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Tarnished, not finished
Speaker Tom Finneran faces an effective GOP governor and a growing number of organized political enemies, but he’s not heading for the door ... yet
BY DAN KENNEDY


IF YOU’RE Thomas M. Finneran — a/k/a King Tom, Speaker for Life, the Real Governor, the Most Powerful Man on Beacon Hill — well, sometimes you can tie yourself in knots trying to punish the bastards who are out to get you without inadvertently screwing your friends.

Take David Linsky, the state representative from Natick. Linsky, part of a recently formed group of pro-reform moderates called the House Democratic Council, opposed Finneran’s "reorganization" proposal — a bill that would have reorganized raises right into the paychecks of his favored committee chairs.

Finneran yanked the bill last month when it became clear that the moderates, joined by Republicans and progressive Democrats, had enough votes to sustain Governor Mitt Romney’s veto. But Linsky got his soon enough.

With Finneran AWOL, the House overrode a bunch of Romney’s vetoes, restoring funding to six of eight courthouses that the governor had targeted for elimination. What happened next had all the earmarks of payback. Presiding officer David Flynn, a Finneran ally, adjourned the House 15 minutes before the session’s midnight deadline without acting on the district courts in Linsky’s Natick and in Ipswich — the latter town represented by Brad Hill, a Republican. Revenge isn’t just sweet, it’s bipartisan.

But wait. Less than a year ago Finneran had persuaded lame-duck governor Jane Swift to name Brian Kearney as clerk-magistrate at the Natick District Court. Kearney's qualifications were challenged, but his appointment was rubber-stamped by the Governor’s Council.

The appointment, in turn, had been a favor to Kearney’s wife, Maryanne Lewis, who’d lost her bid for re-election to the House last year — a defeat that was interpreted by many as a byproduct of her close ties to Finneran.

In other words, if Finneran was trying to punish Linsky by shutting down the Natick District Court, he was also undoing the big fat favor he’d done for the Lewis-Kearneys. Such are the complications of political score-settling.

So what’s going to happen? When I contacted him last week, Linsky sounded optimistic that funding will be restored before the money runs out at the end of September (after all, just weeks earlier the legislature had voted to expand the Natick court’s jurisdiction from two communities to four) — and nervous about offending Mr. Speaker, lest the deal he hopes will materialize instead vanishes into the mist.

"In my view, it’s the legislature’s intent to keep it open, because of the expanded jurisdiction," Linsky told me. "I’ve laid out a way in which we can appropriate the money, but it’s going to be up to the legislative leadership to set that ball in motion."

But when I asked him whether he’d been punished because of his opposition to the pay-raise bill, Linsky demurred. "I don’t consider myself a Finneran opponent," he said. "He and I agree sometimes, he and I disagree sometimes. But we’ve always had a very cordial relationship, and our disagreements have always been based on legitimate policy differences. No one has said he was trying to send me a message. Unless I’m told directly, I’m not going to take any message from it."

What appears to be shaping up, in other words, is yet another win-win for Tom Finneran: continued employment for Brian Kearney. And one more would-be reformer who’s been educated in the dangers of standing up to the Speaker.

TOM FINNERAN is the most formidable of legislative leaders. He’s intelligent. He’s charming. He’s articulate. He works hard. He lacks the cynicism that is all too often part of the political game. That is to say, even when he’s doing something outrageous, such as killing the voter-approved Clean Elections Law, he appears utterly convinced of the righteousness of his ways.

"I think Finneran has done a magnificent job," says Nick Paleologos, a former state representative from Woburn who is now a film and theater producer. "I think, more than any Speaker that has preceded him, certainly in my adult lifetime, he is the most articulate advocate for the positions that the House takes under his watch."

He is also a control freak who will brook no dissent. Committee chairs who cross him are cast into the darkness of the back bench and banished to tiny, cramped offices. Some leave. Some stay and become part of a small but growing band of House members who are willing to vote against him, to take him on, to act independently.

He is the most powerful Speaker of modern times — a man who represents just one-160th of the state’s population, but who delivers his own annual state-of-the-state address. Who pops up on the air with everyone from the highbrow David Brudnoy, of WBZ Radio (AM 1030), to the monumentally lowbrow John "Ozone" Osterlind, of WRKO Radio (AM 680), with whom he co-hosted the morning drive-time show just last week.

During a budget impasse in 1999, Finneran negotiated with then–Senate president Tom Birmingham on an outdoor State House balcony for months, turning up the pressure on Birmingham, who was getting ready to run for governor. The Boston Globe regularly ran photos of the two men, and though accounts vary as to who got the better end of the deal, the public impression was that Finneran was in charge and Birmingham was the supplicant.

Yes, Finneran is power-hungry and vindictive and full of himself. But he may also be the most talented politician in Massachusetts.

"Tom Finneran is not the devil," says State Representative Jim Marzilli, an Arlington Democrat who is among the most outspoken of Finneran’s critics. "He is a man of enormous talent and intellect, and he is one of the most charismatic people you’ll find. He is at the same time very conservative, and he has a very controlling manner. He wants to be in charge. Now those are not bad characteristics automatically. But in an institution of legislators who are spending less and less time and attention on public-policy matters, it’s dangerous for our democracy. It’s dangerous because a conservative ideology dominates with precious little dissent or input, for that matter."

Most critics of the Speaker are quick to say they do not consider themselves enemies of Finneran. "Our goal is not to be anti-Finneran," says State Representative Byron Rushing, of Boston’s South End, who ran a quixotic campaign for Speaker and won 17 votes last January. "It is to raise up the questions that I raised then, which is about process and the exclusivity of the place."

But, from Finneran’s point of view, to raise questions is to be an enemy. Finneran declined to be interviewed for this article, according to his spokesman, Charles Rasmussen. But in a recent interview with political analyst Jon Keller, on WLVI-TV (Channel 56), Finneran made clear how he views dissent. He delivered his comments in response to Keller’s observation that some House members had said they had "no idea" about the Speaker’s intentions when he first tried to push his pay-raise bill through last February.

"There may be three members who said that, Jon," Finneran said. "And, you know, there are actually a few more than three who are constant critics, who are always looking for an excuse to attack or to vilify. I understand. I’m a big boy." And, of course, Finneran went through the ritual denials, insisting that it wasn’t a pay-raise bill, that he was proposing to kill outmoded committees while creating vital new ones for Medicaid and homeland security, that he sought only the same right to manage the House’s affairs as Romney has to run his administration.

In fact, for the first time since Finneran became Speaker, in 1996, the potential votes against him on any given issue add up to considerably more than three. With the rise of the House Democratic Council this year, there are actually three distinct groups with the potential to act independently of the leadership. It was the coming-together of these groups that made it possible to sustain Romney’s veto of the pay-raise bill: in order to uphold the governor, one-third of the 160 members, or 54, must vote Romney’s way.

On those occasions when all three groups are in alignment, their votes add up to 55. They break down as follows.

The progressives. These are the 17 Democrats who voted for Bryon Rushing for Speaker last January, a group that also includes Jim Marzilli. Despite protests by Rushing and others that their aim is not to be anti-Finneran, they are perceived that way by many of their colleagues. It gives them a cohesiveness they might otherwise lack ("We’ve stayed together, and we meet and talk regularly," Rushing says), but it also means that their appeal is limited, given that not many members want to get on the Speaker’s bad side.

The moderates. These are the 15 or so Democrats who formed the House Democratic Council earlier this year. State Representative Mike Festa, of Melrose, a founder of the bloc, says "moderate" has more to do with their style than with their politics; for instance, he describes himself as "more progressive than moderate" on most issues. The goal, he adds, is to push for a House in which all members’ voices can be heard. "None of us takes the view that the enemy is Tom Finneran," Festa says. "If there’s something that needs to change, and there is, it’s ourselves. We think the way to do that is to build consensus."

The Republicans. Numbering just 23 members, the opposition party has barely been a force in recent decades, but it may be finding its voice under Mitt Romney. His three Republican predecessors in the governor’s office — Bill Weld, Paul Cellucci, and Jane Swift — were moderates who viewed cutting deals with Finneran and the Democratic Senate leadership as a crucial part of doing business. Romney, who’s both more conservative and more partisan, does things differently. The House Republicans were initially split on the pay raise, for instance — after all, some of those goodies would have gone to them. But after Romney vetoed the measure, all 23 Republicans signaled their willingness to uphold that veto.

Despite Romney’s occasional disingenuousness — for instance, his demagoguery over relatively minor tinkering the legislature performed on the state’s voter-approved anti-bilingual-education law — the presence of a telegenic governor who’s willing take on the Democrats in public could have a salutary effect. A Democratic House member might think twice the next time Finneran orders him to cast a vote that might be difficult to explain to folks back in the district, especially since Romney has vowed to recruit a slate of Republican candidates to run for legislative seats next year.

"It means that the members are always going to be looking over their shoulders. It means it’s going to be tougher for them to make these bad votes," says a Republican analyst.

It also means that for the first time since becoming Speaker, Finneran must now deal with a Republican governor who can make his life difficult in ways that Weld, Cellucci, and Swift couldn’t, or wouldn’t.

Moreover, Romney’s standing with the public is better than Finneran’s, giving the governor an advantage when it comes to the battle of public perception. According to a survey taken in June by the McCormack Institute of Public Affairs, at UMass Boston, 48 percent of Massachusetts residents had a "very favorable" or "somewhat favorable" view of Romney, as opposed to 39 percent "very unfavorable" or "somewhat unfavorable." For Finneran, the numbers were reversed, and then some: 29 percent favorable and 45 percent unfavorable.

From Finneran’s point of view, it seems clear that the difference is based on Romney’s rhetoric rather than on any genuine record of accomplishment. In his interview with Channel 56’s Keller, Finneran fairly dripped with contempt when — following a diatribe about Romney’s alleged lack of budgeting prowess — he was asked if the governor were "incompetent."

"He [Romney] has somewhat sheepishly acknowledged that his original budget had many, many holes in it and flaws in it," said Finneran. "And so I give the governor credit. He’s coming along. There’s a learning curve for all of us. And I have a learning curve each and every day. It’s not an incompetence on the part of the administration. But I think during the campaign, at least, there were these glib, casual assertions of how easy it was going to be to balance the budget, to get it done on time, no taxes, and no reduction in services."

Two observations about Finneran’s outburst: 1) his assessment of Romney is largely correct; and 2) it is nevertheless clear that Romney has gotten under Finneran’s skin in a way that the governor’s predecessors did not.

For Tom Finneran, things just aren’t as easy as they used to be.

 

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Issue Date: August 15 - August 21, 2003
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