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Hobsonís choice
Senate president and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Birmingham finds himself between the rock of his commitment to education reform and the hard place of overseeing budget cuts

"THE HOUSE HAS betrayed us. The Senate must save us." Thatís often the cry when House Speaker Tom Finneran releases the budget each spring. But this year the predicament for state legislators and recipients of state services is worse than at any time in the last 12 years. In fact, the scene in front of the State House on Tuesday looked like a flashback from the state-budget crisis of the 1980s. Human-services advocates, ranging from public-health workers to members of the Association of Retarded Citizens, and public-university students were among those clamoring in protest over House Speaker Tom Finneranís proposal to chop $1.5 billion from the state budget. Demonstrators held signs reading WE NEED OUR FUNDING, DONíT BE MEAN, WAYS & MEANs, and this ó carried by a woman in a wheelchair ó CUT US ... KILL US.

In the past, Senate president Tom Birmingham has been able to restore funding cuts in human-services programs made by the House, but this year he may not be able to do so. The state is facing a massive $3 billion budget shortfall in state revenues ó a budget contraction unlike any the state has faced since 1990. Itís true that additional monies for human-services providers, such as the Department of Mental Health (budget cut: $50 million), Councils on Aging (budget cut: $620,000), and the Department of Public Health (budget cut: $73 million) could be found by raiding state aid given to local communities for education. But Birmingham, perhaps Beacon Hillís staunchest advocate of the stateís innovative 1993 education-reform law, which he helped draft, has resisted previous attempts to cut its funding. If he stays that course, Birmingham will be forced to preserve his pet cause at the expense of programs supported by the 400 protesters marching on Beacon Hill on Tuesday. The Senate president is in a terribly difficult position.

Making matters worse, Birmingham is running for governor, and heís making education the primary issue of his candidacy. Symbolically, his campaign launch took place at the Shurtleff School ó now an Early Learning Center ó in Chelsea. And right at the start of his announcement speech, he voiced his passionate commitment to education reform. "Change began, but on the day that [1993] law was signed I knew that the promise to fund it would be kept only if I fought for it with every fiber in my body," he declared. "Year after year, against critic and foe, I made sure we kept our commitment. I did keep the promise, and the children are fulfilling their promise." Birminghamís work on education reform is also highlighted on his campaign Web site ( So cuts in education spending would spell trouble not just for the stateís schools, but for Birminghamís campaign as well.

In short, Birminghamís in a bind ó one that exemplifies the difficulty of running for governor while serving as a top legislative leader ó and the only one who can get him out of it is himself. But it wonít be easy.

Observers of state politics have long known that even in the best of budgetary times, Birmingham would face great challenges in his bid to be the first state legislative leader to become governor since House Speaker Christian Herter ó who served briefly as US secretary of state under President Dwight Eisenhower ó managed it in 1953. Only a handful of Beacon Hill leaders have managed to do it at all ó the most famous being Calvin Coolidge, who served as Senate president before being elected governor and then president of the United States. Yet even these examples are misleading, since most of the politicians who successfully jumped from the state legislature to the governorship didnít go directly from their legislative posts to the corner office, as Birminghamís trying to do. Herter represented the 10th Congressional District for a decade in Washington before running for governor. Coolidge, meanwhile, served as lieutenant governor under Samuel Walker McCall between his stint in the state legislature and his tenure as governor.

And then thereís the more-contemporary obstacle of running for office as an "insider" when an angry and fickle public is looking for an "outsider." Though Birmingham dubbed himself the "insider fighting for the outsider" during a recent interview, heíll find it hard to get the public to buy that when heíll be the only candidate in the Democratic primary directly responsible for what are sure to be unpopular legislative decisions to balance the budget. (Some legislators are already talking about not just freezing the income-tax rate at 5.3 percent, but increasing it to 5.6 percent.)

Boston Herald columnist Wayne Woodlief summed up Birminghamís problem Sunday when he wrote: "The budget battle extravaganza being staged by ... Finneran ... could make or break the gubernatorial ambitions of Beacon Hillís Ďother Tom.í " In short, Birmingham carries the burdens of an incumbent governor with few of the benefits. His choice? Which is no choice at all? Go along with Finneranís plan to cut the budget uniformly across the board ó and in so doing cut his treasured education-reform law. Or maintain education funding at the expense of other state services, thereby enraging many of the progressives who would ordinarily make up the backbone of his grassroots network.

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Issue Date: May 2 - 9, 2002
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