[sidebar] The Boston Phoenix
April 27 - May 4, 2000


Birmingham's boy wonder

State Senator Mark Montigny could be a contender

by Seth Gitell

MONTIGNY: "It's no secret that Tom and I work very well together. There's a very strong friendship and professional relationship between the two of us."

If you've paid any attention to Senate president Tom Birmingham these days, chances are you've noticed his constant legislative companion: State Senator Mark Montigny, of New Bedford. Beacon Hill insiders say Birmingham, who is weighing a run for governor in 2002, is grooming Montigny, chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, to run as his lieutenant governor.

The evidence is there. Montigny has been at Birmingham's side at nearly every high-profile press conference in recent months. When Birmingham blasted Governor Paul Cellucci's budget plan in January, Montigny was there. When Birmingham announced his new plan to fund education reform, at the Josiah Quincy School in Boston, Montigny was there. When Birmingham offered up his own plan to fund the Big Dig, Montigny was there.

Even more conclusive is the way Birmingham has been yielding the microphone to Montigny, letting him take the spotlight. Of Cellucci's budget, Montigny quipped, "This one's headed for the recycle bin." On education: "We're saying good education is expensive, and lousy education worthless." On the Republicans' role in hiding Big Dig costs, Montigny said, "None of us in the Senate wants to kick those involved." And then he proceeded to do just that: "The message that [the Big Dig] is on time and on budget has been exposed as false."

To be sure, one reason Montigny has such a high profile at these events is that the Ways and Means chair has always played a role in explaining financial matters to the public. That's how people such as Patricia McGovern and Birmingham himself became visible players in the first place. But, State House sources say, Birmingham has gone out of his way to put Montigny in the public eye. He's even seemed to defer to him in internal matters -- on the planning of a new prescription-drug initiative, for example, and in discussion of the Big Dig plan.

All of which indicates that Birmingham is preparing Montigny, who considered a run for lieutenant governor two years ago, to serve as his de facto running mate. Of course, Massachusetts doesn't have governor/lieutenant-governor tickets; officially, candidates run independently. But the Birmingham-Montigny liaison suggests that the Democrats are preparing to copy the strategy of alliance that has worked so well for the Republicans. "It's considered likely that Montigny is running for lieutenant governor," says one State House insider. "Cellucci and Weld did it. Cellucci and Swift did it. Birmingham and Montigny can do it."

BIRMINGHAM: "With all respect to all those who like to chatter about these things, it's way too early to chatter about a govenor/lieutenant-govenor team."

With all respect to all those who like to chatter about these things, it's way too early to chatter about a governor/ lieutenant-governor team," says Birmingham, who nonetheless doesn't rule Montigny out. Montigny, meanwhile, says his full energies are currently focused on the budget. Then he has to worry about re-election and getting reappointed as the head of Ways and Means.

"I'm not sure how the rumor mill starts," Montigny says. "For every person who says you're running for lieutenant governor, there's someone else who says you're running for Senate president." Still, he doesn't rule out a run for statewide office -- or deny that he has higher ambitions. "I keep an open mind for many different things," he says.

It's true that some State House insiders float Montigny's name when talking about a successor to Birmingham for Senate president, but the smart money says Montigny has his eye on statewide office. In part, that's because Montigny's strengths -- personal charisma and an ability to raise money (at last count, his war chest had $600,000) -- lend themselves better to a broader election battle than to the labyrinthine struggle for primacy in the State House.

He's also developed a good working relationship with Birmingham that would transfer well to the top two posts in the state. "It's no secret that Tom and I work very well together," Montigny says. "There's a very strong friendship and professional relationship between the two of us. I have tremendous respect for the way he's run the Senate body."

Birmingham attributes the strength of their relationship to "personal chemistry" that probably began to develop when Montigny called Birmingham to say he would support him in the race to succeed then-Senate president William Bulger in 1996. At the time, Birmingham was engaged in a behind-the-scenes battle with Louis Bertonazzi, who was perceived as the favorite. Birmingham returned the favor in 1998, when he tapped Montigny for the Ways and Means post.

The Birmingham-Montigny connection is about more than inside politics, however. The two senators share a progressive viewpoint on many issues. Both support a bill that would amend the state's insurance regulations, extending health benefits to the same-sex partners of state and municipal employees. Both oppose the death penalty and support a ban on assault weapons. (Neither legislator, however, has been a strong advocate of the Clean Elections Law.)

Montigny also supports Birmingham's pet issue: education reform. And Birmingham shares Montigny's passion for health-care reform, which is now one of the hottest issues going. In March, Montigny criticized the pharmaceutical industry at a high-profile gathering of state lawmakers from across the Northeast. And at a time when one of the prevailing political images is the sight of senior citizens trekking to Canada to purchase prescription drugs, Montigny is pushing to expand prescription-drug benefits here in Massachusetts. Critics say his push for low premiums will leave fewer people with access to the plan. Last year, however, Montigny's commitment to the senior-citizen prescription-drug plan resulted in a doubling of the benefits available.

In some regards, the two men couldn't be further apart -- Birmingham was educated at Harvard and is seen as something of a scholar; Montigny was schooled at Southeastern Massachusetts University (now UMass Dartmouth), and his detractors whisper that he's a bit of an intellectual lightweight.

But Birmingham notes that they're from "similar backgrounds"; both men were raised in gritty urban environments. And the Senate president has nothing but praise for his protégé. "He is bright, he is very hard-working, he has the ability to say no -- all of which are needed to be a successful head of Ways and Means," Birmingham says. "He does represent a healthy mix with regard to his values, which are progressive -- he's very supportive on health care and education -- but he comes from a fiscally conservative background. That's a good mix."

Montigny, who is unmarried but has been dating a woman from the Boston area for some time, was born in New Bedford in 1961. In 1992, after nearly five years as the president of the Fall River Chamber of Commerce, he ran to replace Senator William "Biff" MacLean, who had stepped down after a long Beacon Hill career.

In a recent profile, the New Bedford Standard-Times made reference to Montigny's "thick, jet-black, slicked-back hair." Indeed, his good looks and his penchant for electric-blue shirts and snazzy three-button suit jackets set him apart from his Beacon Hill colleagues. His appearance is probably what fuels rumors that he's not so smart -- an assessment that doesn't stand up to his performance thus far in the detail-intensive chairmanship of the Ways and Means Committee. Even so, Montigny occasionally seems to enjoy drawing attention to his fine sense of personal fashion: during the 1996 Democratic National Convention, the Standard-Times reported, Montigny and a group of state lawmakers were breakfasting in a diner when they spotted John F. Kennedy Jr. Montigny's reaction? He was unimpressed. It didn't help, apparently, that JFK Jr. was wearing a Yankees cap, a T-shirt, and, in Montigny's words, "tacky baggy shorts."

Fashion aside, Montigny is something of a folk hero in his home region. The New Bedford Standard-Times named him SouthCoast Man of the Year for his "performance in the new job and his perseverance in the fight for justice on health care, economic and other fronts." Montigny has developed a political identity around the communities of Fall River and New Bedford, organizing the legislators from that region as a caucus. He also tried to strengthen his alma mater, UMass Dartmouth.

He's worked just as hard in the Senate, where he has a rising profile. He's the person to whom other senators must turn for funding of key programs within their districts. When the Senate budget is completed sometime in May, Montigny will go head-to-head with his House counterpart, Paul Haley (D-Weymouth), in negotiations that will foreshadow those to follow between Birmingham and House Speaker Tom Finneran. Piss him off and kiss your home district's pet project goodbye. "Mark is very diligent," says Senator Stephen Lynch (D-South Boston). "He's handling a lot of the issues for the Senate president. His job requires somebody who's fiscally prudent, and his skills are well suited to that job. He is really [Birmingham's] gatekeeper. He'll be the one to draw the line to balance the budget."

But there's still the question of why Birmingham would pluck Montigny from relative obscurity for the high-profile role he's playing now, much less the role of lieutenant-governor candidate. Right now, he could just be setting Montigny up so that the New Bedford senator takes the heat for any flak surrounding the budget process -- the way President Clinton gets Attorney General Janet Reno to do all the dirty work in the Elián González affair. It's more likely, though, that Birmingham is testing Montigny, seeing whether he's fit to run.

Part of Montigny's appeal to Birmingham stems from the intense factionalism within the state Democratic Party right now. Beacon Hill is deeply polarized between the House and the Senate. Despite the presence of a vocal progressive minority, the House has become synonymous with fiscal conservatism under Finneran's tight control. The Senate, under Birmingham's aegis, has been more open to spending on education and health care. This dynamic has led to wariness between the House and Senate. To those within the State House, the idea of Birmingham cavorting with anyone outside his own Senate faction defies reason; hence, Birmingham must run with another senator, or so the thinking goes.

Outside observers, though, say a Birmingham-Montigny pairing doesn't even nominally suggest sound political strategy. It involves pairing a little-known state senator from an economically depressed urban area in a remote part of the state with another, albeit more powerful, state senator from another economically downtrodden urban area (Birmingham represents Chelsea). Add to this mix two facts -- one, that apathy about Beacon Hill machinations reigns in the Commonwealth these days, and two, that political scientists are stressing the importance of engaging the suburban 495 belt and its legions of unaffiliated voters -- and the scheme seems even more foolhardy.

"No matter who wins the gubernatorial nod in 2002, they'll do it more by being outside the building," says Lou DiNatale, the director of state and local policy at UMass Boston's McCormack Institute. "It's a challenge to just launch Birmingham from within the building -- let alone two state senators."

Adds another leading Democrat (who is not a member of the Senate): "Sounds like an inside baseball team at a time when the public is fed up with smoke-filled balconies."

But political scientists increasingly see the Fall River-New Bedford band as an important one. Politicians from this region, which is culturally closer to Providence than to Boston, excel at raising money and gathering foot soldiers. Still, the area -- once known as Southeastern Massachusetts, now called the South Coast -- is not seen as a viable launch pad for statewide office.

It is, however, seen as a region that can stop a campaign. "It is not far off to say that this region played an important part in Scott Harshbarger not getting elected," says Clyde Barrow, director of the center for policy analysis at UMass Dartmouth. In the Cellucci-Harshbarger race, neither the New Bedford mayor nor the Fall River mayor endorsed Harshbarger, Barrow notes. A number of other prominent Democrats from the area also declined to endorse the attorney general for governor. Cellucci carried the region in the election.

Barrow's point is a key one, given that Birmingham is emulating the more successful aspects of Harshbarger's campaign (lining up labor support, raising lots of money) as he lays the groundwork for his own candidacy. Harshbarger with Fall River and New Bedford in his corner is no longer the head of Common Cause -- he's the governor. From this perspective, Montigny's support across the area (he also has strong backers in Fall River) makes him an attractive potential lieutenant governor.

If Montigny and Birmingham can manage the budget process without the delays that marred last year's -- and if they can do so without any House-style toga parties -- Montigny will continue to take the stage with Birmingham. Expect him then to make a run for lieutenant governor. "It would be a tough ticket to beat," sighs one State House insider.

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

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