Finneran's wake, continued
by Seth Gitell
But the Finneran issue came up again when the candidates were asked to talk
about their positions on domestic partnership. (Both candidates support a
measure passed by the Senate that would permit gay and lesbian municipal
employees to extend their health-insurance coverage to their domestic
partners.) "I shared your frustration when the bill never came up for a [House]
vote," answered Smizik. Sydney, on the other hand, said she was trying to get
the bill passed and reminded the audience of the need to work with other
Talk to Sydney about her achievements in the House and she can recite a string
of specific accomplishments: $1 million for the clean-up of the Muddy
River, funding for the restoration of a Brookline pond, money for
traffic-control measures outside the town's Driscoll School, $50,000 for a
program that serves Russian teens at Brookline High School -- all concrete
examples of money for the district won through her cooperative relationship
with the Speaker. She also makes the point that, except for votes on unanimous
measures, such as land-taking, she has voted with Finneran only 75 percent of
And she counts passage of the buffer-zone bill, which bans protests from an
18-foot zone around an abortion clinic, as one of her greatest legislative
achievements. (Two Brookline health clinics that perform abortions were sites
of a shooting spree by John Salvi in December 1994.) Representative Paul
Demakis of Boston, who sponsored the original bill, found it stalled in the
House -- largely because of Finneran's actions -- in previous attempts to pass
it. Sydney used her relationship with the Speaker to get the bill moving this
summer. Working with a group of other legislators -- including Democrats
Michael Festa of Melrose, David Linsky of Natick, and David Donnelly of Boston
-- she worked out a compromise that reduced the size of the buffer zone from 25
to 18 feet. Representative Jarrett Barrios of Cambridge says Sydney was "a key
player in getting the buffer-zone bill out of committee after [it] languish[ed]
for year after year."
Still, such talk of compromise does not placate Smizik. "You can have the
biggest coalition you can, but if one man can stop it from being brought up,
that's the key," he says. "The representative from Mattapan, in the
Constitution, does not have more power than the representative from
MICHAEL DUKAKIS, the former Brookline state representative, Massachusetts
governor, and Democratic presidential nominee, says all members of the House
share Sydney's predicament: "The challenge you face in this or any other
legislature is, how do you assert your views and continue to be effective?"
Still, Dukakis says, some of the concern over Finneran is overblown. He recalls
being elected to the House in 1962 at a time when the Speaker was John Thompson
-- the autocratic "Iron Duke" whom Dukakis helped overthrow. "It's a
Sunday-school picnic compared to when Thompson was in there," he says.
That may be so, but two other races also feature a candidate who claims that
his or her opponent is too close to Finneran. And Finneran's power is equally
at issue in yet another race, where the challenger charges that the incumbent
and the Speaker are not close enough.
In Worcester, Joe Early Jr. is trying to beat Harriette Chandler on the grounds
that she is too cozy with the Speaker in her current job and would be too close
to the Senate president too. "If you're not voting for legislative reforms,
you're voting for the legislative train wreck we call the budget," Early
In Beverly, challenger Stella Mae Seamans describes opponent Michael Cahill as
being in "Finneran's pocket." She says she launched her candidacy after Cahill,
the chairman of the Human Services and Elderly Affairs Committee, failed to
procure any funding for a homeless shelter in Beverly.
But in Arlington, the outspoken Jim Marzilli is taking heat for being too
critical of Finneran. Challenger Rick Arena charges that the veteran state
lawmaker lacks a committee chairmanship and influence in the House. "I have a
young man who thinks I should be on better terms with Tom Finneran and vote
with him more often," says Marzilli. "Of all the things to be challenged on, to
be criticized on standing up to Finneran, who uses his substantial clout to
control every last move within the legislature to kill bills like increasing
the minimum wage or [to cut] back on education spending, is not something I
MORE INTERESTING than each individual race is a broader question: will any of
these contests affect the House leadership? Skeptics say that even if Smizik --
and 10 more like him -- were elected, the so-called House dissidents, largely
progressives who disagree with Finneran on substance and the internal workings
of the legislature, would still number in the 20s -- far below the 81 required
to unseat the Speaker. Still, any new votes would help the dissidents build the
coalition they need to block the Speaker when he attempts to suspend the rules.
Finneran famously did just that in April when he allowed the House to work
beyond 10 p.m., which led to a night of Animal House-like mischief and
the attempted gutting of the Clean Elections Law. To suspend the rules, the
leadership needs the votes of two-thirds of the members present.
Since not all members attend every session, this can mean that opponents need
fewer than the 54 that equal one-third plus one of the total. When Republicans
and other members who might disagree with Finneran on a given issue vote with
the progressive dissidents, it fuels a growing coalition. "If we can get even a
few more, [then] the Speaker is going to have to deal with us a lot more than
he does now," says one member, who requested anonymity.
Surely the worst thing about the current leadership system in the House is that
it puts well-meaning lawmakers like Sydney in a difficult position. In order to
get things done for her district, Sydney has made accommodations with the
Speaker -- including voting against rules reform. But this has left her open to
a serious challenge from Smizik.
Finneran, of course, is not the only reason Sydney is vulnerable. As the
McCormack Institute's Lou DiNatale points out: "These representative races tend
to be very local and personal. Unless there's some real failure of delivery,
it's hard to take out an incumbent. Usually the voters are just trying to
remember these peoples' names." In the Brookline race, some politicos suspect
that many voters may remember Smizik as the designated successor to 27-year
House veteran John Businger. Sydney upset those plans when she defeated
Businger in his last race in 1998. Some of Smizik's traction in the campaign
probably comes from people who remember Businger.
Regardless, the Finneran factor is real. "There is a struggle in the House,"
says Representative Ruth Balser of Newton. And it's spilled over into some of
the re-election campaigns of House members.
All this means that change could be coming to Beacon Hill. Not anytime soon;
not by January, when the next legislative session begins. But it's happening
slowly. As more outspoken members enter the House, it will become more
difficult for Finneran to keep the House locked down. If the economy turns
downward and the public regains its interest in politics, legislators will
remember the tough fight Smizik gave Sydney. Eventually, that could spell
problems for Finneran.