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[Editorial]

Birmingham’s opportunity

The Senate president must support Clean Elections funding. Plus, why the Phoenix will call Jane Swift ‘Governor.’

IN JUST A few weeks, the Massachusetts Senate will debate whether to include $10 million in its budget for the Clean Elections fund. Senate president Tom Birmingham has said he will support full financing of the measure. After that, the two budgets passed by the House and Senate will go to conference committee.

As nearly everyone knows, the House voted against funding for the law (see “Editorial” News and Features, May 4 at www.bostonphoenix.com/boston/news_features/editorial/documents/01442168.htm), which voters passed in a 1998 ballot referendum by a 2-1 margin. The conference-committee negotiations over whether to defund the law under the House budget, earmark $10 million under the Senate budget, or adopt some compromise in between — which won’t supply enough to fully fund the law in time for the 2002 elections — are sure to be ugly, passionate, and heated.

Birmingham may not see the upcoming debate as an opportunity, but it is. If he supports the Clean Elections Law — and gets funding for it through the conference committee — he will be seen as a politician not only supporting a popular voter initiative, but also pursuing the public good against his own personal interests. It’s no secret that Birmingham has gubernatorial aspirations. And of the Democratic politicians who have declared their candidacy for governor (former state senator Warren Tolman and former Democratic National Committee chair Steve Grossman) or are rumored to be interested (Secretary of State Bill Galvin, Congressman Martin Meehan, and State Treasurer Shannon O’Brien), Birmingham has a distinct advantage in the campaign-funds department. As of January 2001, Birmingham had raised $2.2 million. Compare that with Grossman’s $828,834, Tolman’s $72,041, Galvin’s $545,984, and O’Brien’s $669,766.

If the Clean Elections Law is fully implemented and funded, it will immediately put all candidates on a level playing field, whether Birmingham runs under the law’s guidelines or not. So if Birmingham fails to get the Senate to provide full funding, he’ll be seen as a ham-handed hack operating behind the scenes for his own best interests. And rightly so. But even if the Senate approves full financing, Birmingham isn’t out of the woods. He must prevail during the conference-committee negotiations so that the final budget sent to Governor Jane Swift includes $10 million for Clean Elections. If it doesn’t, Birmingham risks looking even worse because he’ll appear to have been outfoxed by Finneran.

This issue is a tough one for Birmingham, who has not masked his distaste for Clean Elections. In the dragged-out budget battle of 1999, for example, Birmingham and Finneran pushed through a measure that would have allowed incumbents seeking re-election to operate outside the law’s guidelines (which mandate that donations cannot exceed $100 each) until just six months before Election Day. It was an outrageous act obviously designed to give incumbents an advantage. Then-governor Paul Cellucci vetoed the measure. In the days following the veto, Cellucci charged that Birmingham had actually threatened to hold up a pay raise if the governor didn’t sign the amendment. Birmingham denied the allegation, but Cellucci’s raise was indeed held up during budget negotiations. (It passed the next session.)

In recent months, Birmingham has softened his stance. In a clear moment of political hyperbole, he even said in February that “I like public financing of campaigns.” The question is whether he has the leadership skill and savvy to get the Clean Elections fund where it needs to be by 2002: at $32 million. Right now, the fund has just $22.4 million.

If Birmingham can’t do that, any voter would be right to wonder whether the Senate president has what it takes to lead the state.

Contact Birmingham’s office by calling (617) 722-1500 or e-mailing tbirming@sen.state.ma.us and let him know you support full funding of the Clean Elections Law. More important, call your state senator. You can find a complete listing on the Web at www.state.ma.us/legis/legis.htm.

She’s not Acting Governor Jane Swift. She’s not Lieutenant Governor Jane Swift, acting as governor. She’s Governor Jane Swift. Period. You could look it up. We did.

The “acting governor” foolishness began in 1997, when Bill Weld resigned to become ambassador to Mexico (or at least that was the idea), and his lieutenant governor, Paul Cellucci, became governor.

That is, Cellucci was supposed to become governor. But the Boston Globe, citing the state constitution, claimed that Cellucci really was just the “acting” governor. And the rest of the media — including, sad to report, the Phoenix — fell into line.

Cellucci was elected in his own right in 1998, with Swift becoming his number two. And when Cellucci bolted for Canada last month, the Globe did it again, running a squib on the day of Swift’s ascension explaining, “Officially, Swift is considered the ‘lieutenant governor acting as governor,’ because the state constitution calls for the lieutenant governor to carry out the duties, powers, and responsibilities of the office if there is a vacancy.”

But historical precedent and the actual constitutional language suggest that Swift is not the acting governor — she’s the governor, dammit.

Take, for instance, Frank Sargent, the last lieutenant governor before Cellucci to become governor without benefit of election. Sargent moved into the corner office in 1969, when John Volpe quit to serve as Richard Nixon’s secretary of transportation. By the Globe’s lights, Sargent should have been referred to as the “acting governor” until January 1971, when he was sworn into office after defeating Boston mayor Kevin White in the November 1970 gubernatorial election. But no. The Globe, the Boston Herald Traveler (a precursor to today’s Herald), and Boston After Dark (which later became the Boston Phoenix) all referred to Sargent in 1969 and ’70 as “Gov. Sargent,” “Gov. Francis Sargent,” or “Governor Francis W. Sargent.” Then, too, Sargent was a legendary raconteur who loved nothing better than to trade drinks and bullshit with the boyos of the press — a very different persona from that of the dour Cellucci or the prickly, very pregnant Swift. (The last relevant example before Sargent was Roger Wolcott, who became governor on March 5, 1896, when Frederic Thomas Greenhalge died in office. Thanks to the State House research library for that obscure fact.)

Of course, there’s always the possibility that the Globe was wrong in the case of Sargent. The state constitution, however, suggests otherwise.

The precise language that the Globe cites — “lieutenant governor acting as governor” — does not, in fact, appear anywhere in the state constitution. Here’s what it does say: “Whenever the chair of the governor shall be vacant, by reason of his death, or absence from the commonwealth, or otherwise, the lieutenant governor, for the time being, shall, during such vacancy, perform all the duties incumbent upon the governor, and shall have and exercise all the powers and authorities, which by this constitution the governor is vested with, when personally present.”

All right, you say: it never states that the lieutenant governor actually becomes the governor upon the latter’s departure. But neither does it say he or she becomes the “acting governor.” And the clause is not terribly different from what the US Constitution says about the elevation of the vice-president to the presidency: “In the Case of the Removal of the President from Office, or of his Death, Resignation, or Inability to discharge the Powers and Duties of the said Office, the Same shall devolve on the Vice President ...” And no vice-president elevated to the office of the presidency has ever been called “acting president.”

The similarities between the state and federal constitutions should not be surprising, since John Adams had a hand in drafting both — Massachusetts’s first, by the way.

The Phoenix won’t always agree with Swift, but it will refer to her as the governor as long as she holds the office. As for her relations with the Globe, perhaps she should emulate Tom Menino, who as city-council president became the “acting mayor” when Ray Flynn left for the Vatican in 1991. “I’m not the actin’ mayor,” Menino protested. “I’m the action mayor.”

What do you think? Send an e-mail to letters@phx.com.

Issue Date: May 10-17, 2001