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Can he lead?
Senate president Robert Travaglini will preside over next weekís constitutional convention, which will debate an anti-gay amendment to the state constitution

ON A BRIGHT, frigid morning in January, Massachusetts Senate president Robert Travaglini visited the Garfield School in Revere to watch a collection of elementary and middle-school music students strut their stuff. For the better part of an hour, recorders warbled and hand bells rang with varying levels of tunefulness. Once the program was complete, Travaglini took the stage. "It isnít easy to move the Senate president," he said solemnly, peering through frameless glasses and speaking in a hushed baritone. "But you have done that." Then he vowed to allocate an extra $1000 for the Massachusetts Cultural Council program in which the assembled students participate. As the children and their teachers cheered, Travaglini deftly reflected the glory back on them. "Do not applaud me," he intoned. "Because you have created this emotion and response in me. And I promise you that as we go over our budget deliberations, there will be great attention paid to this type of program because you performed so well here this morning." As Travaglini finished convincing his audience theyíd just altered state-budget policy, a hint of a smile flickered across his face.

Such is Travagliniís political genius. When he was sworn in as Senate president last year, Travaglini was known mostly as a genial backslapper who secured the presidency only after a lengthy standoff among several better-qualified candidates. But now, thanks largely to a knack for helping people feel needed and valued ó last year, for example, he allowed a half-dozen senators to build the Senate economic-stimulus bill ó Travagliniís stock is on the rise. "Some people didnít think he had the experience that a Senate president should have," one senator says. "[But] heís smart enough to say, ĎOkay, if I donít know that issue as good as Senator X, Iím going to ask Senator X into my office to find out what the heckís going on.í It really is refreshing, and it endears him to everybody."

But as Travaglini prepares to preside over next Wednesdayís constitutional convention, during which state lawmakers will consider a controversial proposal to ban same-sex couples from marrying, itís unclear how his inclusive, consensus-driven style will play out. "Travís a wonderful guy, and he wants to please everybody in the chamber, but youíre not always going to please everybody on every issue," one State House insider says. "Some people criticized [former Senate president Tom] Birmingham, but Birmingham was a tremendous leader because he led ó he didnít follow. Trav can share power. Can he lead as well, is the big question?"

At the July 2002 constitutional convention, anti-gay-marriage forces pressed for a vote on a controversial constitutional amendment to ban the civil marriages of lesbian and gay couples. Unlike the amendment currently under consideration, which originated with the legislature, this one was born of a citizensí petition and needed only 25 percent of the conventionís participants to vote in its favor to clear the first hurdle to passage. Before the convention could vote on the issue, however, thenĖSenate president Birmingham allowed the body to consider a motion to adjourn. When it succeeded, a probable victory for the anti-gay-marriage contingent had vanished into thin air. The amendment "was mean and hateful, and I was proud to defeat it," Birmingham, who was both praised and excoriated for the maneuver, told the Phoenix last year.

Would Travaglini have done the same? Itís hard to say. He says Birminghamís decision to let members vote on the motion to adjourn (Travaglini voted in favor of the motion) had "some merit," given the presence of "anger and emotions that donít need to be present in this debate." But Travaglini ó who supports civil unions but opposes gay marriage ó adds, "Inevitably, thereís going to be a vote by the general public on this issue. There is just a faction in this legislature that believes that thatís the appropriate thing to have happen, and I donít think that denying anybody a vote is the right action."

When asked whether putting the question to voters would amount to subjecting civil rights to electoral whims, Travaglini seems unconcerned. "The [pro-gay-marriage] advocates feel strongly that they could probably win that vote," he replies. "So itís a question of letting the people render their opinion, whether itís in 2006 or whenever it occurs, and allowing them to exercise their democratic rights in the electoral process. If we frame the debate in the appropriate way, it can be handled in the appropriate manner."

TRAVAGLINI AND his fellow senators cite two major differences between his approach to the Senate presidency and Birminghamís. Travaglini has shown a propensity for opening up the political process to as many voices as possible. And heís cultivated a mellower relationship with House Speaker Tom Finneran.

Travaglini casts the first difference as a matter of philosophy. "I have challenged all of the members to take the initiative to be creative, to exercise the influence of their committees, and to recommend to me what the appropriate position for the body is," he says. "People feel that ... being presented with an opportunity to participate in making a decision rather than being informed of a decision is more to their liking."

It may also be a function of necessity, however. Travaglini didnít come to his current post with a masterful grasp of every issue; the last position he held before becoming Senate president was majority whip, which puts a premium on schmoozing and socializing. "[Travaglini] was able to have more personal contact with members, and know about their thoughts and their families and their hopes and dreams," says Senate minority leader Brian Lees. Contrast that with Birmingham, who served as chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee ó a position that requires near encyclopedic knowledge of every issue facing the body ó before becoming Senate president.

"I think my abilities and my leadership are being looked to more under Senate president Travaglini, but I donít fault Senate president Birmingham for that," offers Steven Panagiotakos, Travagliniís vice-chair of Ways and Means. "As chairman of Ways and Means, when you become president you have a different perspective. Just about everything [the committee chairs] do, youíve dealt with it already."

Travagliniís low-key approach to Finneran has more complex origins. In 2000, Travaglini was treated for two life-threatening conditions in a span of four months. In March of that year, doctors operated on cancer in Travagliniís throat; in June, he underwent quadruple-bypass surgery. He emerged from the experience with drastically reordered priorities. Lynn mayor Chip Clancy, a close friend of the Senate presidentís, says that up to that point Travaglini "reveled in being gregarious, the quintessential good guy." Afterward, his trademark bonhomie mellowed; he developed an intensified appreciation of his family (Travaglini, 51, is married, with three children between the ages of seven and 14) and a more purposeful approach to life. He was "more subdued, more balanced, more businesslike," Clancy says. "I donít think the old Trav necessarily would have been elected president of the Senate."

Travaglini is even blunter about the change. "I didnít take anything seriously until I went through that type of a situation," he says. "It fine-tunes your vision, and it highlights whatís truly important in life. You donít waste time, because now you realize that time is valuable."

The senatorís personal crisis seems to have had political implications as well. His predecessorís nose-to-nose confrontations with Finneran are legendary. But Travaglini ó once known for a brash, combative streak ó has adopted a more conciliatory approach. "Having been through that, I donít like theater, I donít like gimmicks, I donít like involving myself in anything that is symbolic," he says. "I like to get things done.... Iím looking to do the right thing, and at this time I felt the right thing to do was to establish a good working relationship with the Speaker. For two very smart people, Tom Finneran and Tom Birmingham shouldíve gotten along a lot better, and political agendas got in the way of their personal relationship."

(Not surprisingly, Birmingham bristles at the suggestion that his battles with Finneran were anything but substantial. "One personís political agenda is another personís vision of social and economic justice," he retorts. "I fought for social and economic justice, and I donít apologize for that ó even if it did hurt me personally and politically, even if it sometimes resulted in a long and unpleasant process.")

All this might suggest that Travaglini is a less dogged advocate for the Senateís budget priorities than Birmingham was. Not so, say progressive legislators and activists. State Representative Paul Demakis of the Back Bay and Beacon Hill cites the final budget for fiscal year (FY) í04. "On virtually every item of interest to progressives, the Senate budgeted more money than the House," he says. "The differences arenít that great, because there wasnít a lot of leeway ... but the Senate still found a way in the end to use things like fees and use of reserves and things like that to do a little bit better in education and human services than the House did. And ... that squares with the perception among House progressives that we can generally look to the Senate to produce a more progressive budget, and ... win some of our battles in conference committee that weíre not able to win on the House floor."

Stephen Collins of the Massachusetts Human Services Coalition lauds the Senate for fully funding the $96 million Prescription Advantage program, which provides drug coverage for senior and disabled citizens, in last yearís budget. (The program was eliminated in the original House Ways and Means budget.) He also credits the 2003 Senate for creating the MassHealth Essential program, which covers individuals dropped from MassHealth Basic. Collins praises both Birmingham and Travaglini as "strong champions" of health and human services, but adds that Travaglini held his own against Finneran and delivered a timely budget. "My impression is that Senator Travaglini shows a little bit more go-along-to-get-along skills," he says.

Travagliniís track record on social issues is more ambiguous. He is a long-time advocate of single-payer health care. And last September, as Romney pressed his case for a "scientific," error-free version of the death penalty (see "Blinded with Science," News and Features, October 10, 2003), Travaglini vowed that executions would never become legal in Massachusetts. But the Travaglini-led Senate also agreed ó in a voice vote taken with no roll call ó to gut the Clean Elections Law last year.

And, of course, thereís the question of how heíll handle the marriage issue once the constitutional convention convenes. Despite the optimism of same-sex-marriage advocates like Demakis and the Lesbian and Gay Political Caucusís Arline Isaacson (see "A Man of the Heart," below), it isnít easy to predict what Travaglini is going to do.

"Iím not sure that we are going to take full and final action on the question of gay marriages," says Travaglini. "It would be helpful if we got a response from the SJC [rendering an opinion on whether a civil-union bill would satisfy constitutional requirements].... For me, this is all about a question of fairness, okay? I want to try to be as fair and professional as possible in dealing with this issue. Iím going to try my damnedest to minimize the political agenda of all of the factions in clouding the discussion that is necessarily on an issue that has the potential of changing the face of society as weíve known it for hundreds of years."

True to form, heís preparing in an inclusive manner: "Iím having discussions with my colleagues on a weekly basis, trying to understand what their opinions and their positions are relative to this issue."

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Issue Date: February 6 - 12, 2004
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