THESE DAYS, House Speaker Tom Finneran doesn’t seem much like House Speaker Tom Finneran. The Mattapan Democrat is generally considered the most powerful political force on Beacon Hill since Senate president William M. Bulger stepped down in 1995. There’s no question that he still dominates the House, which is where most of the action has been on Beacon Hill since Bulger resigned. This January, he easily swatted back a symbolic challenge to his leadership from State Representative Byron Rushing of the South End by a 118-to-17 margin. (The 23 House Republicans voted for State Representative Bradley Jones of North Reading.) In a move designed to remind House members who’s — still — the boss, he relegated five of the 17 members who voted against him (State Representatives Barry Finegold of Andover, Carol Donovan of Woburn, Ruth Balser of Newton, Frank Smizik of Brookline, and Deborah Blumer of Framingham) to the politically inconsequential Committee on Personnel and Administration, which holds training sessions for House members, but never meets as a deliberative body. And he booted Rushing, a 20-year veteran of the House, off the powerful Ways and Means Committee. Perhaps most telling, however, is that most of the sources interviewed for this story requested anonymity — they didn’t want to risk pissing off the Speaker.
But a recent series of missteps, ranging from an embarrassing pay-raise flap to a surprisingly weak performance on live television last month when he gave a response to Governor Mitt Romney’s address to the Commonwealth about the state’s budget deficit, have diminished the Speaker. Not to mention the uncomfortably personal jibes directed his way at a WB56 WLVI-TV roast of Finneran at Faneuil Hall’s Comedy Connection (the occasion was a fundraiser for Boston College High School). Governor Mitt Romney, for instance, compared working for Finneran to working for the pope. "Except with the pope, it’s only his ring you have to kiss," Romney quipped. There is an increasing perception among close watchers of Beacon Hill that Finneran is, in the words of one political observer, "off his game."
Indeed. To paraphrase former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, Finneran has gone wobbly. Since 1996, when he was first elected Speaker, Finneran — love him or hate him — has been a model of consistency. Everyone from human-services advocates to the owners of professional sports teams has always known what to expect from him: very little. He has opposed increased government spending, period, be it for education reform or clean elections. He’s also opposed making cuts in the income tax, preferring instead to build up a $2.5 billion "rainy day" fund for use in the event of a fiscal crisis. As for social issues, Finneran is more conservative than most Republicans in this state. In the last four sessions, he has blocked legislation that would grant domestic-partnership benefits to the same-sex partners of gay and lesbian municipal workers. He has likewise blocked the expansion of abortion rights in Massachusetts. In a sense, Finneran has crafted his own version of former president Bill Clinton’s infamous "third way" in politics. In the past six years, Finneran has triangulated with a series of Republican governors and a wing of progressive Democrats who’ve dominated the state Senate under the leadership of former Senate president Tom Birmingham.
But the Speaker cashed in his fiscal-sobriety chits in the wake of the budget crises of 2001 and 2002, when he orchestrated passage of a $1.2 billion package of tax increases ranging from lowering the floor income for those exempt from the statewide income tax to freezing the rollback of the state income tax, passed over Finneran’s opposition by statewide referendum in 2000. He was also party to the wildly unpopular $1.30 tax on prescriptions sneakily tacked onto a budget amendment in order to close last year’s budget gap. (Pharmacies across the state agreed Tuesday to stop passing the tax on to customers.) When nearly every other leader in the state, it seemed, was deciding whether to run for governor, actually running for governor, or declaring he or she would not run for governor, Finneran was quietly barnstorming the state, courting the editorial boards of local newspapers and wooing members of local chambers of commerce over to his plan to deal with the Commonwealth’s worsening deficit. Finneran’s campaign worked. In July 2002, before the vacationing public was even aware that the largest tax hike in state history was in the offing, it became state law.