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[talking politics]

ALTHOUGH BIRMINGHAM may think he can finesse his way out of the Clean Elections mess, he’s clearly stuck. “He’s caught in a bit of a bind right now, but he can’t appear to kill it, given its popularity and his ambition in the governor’s race,” says one Beacon Hill source.

Reports are trickling in that the voting public is angry with legislators for delaying the implementation of the law. Some Beacon Hill offices are being flooded with calls and emails. If Birmingham ignores this sentiment, he does so at his peril: just ask former House Speaker George Keverian, who presided over a series of unpopular income-tax increases in the months before the 1990 election and saw his candidacy for state treasurer go up in flames. Granted, there were big differences between the issue that felled Keverian and the one that may give Birmingham so much trouble. Keverian courageously pushed for tax increases that were intended to return the flailing Commonwealth to solvency, even though he knew the public might hold his actions against him. Birmingham, on the other hand, has acted cravenly for his own political advantage. It’s true that many voters care much more about taxes than campaign-finance reform, but the general lesson remains the same: Beacon Hill leaders who scorn the public risk feeling its wrath. Keverian was trounced in the 1990 primary and retreated to his home town of Everett. A wrong move on the part of Birmingham, a bicycling enthusiast, could send him pedaling through Everett on his way back to his home town of Chelsea.

The conventional wisdom on the Clean Elections Law is that the press thinks it’s a big deal, but the public does not. From this point of view, no matter what Birmingham does, he’ll be okay. Whereas the tax debate of 1990 was fueled in large part by a network of fiery talk-radio personalities, today we don’t have such a ready means of voicing populist outrage. Jerry Williams, formerly of WRKO (AM 680), is in retirement on the South Shore, and Gene Burns is in San Francisco. Howie Carr, who played the role of radio populist for the early part of his broadcasting career, now concentrates more on cracking jokes than cracking the whip on errant politicians.

But Birmingham would be taking a significant risk if he discounted the public’s reaction to what happens with the Clean Elections Law — especially with the media watching so closely. The Boston Globe is already giving the story significant play, publishing a series of articles by reporter Rick Klein detailing daily developments. And local radio-talk-show hosts, even if they don’t have the influence their predecessors wielded a decade ago, are prepared to exploit the issue over the airwaves.

“Because of his position, he has the potential to suffer the most from being perceived as manipulating the law,” says WTKK (96.9 FM) talk-show host and Cambridge city councilor Jim Braude. (Braude, ironically, was on the other side of the talkmasters during the 1980s. He was the head of the Tax Equity Alliance for Massachusetts, which favored raising taxes over cutting state services.) Today, Braude says, Birmingham is one of the most important officials in the state, but he lacks widespread name recognition. “If you sink this [Clean Elections], then everybody knows your name,” he says, adding that the Clean Elections Law could be a breakout issue in the coming gubernatorial campaign: “Where candidates fall on Clean Elections is a gold mine for talk radio in 2002.”

On the other side of both the ideological spectrum and the dial at WRKO, Peter Blute likewise intends to make an issue out of Clean Elections — which he calls a “populist” issue. Blute recalls that during his day as a state representative from Shrewsbury, no one would have dared alter a popular referendum. He notes that liberal lawmakers did not even change Proposition 2 1/2, which cut the amount of property tax cities and towns could collect. Any scenario in which the Clean Elections Law is altered and the governor vetoes the changes could hurt the Senate president, Blute adds: he suggests that Cellucci and Lieutenant Governor Jane Swift “might be laying a trap for Birmingham.”

Tolman, a prospective opponent of Birmingham’s, is also convinced that voters care about the Clean Elections Law. He reports that the voters he meets with on his jaunts around the state are irate over the possibility that the legislature might roll back the reforms. “Anyone who tries to get in the way with this is at risk in 2002,” he says.

OF COURSE, Birmingham could have a conversion on the road to Damascus. In February, he hinted that he might be considering such a turnaround, saying, “I like public financing of campaigns.” If Birmingham commits fully to Clean Elections and stops raising money outside the system, he could break out of his State House persona, says Braude. Some believe that such a bold action could even help define Birmingham as the anti-Finneran, which would allow this ultimate State House insider to run against Beacon Hill. That might energize his campaign.

For now, though, at least one thing is clear: the recent Beacon Hill machinations have not been good for the leadership of the Democratic Party, especially since they are happening at the same time that US Senator John McCain of Arizona is introducing his federal campaign-finance-reform legislation. “Here we are in Washington fighting for the McCain-Feingold bill with the Republicans, in theory, as the opponents,” says the president of Common Cause, Scott Harshbarger. “Meanwhile, back in Massachusetts with a Democratic-progressive legislature, the Democratic-progressive leadership appears to be against it. Those are the kinds of actions that make the people cynical.”

Chances are that no matter what emerges from the Clean Elections negotiations in the coming weeks, somebody will be dissatisfied. A problem looming over the entire system is who gets dibs on the public money, which of course is limited. Under the current rules, those funds will be distributed according to who qualifies first and gets in line. Gubernatorial candidates get no special preference. That means a candidate for governor could commit to Clean Elections, then see the money he or she was expecting given to a Green Party state-representative wanna-be. Knowing this doesn’t encourage the major candidates to participate in the system. But that’s a problem of implementation.

In the meantime the questions remain: will Birmingham and the other elected officials do what the public has instructed them to do? If not, who will pay the price?

Seth Gitell can be reached at sgitell[a]

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