure using the advice of the vaccine commission — and I was on that commission — we put it into categories, and the first category was 75 and older. To think that those folks were going to get online with the computer was not really a practical decision and one that really was going to be very effective.”

The speaker also raised concerns about the Baker administration’s companion policy announced last week, which opened up eligibility to individuals of all ages if they accompanied a senior citizen to a mass vaccination site.

“I was disappointed. I don’t think it makes an awful lot of senses,” Mariano told OTR. “By allowing people to jump ahead of the categories, we’ve sort of wasted the work that this commission did, so I think it was an unwise decision.”

Asked by Keller if the administration has found a surer footing for the rollout, Mariano replied, “I think we’re on our way.”

“Is it a flawless system right now? Absolutely not. I think we have an awful lot of work to do, and we have to identify sites with easier access and with more transportation options.”

Push Toward Racial Equity
The demands a group of Black State House staffers made last summer remain a “priority,” Mariano said in his Keller appearance, describing discussions between legislative leaders and the Beacon Building Leaders of Color (Beacon BLOC) group as ongoing.

Mariano pointed to the Legislature’s creation of a new Joint Committee on Racial Equity, Civil Rights and Inclusion, which will be chaired by Rep. Bud Williams of Springfield and Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz of Jamaica Plain, as an important step.

“I think that will be the first step in identifying some of the problems we deal with in legislation around racial equity,” Mariano said. “At the same time, we’ll continue to have the talks with employees about where they see some of the problems in our operations.”

Overall, he told “On The Record,” a dozen members of color in the House will be in “decision-making positions” through their committee assignments in the 2021-2022 lawmaking session.

Securing the State House
Mariano said he currently feels comfortable going to work at the State House, but after watching rioters breach the Capitol last month, the House leader said he thinks maintaining more strict security at the State House for now is the “wisest course of action.”

“There is an awful lot of unrest. It was hard to watch what went on in the Capitol and not bring it home and ask what would happen if they had rallied outside the State House in Boston,” Mariano said during his “On The Record” appearance.

Mariano last week announced the creation of a new Committee on Operations, Facilities and Building Security, chaired by Everett Rep. Joseph McGonagle of Everett, a former city councilor. The new committee’s charge is to assess the security of House offices, hearing rooms and the chamber, and ensure safety in a building that must also be accessible to the public.

Mariano noted the State Police maintain an attachment across the street from the State House.

“It’s not a big one, but I’m confident reinforcements would arrive fairly quickly if we needed them,” Mariano said.

An Ear for Liberals?
With his elevation to speaker compared with moderate Democrat Joe Biden entering the White House, Mariano was asked what as a leader he can offer to the more liberal wing of the party and members of the House.

“I offer them an ear to listen to the issues that are their priorities. I offer them access in my leadership team that we appointed last week to one of the more progressive women in the House in Claire Cronin, who has handled issues like the ROE Act,” Mariano said.

The speaker last week installed Cronin, of Easton, as the number two Democrat in the House last week. She succeeds Mariano as majority leader, becoming the first woman to hold that position. Cronin last year helped lead efforts in the House to pass a major police accountability bill and an expansion of abortion access.

Secrecy Under the Dome
A debate over House rules that could bring more transparency to the legislative process has been put off until July, but Mariano said he still thinks it’s important for negotiations over major bills to remain private.

Mariano said “behind closed doors” had a negative connotation, but he defended the practice.

“We’ll do our best to talk about what’s happening and where the process is, but it is a process that’s best done when there’s a certain degree of confidence that what you’re saying is not going to be misinterpreted or publicly broadcast,” Mariano said.

Mariano said many of the conversations that take place between members about policy are about “talking to people you trust and testing positions for reactions.”

Later in the interview, Mariano was shown a clip of himself over a decade ago suggesting that sometimes making political donations does afford people more access to policy makers. Asked if still felt that way, Mariano said it was a perception that donations buy access, but he said he’s always raised money in compliance with campaign finance rules, and will continue to be careful to do so as he takes on a broader role as speaker.

Growing Back the ‘Stache?
“On The Record” host Ed Harding opened with the absence of Mariano’s hallmark black mustache, which the speaker said “went the way of the pandemic.”

“When the pandemic hit, everyone was growing a beard, so I started shaving,” Mariano joked.

But after WCVB’s Janet Wu showed Mariano that clip of her interviewing him in the State House from 2007, Mariano admitted to a bit of nostalgia for the facial hair.

“After seeing that, I might want to go back,” he said.

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