[sidebar] The Boston Phoenix
March 23 - 30, 2000


Making the rounds

Tom Birmingham makes a pitch for education. Plus, a money man from Medford travels overseas with President Clinton, Boston indulges in St. Patrick's Day high jinks, and Pat Buchanan visits Harvard.

by Seth Gitell

FACE TIME: Birmingham is getting out of the State House and around the state.

Last Monday, Senate president Tom Birmingham received a Clinton-style tour of the Josiah Quincy School in Boston from the school's principal, Suzanne Lee. When that ended, he strode into the library of the school and placed himself behind a podium. Against a backdrop of library books and bright yellow walls, over the muffled din of children playing outside, Birmingham made the case for the state senate's proposed $245 million increase in the education budget -- roughly $105 million more than Governor Paul Cellucci proposed in his budget earlier this year. "We ought to invest in our future. If we can't be supportive of public education in these good times, when can we?" asked Birmingham of the press assembled before him.

Through this press conference, Birmingham was introducing the citizens of the Commonwealth to his education proposal, but even more so, he was giving them a fresh introduction to a familiar face -- his own. With the 2002 governor's race getting closer and closer, Birmingham is working to distance himself from the ugly budget battle that caused him, Cellucci, and House Speaker Thomas Finneran, its three main players, so much damage last year. Those images of Birmingham on the State House balcony haggling with Finneran won him no plaudits outside Beacon Hill. That's not to say that Birmingham is going to minimize his work at the State House. But he is going to try to get out of the building more in order to make the public aware of who he is and what he does. The day after the Quincy School press conference, Birmingham traveled to Worcester and Springfield to continue spreading his message.

Lou DiNatale, the director of UMass Boston's Center for State and Local Policy, says that as a gubernatorial hopeful, Birmingham needs to reinvigorate his image outside the State House. "The path to the corner office is outside the building," says DiNatale. "Birmingham reached a dominant position inside the building. Now [that he has] that base inside the building, he is going to raise his profile outside."

So don't expect the budget process to be as long and drawn out as it was last year. It's in Birmingham's interest to get it done quickly. Also, Cellucci has so many problems now -- Big Dig woes, the Harvard Pilgrim bailout -- that he lacks the power to put up a real fight. And with Cellucci waiting to see what opportunities George W. Bush's candidacy might bring his way, he'll want to have the budget wrapped up before the Republican convention this summer. Birmingham's challenge, DiNatale says, will be to pull off the trick of negotiating the budget while keeping himself in play for the governorship two years down the line. "Can he do this two more times?" wonders DiNatale.

Birmingham's office maintains that no grand strategy is at work behind all this traveling. Alison Franklin, Birmingham's chief aide, says that the aim of the Senate president's press conference at the Quincy School was simply to help voters understand where their tax dollars are going. "This is a city school that is doing really well. But they can't use teamwork and initiative to reduce class sizes or to fund more programs," says Franklin. "It is important to this debate to make the concept of education funding a real one."

Franklin points out that Birmingham has done much traveling around the state in past years as well. "He has been visiting with school-committee members, principals, teachers, and parents all around the Commonwealth," she says, noting that Birmingham has also been to Pittsfield, Northampton, and Somerville. This, Franklin says, is very much a part of Birmingham's job as Senate president -- learning what each locale needs funding for, seeing the actual results of state programs.

But even the Birmingham camp will acknowledge that most of the past visits were just fact-finding missions. The Boston-Worcester-Springfield road show, on the other hand, allows Birmingham to highlight one of the most popular programs in his portfolio in three different media markets across the state. The fact that Birmingham's current proposal allocates $35 million for measures that will reduce class sizes while the governor's commits only $11 million to the same cause emphasizes Birmingham's biggest positive -- his commitment to education. Furthermore, each time Birmingham mentions education reform, it reminds voters that Cellucci, despite touting such reform in his speeches, made the boneheaded move of vetoing $93 million in education-reform money last year -- a decision so unpopular even his Republican allies in the legislature voted against him. "Whereas the governor talked the talk on education, Birmingham's reminding them he's walked the walk," says political consultant Michael Goldman.

There's another positive to Birmingham's education stance: it's popular in the suburbs. Female suburban voters want good schools that will help their kids get good jobs when they graduate. Pollsters have identified these voters as the ones who will make the difference in the 2002 governor's race. And even though some of Birmingham's opponents will try to paint him as an extreme-leftist tax-and-spend type, his emphasis on education will go a long way toward mitigating that criticism.

When Birmingham finished delivering his remarks Monday, he was gracious to reporters. "Thanks for journeying outside of the State House," he said. If Birmingham's plans for the future are to be successful, both he and the reporters will be doing a lot more journeying outside Beacon Hill.

Among the Indian-Americans dining with President Clinton upon his arrival in New Delhi Sunday was a Massachusetts businessman, Ramesh Kapur, the president of Medical-Technical Gases, Inc., of Medford. India Abroad, the largest Indian newspaper in North America, reported Tuesday that Kapur, a major Democratic fundraiser, was present at a reception at the Maurya Sheraton.

Clinton's trip was intended to defuse tensions between India and Pakistan, both nuclear powers. One hundred Indian-Americans accompanied Clinton to India. Some were invited by the White House; others went under the auspices of Indian business and political groups.

In 1997, Kapur helped raise more than $400,000 at an Indian-American fundraiser for the Democratic National Committee. He gave $50,000 of his own money to the Democratic Party and various Democratic candidates during the 1996 election cycle. And in 1999, according to Federal Election Commission records, Kapur gave $8000 to the Massachusetts Victory Fund, a Democratic senatorial fundraising effort.

Clinton's visit to India is being taken as a sign of the political maturation of the Indian-American community. Reports India Abroad: "The Indian American community has arrived. That feeling of euphoria was uppermost in the minds of the Indian Americans who have come to India during United States President Bill Clinton's visit to the country."

This past weekend was a good time to observe the political machinations of a more established American ethnic group -- Irish-Americans.

The St. Patrick's Day festivities began March 17 with WTKK 96.9's "Kiss Me I'm Imus" breakfast. Radio talk-show host Don Imus and his crew broadcast live from the Four Seasons Hotel. After being greeted by Eddy the Doorman, visitors were treated to a full Irish breakfast of poached eggs and Irish sausages of every variety while the cantankerous Imus whipped local pols into a frenzy with his baiting.

First up was a call-in from Mayor Thomas Menino. Menino's best line came in response to Imus's asking whether he'd run for mayor again: "I promised I'd serve two terms -- in every century." Menino also flacked former Maine senator George Mitchell as a possible vice-presidential pick for Al Gore.

Senator John Kerry, who was there in person, followed. Kerry's finest moment came at the expense of Texas governor George W. Bush. "A lot of people are asking whether Governor Bush is smart enough to be president, and one of the most hurtful things is that Dan Quayle is one of those people," Kerry cracked.

It wasn't until the final hour of the event -- after prime drive time -- that Governor Cellucci arrived with his entourage. Cellucci gave Kerry a backhanded plug for the vice-president job. "If it's Gore and Kerry, then at least I get to appoint a Republican as senator from Massachusetts," he quipped.

The jokes continued on Sunday, when Senator Stephen Lynch hosted the famous annual St. Patrick's Day breakfast at the Iron Workers Local 7 Union Hall in South Boston. It was Boston city councilor Michael Flaherty's first time up before the crowd at the breakfast, which his father, who was a state representative until 1990, used to help organize. When the hall was already jam-packed with people 45 minutes before the event's official start, the younger Flaherty helped pass the time by leading the crowd in song.

Tom Birmingham seemed to wither during the televised comedy portion of the program, but he reveled in the singing beforehand. He led a rousing rendition of "The Wild Colonial Boy," the words to which are somewhat fitting for Birmingham, who is known for his liberal politics: "He robbed the rich, he helped the poor." By the end of the breakfast, House Speaker Finneran was calling him "Tommy the Commie."

One of the unexpected stars of the bill was Worcester mayor Raymond Mariano. Mariano entered and gave a solemn thanks for the help Boston gave his city during the terrible fire that took place there in the fall. Then he launched into a song about Cellucci, sung to the tune of "McNamara's Band," called "Cellucci's Band." His bravura performance left political observers buzzing about a potential statewide run for Mariano; if an Italian-American mayor from central Massachusetts could impress a roomful of Irish-American politicians in South Boston, surely he can impress voters. The position of mayor in Worcester, which has a city manager, is a relatively weak one, and that's an obstacle Mariano would have to overcome. But whenever he is given a chance to shine -- the aftermath of the fire, the St. Patrick's Day breakfast -- he seems to do very well.

Pat Buchanan rolled into town last week, paying a visit to Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government. To help him pull off his new packaging as a Reformer, Buchanan brought along his ace in the hole: Lenora Fulani. Buchanan could turn to Fulani, an African-American Reform Party member who is often associated with the far left, if sniping from that side of the political spectrum became a problem. After the speech, Fulani was asked whether she would consider running as Buchanan's vice-presidential candidate. Fulani said Buchanan would consider only a pro-life running mate. Because she is pro-choice, she won't be on Buchanan's ticket.

Seth Gitell can be reached at sgitell[a]phx.com.