Tarr named next Senate minority leader

‘Bridge-builder’ is welcomed by Democrats

Bruce Tarr of Gloucester has been on Beacon Hill 20 years. Bruce Tarr of Gloucester has been on Beacon Hill 20 years.
By Kyle Cheney
State House News Service / November 28, 2010

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State Senator Bruce Tarr, a 20-year veteran of the Massachusetts Legislature, has been named by his colleagues as the next Republican leader in the Senate, giving him the reins of a tiny minority that wields little influence on the outcome of votes but often forces Democrats to defend their positions on tough issues.

The Gloucester Republican, who served in the House for two terms before joining the Senate in 1995, is preparing to head a caucus that will shrink from five to four members in January. Outgoing Senate Minority Leader Richard Tisei, who ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor, saw the seat he held for 20 years captured by Democrat Katherine Clark. Democrats swept every contested Senate race.

With Democrats set to hold 36 seats in the 40-member Senate, the office represents a bully pulpit of sorts, permitting its occupant to voice the opposition to Democratic agenda or provide a bipartisan sheen to major legislation. Prior to Scott Brown’s election to the US Senate, the state Senate minority leader was the highest-ranking elected Republican in Massachusetts.

Tarr’s election as minority leader came after several weeks of soul-searching among the four Senate Republicans about who would be best to lead the party.

Senator Robert Hedlund of Weymouth had considered a bid for the post, which carries a $22,500 stipend on top of a $61,000 base salary. Senators Richard Ross of Wrentham and Michael Knapik of Westfield offered support to Tarr in a statement yesterday morning.

“I am honored by the trust that my colleagues are placing in me and welcome the opportunity to lead our caucus as we confront the enormous challenges facing our state,’’ Tarr said. “We have major roles to play in the coming legislative session, and every member of our caucus will be fully and tirelessly engaged in those roles.’’

Democrats welcomed Tarr’s ascension. Senator Steven Panagiotakos, a Lowell Democrat, praised him as a “bridge-builder’’ who faithfully defends his party’s principles but knows how to compromise with the majority to advance legislation.

“I think Bruce has done a remarkable job as an advocate for issues on the floor. In many ways, he’s led on a lot of those issues,’’ said Panagiotakos, who as chair of the Ways and Means Committee spars more with Republicans than most of his colleagues. “He’s a great debater. He’s a pragmatist . . . He doesn’t give in easy, either.’’

Tarr had served as Tisei’s number two in the Senate, and when Tisei relinquished his seat, Democrats joked that Tarr was the “minority leader in waiting.’’

In yesterday’s announcement, Tarr’s office highlighted his work to “reform the Essex County Regional Retirement board, to prevent state benefits from being provided to illegal immigrants, and to cut the costs of state government through a broad array of reforms, including health care cost containment.’’

In addition to setting the tone and posture of the minority caucus, the minority leader must also solve a logistical puzzle: how four members can best be placed to monitor the Legislature’s 27 joint committees and seven Senate committees, many of which meet simultaneously during busier months and handle hundreds of bills.

Ross said earlier this month that the committee dynamics present a “tremendous opportunity,’’ permitting each senator to choose among committees on which they may have the greatest expertise and influence. Knapik serves as the ranking minority member on the Ways and Means Committee, which drives the Senate’s budget and tax proposals and has a hand in crafting most major bills.

“Everybody wants to be on a committee where they can make a difference,’’ Ross said.