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


IF YOUíRE Thomas M. Finneran ó a/k/a King Tom, Speaker for Life, the Real Governor, the Most Powerful Man on Beacon Hill ó 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 Finneranís "reorganization" proposal ó 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 Romneyís veto. But Linsky got his soon enough.

With Finneran AWOL, the House overrode a bunch of Romneyís 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 sessionís midnight deadline without acting on the district courts in Linskyís Natick and in Ipswich ó the latter town represented by Brad Hill, a Republican. Revenge isnít just sweet, itís 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 Governorís Council.

The appointment, in turn, had been a favor to Kearneyís wife, Maryanne Lewis, whoíd lost her bid for re-election to the House last year ó 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 heíd done for the Lewis-Kearneys. Such are the complications of political score-settling.

So whatís 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 courtís jurisdiction from two communities to four) ó and nervous about offending Mr. Speaker, lest the deal he hopes will materialize instead vanishes into the mist.

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

But when I asked him whether heíd been punished because of his opposition to the pay-raise bill, Linsky demurred. "I donít consider myself a Finneran opponent," he said. "He and I agree sometimes, he and I disagree sometimes. But weíve 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 Iím told directly, Iím 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 whoís been educated in the dangers of standing up to the Speaker.

TOM FINNERAN is the most formidable of legislative leaders. Heís intelligent. Heís charming. Heís articulate. He works hard. He lacks the cynicism that is all too often part of the political game. That is to say, even when heís 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 ó a man who represents just one-160th of the stateís 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 thenĖSenate 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 Finneranís critics. "He is a man of enormous talent and intellect, and he is one of the most charismatic people youíll 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, itís dangerous for our democracy. Itís 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 Bostonís 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 Finneranís 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 Kellerís observation that some House members had said they had "no idea" about the Speakerís 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. Iím a big boy." And, of course, Finneran went through the ritual denials, insisting that it wasnít 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 Houseís 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 Romneyís veto of the pay-raise bill: in order to uphold the governor, one-third of the 160 members, or 54, must vote Romneyís way.

 

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Issue Date: August 15 - August 21, 2003
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