By Jon Keller

BOSTON (CBS) – To hear his critics tells it, the 12-year tenure of House Speaker Robert DeLeo has been a festival of insider bullying, hidebound fiscal conservatism and “structural racism,” the epithet flung by Rep. Russell Holmes of Mattapan, a protest candidate to succeed the speaker.

It’s predictable, and false.

No question, DeLeo played the inside game in a way bound to infuriate outsiders and reformers. He was old-school in his indulgence of patronage and played things close to the vest, limiting public debate and keeping House policy decisions on a short leash. And until just recently, when the House passed a slew of tax hikes, he was a reliable ally of Gov. Charlie Baker in resisting calls for broad-based new taxation.

But during the DeLeo years, state spending soared and the House passed national-model gun laws, automatic voter registration, education funding and criminal justice reform and a landmark policing oversight bill plus major increases in state spending on an array of social services. If this is “structural racism” in action, most communities of color might welcome more of it.

DeLeo came from blue-collar roots and never left them behind. He believed that excessive taxation risked the futures of small businesses and paycheck-to-paycheck workers. And he knew from three decades of experience in the House that the large, unwieldy body doesn’t function very well without firm control by leadership.

Rep. Holmes, himself a well-regarded ham-and-egg legislator from a working-class district, nonetheless ascribes to the theory that a House without a hierarchy would somehow produce more populist outcomes. But that’s rarely if ever the case. Had DeLeo operated without the power he wielded over committee chairmanships, pay and perks, and the flow of legislation, he would have struggled to get anything done.

Speakers are a juicy target for critics inside and outside the State House. It is their job to shield their members from political heat by absorbing it themselves, and to herd 159 cats of diverse political and social backgrounds as best they can.

DeLeo got it done, and by doing so delivered a string of impressive accomplishments rightly praised by liberals, while curbing some of the left’s riskier instincts.

Jon Keller