The Boston Phoenix
September 14 - 21, 2000


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 members.

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 the time.

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 Brookline."

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 says.

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 expected."

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.

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Seth Gitell can be reached at sgitell[a]

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