The Boston Phoenix
September 14 - 21, 2000


Finneran's wake?

Some state representatives up for re-election this fall are finding their relationship to the controversial House Speaker a hot issue on the campaign trail.

by Seth Gitell

HOT SEAT: incumbent Sydney (top) believes her cooperation with the Speaker helps get things done in the House, but challenger Smizik says her accommodation has gone too far.

You could be forgiven for not knowing that this Tuesday, September 19, is an election day. It's primary day for state offices -- but only 23 of the 160 state legislators up for election are facing opposition. Before you dismiss the election as a snooze fest, however, consider that there's an important issue at stake in at least a few of the contested primary races: the leadership style of House Speaker Tom Finneran.

Finneran, who's been accused of preventing controversial bills from coming to a vote, is the main issue in at least four races, including one contested Senate race. In the 15th Norfolk district -- which includes Brookline -- incumbent representative Ronny Sydney faces a strong challenge from lawyer and Brookline School Committee member Frank Smizik. In Beverly's Sixth Essex District, Stella Mae Seamans, a housing specialist for a Gloucester-based anti-poverty group, is running an insurgent campaign against Representative Michael Cahill. Both challengers have attacked the incumbents for being too close to the Speaker. On the Senate side, in the battle to replace the retiring State Senator Bob Bernstein in the First Worcester district, Joe Early Jr. -- a onetime assistant attorney general who is the son of the former Worcester congressman -- is going after Representative Harriette Chandler for her coziness with the House leadership. In a twist, Rick Arena, a lifelong Arlington resident and Dunstable schoolteacher, is challenging incumbent representative Jim Marzilli in the 25th Middlesex district. Arena's message? He can get more done for the district than Marzilli, who has often been at odds with the Speaker.

The current election season, to be sure, is no 1984. That's when a spate of candidates ran for the House in the hope of unseating Speaker Thomas McGee, an effort that succeeded when representatives voted in George Keverian as Speaker. A similar effort in 1994, aimed at unseating Senate president William M. Bulger, failed to catch fire.

Nevertheless, the Brookline race in particular is generating concern in political circles as evidence of what can happen to an able, liberal state legislator who gets too close to Finneran in order to get things done. Should Smizik, a liberal endorsed by the Democratic Socialists of America, ride to victory on the Finneran issue, things could get tougher for the controlling House Speaker. It's not likely to spark change overnight, but lawmakers will note that if their ties to Finneran are too close, their own heads may be on the chopping block when they're up for re-election in 2002.

SYDNEY MAY be the first victim of the strategy that says it's not good enough to be good on issues, if you vote for a Speaker that will stifle those issues on every turn," says one observer of the Brookline race. "This has got to put the fear of God in other liberals who helped elect this Speaker and are in leadership and have no power."

Finneran came up as an issue during a candidates' debate last Thursday, when more than 50 voters gathered in the selectmen's hearing room at Brookline Town Hall and heard Smizik complain about Sydney's ties to Finneran. "Brookline is harmed by an autocratic Speaker, and the members who allow it to happen," Smizik told the audience. "Voters want a representative who will speak for them, and not a representative who will vote with the conservative leadership 95 percent of the time."

Smizik criticized Sydney for going along with a $300 million tax cut in the House, acquiescing to a budget that did not fully fund special education, and voting against rules reform in the House. In response, Sydney, who has been a Brookline schoolteacher and a member of the Board of Selectmen, stressed her record of service to the town. She cited her endorsement by former governor Michael Dukakis, whom she first met when he knocked on her door in the '60s seeking support in his race for state representative -- the same seat she now holds. And she contended that her cooperative approach helps get things done in the House. "Being an effective state representative means working with people without being disagreeable," she said. "I don't see any point in holding up a budget because one person doesn't get everything they want."

Sydney noted that she supports some rules reform -- changes that could result in getting more bills to the House floor. She talked about how unfriendly the House environment can be to a typical Brookline liberal. And perhaps most important, Sydney, who was elected in 1998, noted that she arrived in the House after Finneran was elected Speaker.

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Seth Gitell can be reached at sgitell[a]

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