The chair of the state Democratic Party, Phil Johnston, maintains that Finneran will be on board with the Democrats come election time. "I’m working very closely with him and his leadership team," says Johnston. "He’s very involved with us. There’s sometimes a sense that he’s not as supportive as he might be. I have a very free and open and easy relationship with him and his leadership team."
Johnston adds that the state Democratic Party is, for the first time, helping individual House candidates raise money — something that aids Finneran and therefore may bind him more closely to the party. (The state party, Johnston emphasizes, has also helped in three special elections for the House.) Perhaps in a show of loyalty and appreciation, Finneran invited Johnston to address House members at a 2002 election briefing at the Parker House.
Johnston chalks up his increasingly cordial relationship with the Speaker to his own service as a state representative in the 1970s and ’80s, something with which, he contends, Finneran relates. But Finneran’s newfound warmth for the party may emanate from the same source that usually motivates the Speaker: sheer political calculation. Finneran may have determined that, in spite of his wishes, Swift just can’t win; he would be best served, therefore, by strengthening ties to his fellow Democrats. In fact, for at least two months Finneran has been examining more carefully the political viability of Swift versus two of his friends — Galvin, whose campaign failed to take off; and O’Brien, who is very much in play, as evidenced by her Friday appearance at an EMILY’s List luncheon in Washington, DC.
Most savvy political insiders see Finneran edging toward O’Brien — especially as it appears increasingly difficult for Swift to recover from her political woes. "He’s going to be realistic," says one State House insider. "He’s only going to have Swift until the nomination. Then he’s going to plan B." In other words, Finneran sees value in stringing along an incumbent governor with whom he must continue to do business.
With Swift out of the picture — due to her rapidly falling star — the argument for a Finneran-O’Brien marriage becomes clear. Not only is O’Brien the most politically viable candidate, she also comes the closest to sharing Finneran’s hawkish fiscal outlook. Both, for example, oppose raiding the pension fund, want to preserve the rainy-day fund, and continue the lottery pay-out. Besides, an inside player like Finneran is not going to risk backing a less-than-sure-thing, such as, say, Steve Grossman.
There’s more. O’Brien served in the House, so she’s soundly familiar with Finneran’s turf. It also doesn’t hurt that O’Brien’s husband, Emmett Hayes, the politically connected former lobbyist and state representative from Whitman, has what some describe as a close relationship with Finneran. Finally, in the words of one observer of the State House scene, O’Brien is "part of the furniture" up on Beacon Hill — a known commodity with whom a risk-averse Speaker can work. Many in the House leadership — who are Finneran lieutenants — appear to be operating according to this principle. Representatives Nancy Flavin (chair of the Insurance Committee), Bill Greene (chair of the Commerce and Labor Committee), and Lida Harkins (House majority whip) are all lining up in one way or another behind O’Brien.
But members of his leadership team say they don’t know who Finneran will ultimately support. "I think he’s got a pretty good relationship with Shannon," says Harkins, noting that he also had "a pretty good relationship" with Galvin, adding that the Speaker has not indicated whom he will be backing. "I really, well, don’t know," she emphasizes.
There are two possible obstacles to the full blossoming of an O’Brien-Finneran relationship. The first involves O’Brien. Knowing that she must reach out to the unenrolled 51 percent of state voters who presumably revile the State House, O’Brien may be very uneasy about accepting visible help from Finneran. An express alliance with the Speaker could draw fire in a heated primary battle from either Reich or Birmingham — or from the other candidates, if they are still in the race. Certainly all her opponents would have reason to make any links with Finneran explicit.
The second obstacle involves Finneran. For all his comfort level with O’Brien, he may still be uneasy about welcoming a new, engaged, energetic politician to the governor’s office. The minute such a politician takes the oath of office, Finneran, as a legislative leader, immediately becomes second fiddle. This scenario worsens, some say, if Senator Robert Travaglini of East Boston becomes the next Senate president. Travaglini, conspiracists point out, is the brother of one of O’Brien’s assistant treasurers, Michael Travaglini, and would quickly become the point man for legislative activity. This is something of a stretch, Beacon Hill insiders point out, since Senator Travaglini, like many of his Senate colleagues, is officially with Birmingham. And while Michael Travaglini plays an important policy role with the treasurer, it is O’Brien — and not one of her assistants — who holds the cards.
IN A PERFECT WORLD, by the Speaker’s lights, Finneran would probably be most helped by victory for a weakened Swift. But Finneran, one of the shrewdest political operators in the business, doesn’t live in the world of fantasy. He reacts quickly to rapidly changing political realities. It’s for this reason that he appears to be covering his bases with Swift — while quietly reaching out to O’Brien and to Johnston of the Democratic Party.
Knowing that the political landscape may shift, Finneran will, at the very least, look to maintain his grip on the House. Regardless of where he throws his support in the governor’s race, he will fight to get incumbents re-elected and to preserve the power of his fiefdom. Says one Beacon Hill insider, "You always need to deal with the Speaker."
Seth Gitell can be reached at sgitell[a]phx.com