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Powerful state senator won’t seek reelection

Much of the emphasis in the career of Steven C. Panagiotakos has been on economic development issues. Much of the emphasis in the career of Steven C. Panagiotakos has been on economic development issues.
By Frank Phlllips
Globe Staff / March 25, 2010

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State Senator Steven C. Panagiotakos, chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee and a legislator many Beacon Hill insiders considered a heavy favorite to be the next Senate president, announced yesterday that he will not run for reelection this year.

His unexpected departure will leave a major void in Senate President Therese Murray’s leadership team and further underscores how the face of the 40-member state Senate will change dramatically after this year’s elections.

Nearly a quarter of the incumbents have left or are not seeking reelection in November, a big change in the Legislature, where turnover is often slow.

Panagiotakos, 50, a Lowell Democrat who served two terms in the House before winning his Senate seat, said in an interview that he has been looking to end his 18-year legislative career for several years, but his elevation to the chairmanship of the Senate Ways and Means Committee three years ago put his plans on hold.

He said he felt he owed it to Murray to help steer the state through tough economic times.

“I never looked at this as a career,’’ Panagiotakos said.

His decision comes in a spate of retirements of veteran senators — such as Democrats Joan Menard of Fall River, Susan Tucker of Andover, and Marian Walsh of West Roxbury — and the decision by others to seek new offices. Robert O’Leary of Barnstable is running for Congress, and Michael Morrissey of Quincy is seeking the Norfolk district attorney’s post. Both are Democrats.

In addition, the Senate’s five-member Republican team has lost Scott Brown to the US Senate and will see its minority leader, Richard R. Tisei of Wakefield, leave to run for lieutenant governor.

“It’s definitely a transformational time,’’ Panagiotakos said. “We are at a crossroads as a country. That certainly causes a mood for change.’’

He said he has no plans for another job, other than to return to his small law practice in Lowell, where he drew an $80,000 salary last year, 50 percent less than what he did before he took over the second most powerful position in the Senate in 2007. He said he has avoided actively seeking another job while chairing the Ways and Means Committee, because of the potential conflict it could create.

“I just don’t want any of the entanglements,’’ he said.

The decision by Panagiotakos to leave the Senate, combined with other departures, leaves Murray with a whole new political dynamic.

She has had a close working relationship and personal friendship with Panagiotakos and often leaned heavily on him, according to Senate insiders.

In a statement released yesterday, Murray expressed those sentiments.

“Senator Panagiotakos has been one of my closest advisers, confidants, and friends in the Senate for more than a decade,’’ she said. “I am saddened that he won’t be back, but I respect his decision. He will be greatly missed. Since joining the Senate in 1997 . . . he has been a respected and powerful voice on Beacon Hill.’’

She said that “everyone loves Pange because he brings no pretense, because he’s smart, he’s thoughtful, and he’s kind. . . . He has served the Commonwealth with such great pride and integrity over the years, it really is hard to see him go.’’

Governor Deval Patrick expressed regret over the pending departure of Panagiotakos. He said he relied on him as a partner in the budget process, calling him someone with “political sensibilities but also brave’’ and a “problem solver.’’

“It leaves a huge gap for me professionally and personally,’’ Patrick said. “He has been a marvelous partner.’’

Panagiotakos has earned strong respect among his colleagues as he helped guide the Senate through the fiscal crisis of the last couple of years.

He will have more work in that regard before he leaves: Lawmakers are wrestling with a tough budget for next year and might have to trim tens of millions of dollars more from this year’s budget before July.

In his career, his emphasis has been on economic development issues, including the expansion of the film tax credit, providing financial incentives for revitalizing historic properties, and a program to spur development in cities and towns.

With the University of Massachusetts Lowell at the center of his district, he has been a strong advocate of the public higher education system.

“I have accomplished as much as I can, particularly for the city of Lowell.’’ Panagiotakos said. “That means more than anything.’’