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Tom Birmingham: The new image versus the old pol
Can the Senate president follow Nixon, Dukakis, and Clinton in crafting a new look, or will his office drag him down?

A NEW FIGURE surfaced in Massachusetts politics a little more than two weeks ago and declared his candidacy for governor. Raised in a blue-collar community, he was relaxed, personable, and loyal. He spoke in simple but passionate terms about the economic pain of recession and how improving education helps teens. His name? Tom Birmingham.

The new Birmingham has a compelling personal story — the kind that makes political consultants salivate. He grew up on Essex Street in Chelsea. As a teen, he studied in the back room of a rented apartment in a three-decker overlooking the Mystic River, his work interrupted only by the sound of cars racing across the Tobin Bridge. He worked in a factory while in high school and, according to his mother, told supervisors they should have respect for their workers — something that astounded all present. As a high-school senior, when he got the envelope from Harvard — its large size signaling acceptance before he even opened it — he whooped with joy, knowing that it represented a ticket to another life.

Compare that with the old Birmingham, who generally refrained from discussing his personal background. In 2000, he caused something of a stir at the Young Democrats Convention at Harvard when he invoked his Chelsea upbringing. And as numerous political commentators have noted, the Senate president is almost indistinguishable in the eyes of the public from the other Tom who dominates Beacon Hill, House Speaker Finneran. Both are seen as complicit in the grotesque yearly spectacle that is the budget process. This year, for example, the budget, which contained $650 million in cuts, was 20 weeks late, and Birmingham took much of the blame; the fracas even prompted him to pen an apology on the Boston Globe’s op-ed page. That ugliness prompted political insiders to speculate that the best thing the Chelsean can do for his candidacy is to give up the Senate presidency. Only by leaving his post can he allow the new Birmingham to flourish, some argue. But without the job, he loses his platform, his ability to rope senators into raising money for him, and his muscle to organize delegates at the May 31 Democratic convention — in short, his juice.

Two weeks ago, when he officially announced his campaign for governor, Birmingham seemed like a new man. He introduced himself to state voters on a gray Saturday morning in Chelsea. More than 600 Democratic and labor activists converged on the Shurtleff School — now the Shurtleff Early Learning Center — for his announcement. Most parked at Chelsea High School, a mile away, and rode yellow school buses to make up the distance. Some in attendance wondered about the logistical hassle that required the use of school buses. Why not hold the event at the roomy and more convenient high school? Because Birmingham wanted it that way.

The candidate’s rationale became clear once supporters took their chairs in the school’s gymnasium. Birmingham’s mother, Agnes, came to the podium to introduce her son. She had made sure to keep her remarks to herself — and away from the Birmingham-campaign team — until just before the speech, to prevent meddling by campaign handlers. "Fifty-four years ago, I led a young and eager child, Tom Birmingham, into this building," she began. "In January 2002, I accompanied a distinguished public servant into this building. Once again I know this is the beginning of something great." It was, all in all, a perfect political moment. The combination of Birmingham’s mother — so unscripted and unused to public speaking — and the location accomplished something rare in politics. If only for a moment, she broke through the cynicism everyone has about big-time politicians. And she made people see her son as a human being. As Joan Vennochi wrote in the Boston Globe last Tuesday: "The mommy moment worked well for Birmingham ... because it allowed people to look at him in a different way, through a mother’s ever-loving eyes."

When Birmingham followed his mother onto the stage, the audience may have expected the kind of five-dollar vocabulary words ("institutional deference" on Channel 56’s Keller At Large last Sunday) that are compulsory at Oxford, where he was a Rhodes scholar, and which often litter his speeches and public comments. (Remember, Birmingham is the guy who criticized Governor Paul Cellucci’s character-building education plan — which proposed showing kids the movie Titanic — by saying the governor should have suggested Great Books instead: "You might start with the Bible, the great classics through Shakespeare, Dickens, Melville.") But in the speech, he kept it simple. He stated plainly that he had made a promise to students (rather than saying he "forged a compact") and warned that Massachusetts was becoming "two states" (rather than using the word "bifurcated"). He singled out his boyhood teachers — Arnie Goodman, the junior-high English teacher who coached Birmingham in basketball in the very hall where he was speaking, and Joan Porter Quigley, his kindergarten teacher. In short, he was "more Chelsea than Harvard."

The event achieved something Birmingham couldn’t manage in five years as chair of the Ways & Means Committee, one of Senate’s most important bodies, and five years as Senate president, one of the state’s most important leadership positions: it made him seem human. And that would not have been possible without the Shurtleff School.

"It proved to be a huge success," says a Birmingham campaign staffer who asked not to be named. "I think he was right to make that decision. Clearly, one of the best moments was when Tom’s mother juxtaposed his walking into the school as a child and walking in today. That just wouldn’t have worked anywhere else."

As he embarks on his campaign for governor, Birmingham — whose war chest, at nearly $3 million, dwarfs his opponents’ — faces a unique task in a field that includes State Treasurer Shannon O’Brien, Secretary of State William Galvin, former Watertown state senator Warren Tolman, businessman and former Democratic National Committee chair Steve Grossman, and former secretary of labor Robert Reich. Although Birmingham is one of the most powerful members of the state’s Democratic party, he has no hope of winning the governor’s race this year, much less the Democratic primary, unless he can overhaul his public image. Even Galvin — the notorious "Prince of Darkness" — has managed to affect a warmer and friendlier image, thanks to a barrage of televised public-service announcements aired over the past several years, touting voter registration, securities regulation, and other good-government causes.

In some ways, Birmingham’s situation today resembles Richard Nixon’s plight in 1968, Bill Clinton’s in 1982, and Michael Dukakis’s in 1982. Each of these political veterans had to present a completely new and personal side of himself to the public. And these reinventions marked political rebirths that propelled their careers to new heights.

"In Tom’s case, it’s not easy to make that transition from legislative leadership to the governor’s race," says Dukakis. "He’s a very impressive guy, but who knows him? As a legislator, the only people who know you are the people in your district. You’ve got to break out of there."

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Issue Date: January 24 - 31, 2002
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