By Susannah Sudborough
BU News Service
WESTPORT – Sen. Mike Rodrigues, D-Westport, says he has prepared over his entire career for his appointment as chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, and is eager for the challenge that comes with overseeing how every bill in the Legislature, starting with the budget, is funded.
“This position is a culmination of my life-long experiences,” he said.
It took him six years to earn a degree in accounting from UMass Dartmouth, Rodrigues said, because he had to start running his family’s floor covering business full-time when his father passed away suddenly. Then he became part of the Westport Finance Committee.
“I got hooked on public service and developed an interest in budgets,” he said.
In 1996, Rodrigues was elected the state representative for the 8th Bristol District, and served in the position for 14 years. He then was excited to run for state Senate when a seat opened up in 2010. He sees the appointment to Ways and Means chair as the highlight of his career and said he is not interested in becoming Senate president in the future.
This position best utilizes my skills to help others,” he said.
Peter Ubertaccio, an associate professor of political science at Stonehill College, said that the Ways and Means position is the most important in the Senate after the president. He described Rodrigues as “a senator’s senator,” someone trusted by his colleagues and someone well-respected by people across the political spectrum.
During his tenure in the Legislature, Rodrigues has had many accomplishments, including being one of the lead negotiators of the so-called “grand bargain bill,” which enabled the state to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour in increments by 2023.
But Rodrigues’s most notable success, and what many people believe is the reason Spilka picked him for Ways and Means chair, was his handling of the investigation into former Senate President Stan Rosenberg as chair of the Ethics Committee.
Sen. Mark Montigny, D-New Bedford, who is a close colleague and friend of Rodrigues, said that he did not think anyone managing the situation would get through it unscathed, especially he and Rodrigues, as they had been friendly with Rosenberg and had been appointed to important positions by him.
“I thought he’d come out bruised, meaning there would be damaged relationships as a result,” said Montigny. “But he didn’t, and I think that’s why she [Spilka] picked him.”
As chair, Rodrigues said he will be representing both his district and the state.
“I have to take a step back and look at the commonwealth, but obviously I will have an eye on my priorities,” said Rodrigues.
Among those, Rodrigues said, are implementing the changes to the education funding formula recommended by the Foundation Budget Review Commission, funding education and healthcare.
First and foremost, Rodrigues said, the biggest challenge will be handling the state’s operating budget, which he said is about $43 billion. This is a particular challenge because the state cannot deficit spend the way the federal government does, he said.
“There will be hard decisions to make, and we’ll have to prioritize,” he said.
Rodrigues said it is important to him to meet with his colleagues in the Legislature to find out what their priorities and concerns are for the budget.
“I want to give them a chance to put their fingerprints on it,” he said.
Jean MacCormack, who was chancellor at UMass Dartmouth and worked with Rodrigues for 13 years while he was a representative and then a senator, said that Rodrigues has always been collaborative.
“We didn’t always agree on every issue, but he was very open about his views,” MacCormack said. “He was more conservative socially than I, but we always had a good conversation and worked to create a compromise.”
Montigny said he agrees that what sets Rodrigues apart from other legislators is his ability to bridge gaps among people.
“He’s not afraid to fight for what he believes in, but he has a unique way of bringing people together,” Montigny said. “And you need that in this position because you’re dealing with both stakeholders for every issue and 39 other senators representing 39 other districts.”
Montigny, who held the Ways and Means chairmanship 20 years ago, said that the position is very challenging because of the time commitment and intellectual challenge.
Rodrigues said he was ready to face these difficulties.
“There’s gonna be long days, but I’ll roll up my sleeves,” he said.
Montigny said he was relieved to have someone from the South Coast in the position.
“You have to do what’s best for the commonwealth, but you can definitely do things for your district, especially if they’ve been left behind,” Montigny said.
He believes Spilka could not have picked a better person for the position than Rodrigues, Montigny said.
Rodrigues said he is grateful to have Montigny as a resource while in this position.
“I have to give a shout out to Senator Montigny,” he said. “I know I can go to him for help if I need it.”
Still, some have their concerns about the Rodrigues appointment.
Jonathan Cohn, chairman of the issues committee for the advocacy group Progressive Massachusetts, wrote in Commonwealth Magazine that progressives should be concerned about Rodrigues’ self-described centrism. He said that Rodrigues has a significantly conservative voting record, most notably voting against the Safe Communities Act and voting against raising the minimum wage to $11 an hour in 2014.
When asked about the article, Rodrigues said that it is easy to take individual votes out of context.
“The problem with being in the middle is that you get hit from both sides, but I’m comfortable with it,” he said.
Rodrigues said he is a centrist because he makes decisions based on information from both the right and left, and that sometimes he has to make compromises to keep the ball moving forward on a bill. He said that any constituents concerned about his political stances should contact him to express them.
“Pick up the phone and have a conversation with me, I think you’ll be very satisfied,” Rodrigues said.
Rodrigues has also come under fire recently for taking trips to potential vacation spots. WCVB reported that Rodrigues, among many other state legislators, often makes trips to warmer climates paid for by foreign governments and organizations and that this could be considered “influence peddling.”
When asked about these claims, Rodrigues said a conflict of interest was impossible because the Legislature has very strict ethics laws and legislators have to file for disclosure to prove they do not have a business relationship with whoever is paying for the trip.
Outside of the Legislature, Rodrigues said he likes to spend time in his garden and go hiking with his dogs. He said he is a big fan of classic rock ‘n’ roll and the Portuguese soccer team Benfica.
“I’m very proud of my Portuguese heritage and sometimes I’ll fly to Lisbon for a game,” he said.
This article was previously published in South Coast Today.