THE REAL MESSAGE behind House Speaker Tom Finneran’s congressional-redistricting plan is simple. Finneran is king, the top dog of Massachusetts politics — and Lord help anybody who fails to recognize it. His plan, which carves out a new district in the state’s southern tier, pits two incumbents against each other and favors a third, US Representative Michael Capuano, with a guarantee of elected office for as long as he wants it. And when he unveiled the scheme on July 10, Finneran — a student of Macaulay’s History of England — sent word throughout the Commonwealth: kiss my ring or be banished to an eternity of serfdom. The recipient of just 8172 votes in his last election (out of 18,241 registered voters in his district, which is 41 percent minority), Finneran is now the pre-eminent political figure in the state, with the obvious exception of Senator Ted Kennedy.
The most sweeping result of the redistricting plan is the elimination of US Representative Martin Meehan’s Fifth Congressional District — this in a year when Massachusetts isn’t even losing a seat. The Fifth has been moved to the southern portion of the state. Meehan’s hometown, Lowell, now lies in the Sixth Congressional District — which is represented by John Tierney of Salem. If Meehan hopes to run again, he can bank on support from Lowell and nearby Lawrence, which has also been moved to the Sixth, but the voter-rich Merrimack Valley suburbs surrounding Lawrence and Lowell — towns like Chelmsford, Andover, and Dunstable — now lie in, the Third, Seventh, and First Districts, respectively.
In short, an extremely powerful local politician is trying, for reasons that remain open to speculation, to destroy the prospects of a nationally recognized congressman who, among other accomplishments, has been a leader on campaign-finance reform and was the first member of Congress to call for a Justice Department probe of the tobacco industry.
Meehan’s high profile on national issues is grist for the local political class. (Betraying an all-encompassing parochialism, many sourly noted off the record that the only recent television footage available of Meehan was from NBC’s Meet the Press.) Clearly, Meehan is an anti-hack in a world filled with them. Whether you like him or not, he’s been that rare politician who tries to accomplish things of importance. One example is his vocal advocacy of both state and federal campaign-finance reform — a position opposed by the Speaker. More specifically, Meehan accused state lawmakers of " playing games " with the Clean Elections Law when he and Senator John McCain appeared in Boston on behalf of campaign-finance reform last week. In the past, he’s noted: " I think the push for financing reform needs to happen on two levels: on the national front and on the state level. " And that’s probably why Meehan woke up last Wednesday morning to learn — from the Boston Herald, no less — that Finneran had redistricted him out of a job. The House Speaker didn’t even bother to call Meehan until the Herald reported the story.
Finneran, a local pol if there ever was one — and a crafty one, too — denies that his plan is politically motivated. " This is not something Tom Finneran, in some kind of feverish state, came up with in the middle of the night, " he says, adding that the new district lines are " not driven by politics. " Finneran insists that in redrawing the district lines, he — along with attorney Lawrence DiCara and State Representative Thomas Petrolati (D-Ludlow) — tried to balance three important goals: forming a new district where the majority of voters belong to minority groups, while reshaping old districts based on " commonality of interest, " such as shared geography or demographics; creating a new South Coast district; and protecting incumbents. Meehan, to his way of thinking, does not fall under that protection. " I said [last week] the evidence was more likely than not that [Meehan] was likely to be a candidate for governor, " says Finneran. " If it became clear that Marty was not going to be a candidate for governor, [the redistricting plan] would be revisited. "
So why didn’t Finneran simply wait to learn Meehan’s intentions before releasing his redistricting plan? Meehan has said all along that he will decide by the end of the summer whether he’s running for governor (though he now says he’ll announce his decision by next week). As a result, no one expected redistricting plans to be announced until the fall at the earliest. Finneran also released the plan maverick-style, independent of the Senate’s customary recommendations. Before last week, state politicians operated under something of an unspoken agreement: Beacon Hill leaders can do anything they want inside the building — raise or lower taxes, decide not to fund Clean Elections, sponsor prescription-drug legislation, get drunk during budget time — without congressional interference, so long as they don’t tread on congressional turf.
Former Senate president William Bulger, for example, always paid great deference to the congressional delegation. Ten years ago US Representative Joe Moakley was ill with liver disease and told Bulger he didn’t want his congressional district touched. Bulger respected the request until a rogue Republican threatened to challenge Moakley in the upcoming election; then Bulger moved the town where the gadfly lived into US Representative Barney Frank’s district. Finneran, to be fair, does say he spoke to each member of the delegation twice about redistricting. But on the whole, he is acting in a way that suggests he expects the delegation (which collectively received endorsement from 1,967,942 voters) to show deference to him (again, with just 8172 of the people’s votes). And it appears that in the wake of the Meehan bloodletting, the congressmen have been intimidated into doing just that. Besides, can anyone imagine the new dean of the state’s congressional delegation, US Representative Edward Markey of Malden, who has not yet acquired Moakley’s well-honed disciplinary skill, uttering even one word of protest to Finneran? In fact, not one of the Massachusetts congressmen seemed particularly upset about the elimination of one of their own: a July 12 Boston Globe story headlined delegates hold off backing meehan said it all.