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The senator’s dilemma
On Clean Elections, Senate president Tom Birmingham is caught between a rock and a hard place


Pity the plight of prospective gubernatorial candidate Tom Birmingham. The Senate president’s greatest strength is that he sucks up money like an Electrolux. By the end of 2000, Birmingham had taken in $2.2 million, money that he can use if he runs for governor. His nearest would-be gubernatorial competitor in the fundraising department is Steve Grossman, who had only $828,834 in his campaign coffers at the end of the year. But Birmingham’s strength as a fundraiser is going to draw attention to the role he plays in the heated debate over how to implement the Clean Elections Law. And that role is likely to be significant. “This is an opportunity to stand up and be recognized,” says Ken White, the executive director of Common Cause of Massachusetts, one of the law’s supporters. “The Senate president will have a considerable amount of sway on how the Clean Elections Law goes forward.”

The law was passed by 67 percent of the electorate in a 1998 statewide referendum and has been under attack in the legislature ever since. In its current form, compliance is optional for candidates, but gubernatorial hopefuls who agree to adhere to the law’s spending and contribution limits — and who qualify by raising 6000 individual contributions of under $100 — are eligible (at least in theory) to up to $1.5 million in distributions from the Massachusetts Clean Elections Fund for the primary campaign. In addition, if non-participating candidates exceed the law’s spending limits, participating candidates could receive up to $2.1 million more in matching funds. This could be a windfall to the candidacies of former state senator Warren Tolman (who’s raised only $72,041) and Secretary of State William Galvin (who’s raised $545,984). It would also benefit US Representative Martin Meehan, who has a congressional-campaign war chest of more than $2 million that he can’t use in a state race under Massachusetts law. Meehan, for one, is already turning up the heat. A sponsor of federal campaign-finance-reform legislation, he is scheduled to address a Faneuil Hall audience on the state and federal reform efforts this Friday, March 23.

But Beacon Hill lawmakers, including Birmingham, have greeted the popular measure as warmly as farmers on the European continent welcome plague-infested British livestock. Even though the law passed in November 1998, it has yet to be implemented, thanks to the stalling tactics of Birmingham and House Speaker Tom Finneran. First, the two legislators — in a 1998 move seen as targeting former Massachusetts representative Joe Kennedy — helped orchestrate the bill that blocked congressional candidates from using their federal campaign funds in state races. (“We as state members cannot transfer money to a federal account,” Birmingham says. “It ought to be the same either way.”) Then things got especially ugly during the dragged-out budget battle in 1999. Months after the state budget deadline had passed, Birmingham and Finneran wanted Governor Paul Cellucci to support a change to the law that would have let incumbents remain outside the Clean Elections system until just six months before an election. (This would have allowed Birmingham to raise money freely as Senate president, and then receive public money as well.) Cellucci refused. In the tense aftermath of the confrontation, Cellucci charged that Birmingham had threatened to torpedo the financially strapped governor’s request for a $45,000 pay raise if the governor didn’t approve Birmingham’s changes to the Clean Elections Law. He even accused Birmingham of “extortion.” Birmingham denies the charge, but Cellucci’s raise was held up in budget negotiations. (It passed in the next session.)

Although the law is scheduled to take effect April 1, there’s still time for the legislative leaders to weaken the measure. Finneran has already signaled his intent to pare down the law, perhaps by exempting legislative candidates from its provisions. Birmingham, meanwhile, is keeping mum. In a statement prepared in response to questions from the Phoenix, Birmingham announced his plan to hold a caucus on the issue to find “consensus” in the midst of “disparate positions.” Birmingham also pointed out that the Senate has earmarked $10 million for Clean Elections each year of the program’s existence. “Our record shows a consistent effort to preserve the overarching goals of the proposal while making recommendations to increase its viability,” he said. He was not any more talkative after the two-and-a-half-hour caucus Tuesday, adding that such meetings are “confidential.” He did say, “I support public financing. I’ve been working with the advocates to try to reach a compromise.”

Birmingham understands that people see him as trapped by the issue, but he thinks too much is being made of it. “I don’t know if there’s a clear conflict between my two roles as candidate and president,” he says. “I’m trying to do the right thing in either capacity.”

The details of implementing the legislation are still in flux, but many possible forms the bill might take seem to put Birmingham in a difficult position. Advocates are pushing for a compromise version that will achieve at least some of their goals. If this fails to take hold, the House and Senate could pass separate versions. Technically, separate House and Senate versions of the bill would go to a conference committee for a final compromise; in the real world this means that Birmingham and Finneran would hash out the details. Although Clean Elections proponents have blamed Finneran for most of the stalling in recent weeks, any compromise that weakens the law will reflect poorly on Birmingham during a run for governor.

Given that Cellucci has vowed to veto any attempt to alter the law and that 54 representatives may have agreed to uphold such a veto, Finneran may look for some other way to save face. Beacon Hill insiders are whispering about complicated parliamentary maneuvers that Finneran could permit, which would enable the Clean Elections Law to move forward unmolested; under this scenario, Birmingham and Finneran could still defang the law by underfunding it during budget negotiations. Clean Elections proponents say that the measure needs at least $35 million in funding by 2002 to be effective.

Birmingham, in short, is damned if he supports the measure and damned if he doesn’t. If he supports Clean Elections, his fundraising advantage goes up in smoke. If, on the other hand, he decides to play hardball and either guts the law or refuses to fund it fully, he’ll look like the kind of heavy-handed Beacon Hill hack that nobody likes. Even if Birmingham simply sits back and lets Finneran play the heavy, he still looks bad: he becomes the Senate president who couldn’t outfox Finneran in the legislature. If Birmingham can’t beat Finneran on an important issue such as Clean Elections, what case can he make to be governor?

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