By Andy Metzger

STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

STATE HOUSE, BOSTON -- As he plans to shift his focus from debates in the historic Massachusetts House chamber to work on his own Colonial, Rep. George Peterson said he has seen the Legislature grow more liberal and less voluble in his nearly 20 years.

The number two House Republican and a former commercial fisherman, Peterson, who announced Monday he will not seek re-election, predicted Republicans in the lower chamber will gain around five seats in November and said differences within his own caucus are not enough to spark a leadership fight.

A lifelong Republican who graduated from Grafton High School in 1968 and still represents the town, Peterson, 63, said his early years in the House, starting in 1995 under Speaker Charles Flaherty, involved regular Wednesday formal sessions where ideas could be debated.

"We always had the opportunity to have some pretty strong debates. It was, to me, a much better time for the Legislature, at least for the ability of people to weigh in and try to sway individuals through the debate process," said Peterson, who said the amount of debate has decreased incrementally over the last few speakers.

Peterson, who is the assistant minority leader, came into office toward the beginning of a 16-year streak of Republicans holding the Corner Office, and he said the four chief executives all held bipartisan meetings with legislative leadership, a practice Gov. Deval Patrick has discontinued.

"He keeps talking about a conversation but it's pretty difficult when it's one way. Weld, Swift and Cellucci and even Romney met with the Democratic leadership and the Republican leadership on a pretty regular basis throughout their terms," Peterson told the News Service in an interview in his office. "Now one might say that Republicans have to do that because it's a Democratic Legislature. I think that they understood that they needed to work together to move the state forward."

Within the House Republican Caucus - currently at 29 members - some members, such as Reps. Shaunna O'Connell, Jim Lyons and Marc Lombardo, among others, sometimes break with party leadership, carrying issues on their own and engaging in sometimes heated debates with Democrats. Amendments championed by the more confrontational wing of the party do not always garner the support of the Republican leadership.

"I think there's some independent-minded individuals in the Republican caucus. And if you looked, the Democrats have a few that split off on their own, too," Peterson said. Of Democrats who often vote with the GOP, Peterson said, "There's a couple that are always with us. I don't know why they don't come join us."

Peterson said leadership does not strong-arm members of the caucus to vote as a bloc.

"We continue to try to work together on a lot of different issues. Some of the issues we're together on. Some we aren't. And we in the leadership have never been one to say, 'You have to vote this way because you're a Republican and you're part of the caucus,'" Peterson said. "We will ask them, but sometimes they don't. There are very few times that we would say, 'This would really be a leadership vote and we'd like you to be with us.' It's few and far between."

The top lieutenant to House Minority Leader Brad Jones, Peterson declined to speculate on who would receive his leadership post and said he doesn't think anyone will challenge Jones's position within the Republican caucus.

"Whoever that is in January, I have the full confidence in Brad being re-elected" and confidence Jones's selection of a new assistant will be honored, Peterson said. Asked whether he expected a challenge to Jones's leadership, he said, "I don't see that. I really don't. There's a small group that thinks that the leadership should be going in different directions. We have that discussion in our caucuses, but I don't see anywhere near the kind of push to be able to do that."

A gun owner and hunter, Peterson is a favorite of the state's gun rights lobby. On Monday a task force released 44 recommendations for reducing gun violence, possibly triggering legislation on the issue, though Peterson said the often controversial subject might face additional hurdles in an election year. 

"This is a very difficult issue and it's compounded that it's an election year. So highly charged and sometimes emotional issues such as this might not move as quickly or move at all because of the election year, on both sides of the issue," Peterson said. "I'm hoping that we will be able to get a comprehensive bill done."

Peterson is the latest in a raft of high-ranking lawmakers to leave the House, and he said after retirement he plans to go on a cross-country trip with his wife Diana. He has four children and seven grandchildren.

A regular at informal sessions that many lawmakers skip, Peterson was greeted by members of both parties and with a hug from Rep. Paul Donato (D-Medford) as he arrived in the House late Monday morning.

During a recess Monday, Rep. Tackey Chan (D-Quincy) described Peterson as an accomplished lawmaker, a "true gentleman," and a lawmaker who has been able to work with members of both parties.

"He's smart," Chan said. "He makes his point. He doesn't make anything personal."

"George has been, in my opinion, an outstanding leader. Someone who's been very respectful of his colleagues even though he may disagree with them on some major issues," said Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr. "I think he's been a very articulate spokesman for some of the ideals that Republicans bring to the chamber, and I think he has elevated the level of debate in the chamber."

Peterson said the politics of the Legislature have grown more liberal during his tenure, saying the issues of gay marriage and the death penalty are no longer subjects of real debate. In recent years, lawmakers have grown younger, without the private sector experience Peterson said he would like to see, and the tenures of lawmakers have grown shorter as well, he said.

Peterson graduated from Grafton High School in 1968, went to the Stockbridge School of Agriculture at UMass Amherst for a year before working for a tree company. Peterson volunteered for the U.S. Army and served about two years, starting in January 1970, in Oklahoma and Germany.

Following his Army service, Peterson worked for a steel company and "fell off a building, powdered both heel bones," learning a lot about workers compensation in the process. From the building trades, Peterson went to sea, fishing out of Gloucester, catching swordfish in the summer and dragging for groundfish in the winter, for about five years.

Peterson's Seafood, which started in the back of a truck, at one point had 25 restaurants and a retail location, though the person who bought it from Peterson did not succeed in the enterprise, he said.

After five years on the Planning Board and five years as a selectman, Peterson tried and failed for a House seat in 1992, and then came back to win a close race in 1994.

This fall, Peterson said he would try to help Republican gubernatorial candidate Charlie Baker win election, and help his aide of eight years, David Muradian, in his bid to succeed Peterson in the House.

Peterson said he might seek work in the first half of 2015, perhaps in a transition role for Baker, until he reaches the age of 65, at which point the open road and his home repairs could occupy more of his attention.

"I got a 200-year-old Colonial that I've been working on for 20 years," Peterson said, pointing out a historic photo of the structure on his wall and describing the work he was undertaking on it. He said, "Hopefully I'll have it done in a year and a half."

Michael Norton contributed reporting.