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The Speaker’s choice
Self-interest may tempt Tom Finneran to back weakling Jane Swift for governor, but reality favors his supporting Shannon O’Brien

UNTIL SECRETARY OF STATE William Galvin dropped out of the governor’s race in January, the standing joke on Beacon Hill was that Galvin — a long-time ally of Democratic House Speaker Tom Finneran — was the Speaker’s second choice for governor, behind Republican incumbent Jane Swift. Of course, with Galvin out of the race, most State House insiders expect Finneran to back Treasurer Shannon O’Brien, who combines the centrist appeal of a fiscal conservative with a veneer of progressive packaging on social issues, out of the field of five Democratic candidates. (The others include Senate president Tom Birmingham, former state senator Warren Tolman, former secretary of labor Robert Reich, and former Democratic National Committee chair Steve Grossman.) Yet many political observers suspect there might be a kernel of truth to the joke that Swift is Finneran’s number-one choice. After all, what would Finneran need with a powerful new Democratic governor when he has an enfeebled Republican in the corner office — one who lacks the requisite number of House votes to prevent him from orchestrating overrides of her vetoes?

Asked who he thought Galvin would support, House minority whip George Peterson of Grafton suggested with a chuckle, "Jane Swift." Remembering how House Republicans helped Finneran become Speaker in 1996 when they assisted his victory over Richard Voke in a leadership battle, Peterson says, "He’ll wait until after the convention to see where they’re headed."

It’s taken as a given that all the Democratic candidates for governor will bring a degree of change to Beacon Hill. Birmingham is an avowed rival and enemy of the Speaker. Tolman is suing Finneran, by name, over Clean Elections. Grossman is a wealthy businessman with his own national political connections. Reich is a firebrand political reformer whose progressive economic policies clash with Finneran’s. Even O’Brien, who seems a natural ally for Finneran, can boast her own base of power in Massachusetts. As for the Republicans, Salt Lake City Olympics Committee chief Mitt Romney represents a wild card. Only Swift offers both normalcy and dominion to the Speaker. "I think it’s a situation where with Swift, they have the power," says one Democratic Finneran insider. "If a Democrat gets in there, it’s a whole new ballgame."

Officially, Finneran is neutral in the race so far. "He has made no formal announcement at this time," says Finneran spokesman Charles Rasmussen. "He’s not supporting any particular candidate." Privately, his supporters rankle at the notion that Finneran might make his decision based on anything other than the best interests of the Commonwealth. "This stuff about him wanting Swift to be governor so he can continue being [de facto] governor is just ludicrous," says one Finneran backer.

GIVEN FINNERAN’S limited popularity throughout the state, there’s some question as to whether a candidate would even want the Speaker’s support. Finneran does have the ability to bestow at least some benefits on a candidate. He could throw the support of his district delegates behind a Democratic candidate’s bid for nomination. He could also, in theory, convince members of the House to do likewise. And with his sway over key industries, Finneran can provide valuable fundraising assistance.

But the most important thing to win from the Speaker is not overt support but tacit acceptance: he can hinder a candidacy more than help one. That’s what happened back in 1998, when Democratic attorney general Scott Harshbarger ran for governor against Republican Paul Cellucci. Before the election, Finneran labeled Harshbarger "a member of the loony left" — a pronouncement that many see as having helped swing the election to Cellucci. Two years ago, Finneran recycled the loony-left crack at the St. Patrick’s Day breakfast — the annual political event where local politicians throw light-hearted insults at each other — when he hurled it at Birmingham. Finneran then unveiled a 1960s-era photo of a bearded Birmingham wearing a scally cap that made him look like young Trotskyite. While made in jest, Finneran’s words carried an air of menace, sending Birmingham the not-so-subtle message, I can do to you what I did to Harshbarger. "I believe that this same Finneran who devastated Harshbarger with the loony-left comment will do anything he has to do to prevent a Democratic governor," says David Nyhan, a former political columnist at the Boston Globe and an adviser to the John F. Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics.

To this end, some see a behind-the-scenes alliance forming between Finneran and Swift. Earlier this month, the Globe’s "Political Capital" column reported on a quiet assist Finneran gave Swift by releasing a "detailed and extensive" list of tax hikes aimed at allowing the governor to "regain her political footing." While the Globe reported that a Finneran aide denied any collusion, the release of the list gave Swift the opportunity to decry Democrats as tax happy — something that someone as smart as Finneran would probably not do unwittingly.

But if a Swift-Finneran alliance does exist, ideology may be forcing it into the background. Since December, the two politicians have been at odds over delaying the tax cut, which he supports and she opposes. While often described as fiscally conservative, Finneran tends to favor attentive fiscal management and is averse to measures that lead to deficits — in this he is the ideological successor to the late US senator Paul Tsongas, from Lowell, perhaps the most famous deficit hawk on the national scene in the 1980s. Swift, on the other hand, is a creature of the David Stockman–Barbara Anderson–Ronald Reagan school of fiscal policy, whose organizing principle is I never saw a tax cut I didn’t like (except, of course, for tolls, but that’s a different story).

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Issue Date: March 14 - 21, 2002
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