BY DAN KENNEDY
NOT THAT THINGS have ever been particularly easy for Finneran. One of seven children, Finneran spent part of his youth living in a housing project in South Boston, and he helped put himself through Northeastern University by working at his father’s rug-cleaning-and-furniture-upholstery business. By the time he graduated from Boston College Law School, he was already married, and the father of the first of his two daughters. Elected to the House at 27, he has spent almost half his life (he is 53) in the legislature.
Finneran got his first taste of real power in 1991, when he was named chair of the powerful Ways and Means Committee by the then–new Speaker, Charlie Flaherty. A fiscal conservative with a penchant for number-crunching, Finneran won praise for helping steer the state through a fiscal crisis even as some criticized him for his centralized, top-down management style.
The Speaker’s job became his in the spring of 1996, under unusual circumstances. Flaherty was forced to resign after pleading guilty to federal tax-fraud charges. The Democrats were lined up behind the majority leader, Richie Voke, a liberal from Chelsea. But unbeknownst to many, Finneran had cut a deal with the Republicans: rather than voting for their own leader, a customary — if futile — exercise, they voted for Finneran, which made him Speaker even though he lost a majority of his own party.
It was, in fact, a brilliant and audacious parliamentary maneuver, the sort of play that wouldn’t even have occurred to anyone else. For Finneran, it gave him an opportunity he never would have had among his own party members. For the Republicans, it gave them a moment of unaccustomed relevance — and the chance to install a Speaker who was far more in tune with their conservatism than Voke was. And though any dreams the Republicans might have had of forming a European-style coalition government did not materialize, they continue to defend their decision. The current House Republican leader, Brad Jones, of North Reading, who was among those voting for Finneran, puts it this way: "There are still a lot of issues that we agree on with the Speaker. He’s a lot more of a Republican than he is a Democrat."
Finneran’s actions and rhetoric immediately after becoming Speaker were emblematic of a say-one-thing-but-do-another style he has maintained to this day. He spoke of inclusiveness, and in fact his first leadership team comprised a combination of Flaherty holdovers, who had voted for Voke, and Finneran loyalists. But the following January, with the glare of the spotlight somewhat reduced, Finneran dumped the remainder of Flaherty’s team and named a new set of committee chairs beholden only to him.
"There is no punishment whatsoever," he told the Boston Globe at the time. "It’s a statement of what I think is the best talent that is available, spread across the entire landscape." It’s a theme that Finneran has stuck with over the years, despite mounting evidence to the contrary. As recently as July 15, for instance, during an interview on Greater Boston, on WGBH-TV (Channels 2 and 44), Finneran sought to disabuse host Emily Rooney of the notion that his leadership team was composed of sycophants. "I want engagement," he said. "I want them to challenge me and the members so our thinking improves on everything. They’re picked on talent, ability, and independence — not dependence."
It sounds good, but the record suggests otherwise. Take, for instance, the Committee on Health Care, where two talented and independent chairs have been forced out for insufficient loyalty to the Speaker. The first was John McDonough, a respected policy wonk who voted for Voke, was retained by Finneran in 1996, and then given the boot the following January. Following several years of teaching health-care policy at Brandeis University, McDonough recently was named executive director of Health Care for All, an advocacy organization. McDonough declined to be quoted on Finneran’s decision to replace him. But even if one concedes that Finneran, as a relatively new Speaker, had the right to choose his own team, he gave up a lot of expertise when he chose to cast McDonough aside.
McDonough was replaced by Harriett Stanley, a conservative Democrat from West Newbury with a Harvard MBA. Stanley started out as a Finneran favorite. But after opposing Finneran on a range of issues such as Clean Elections and the anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act (Finneran was for it, she was against it) — and, most significantly, a $1.2 billion tax hike that was aimed at bailing the state out of last year’s fiscal crisis — she was removed as committee chair this past January. Never mind that she comes from a Republican-leaning district that might well have turned her out of office had she voted to increase taxes — the sort of contingency most legislative leaders are prepared to accommodate.
Ironically, just a few months after losing her gavel, Stanley received an award from the Pioneer Institute for a Medicaid-reform proposal. That, in turn, led to a favorable June 10 column by the Globe’s Joan Vennochi, who wrote of Finneran that it was "sad for those of us who remember a different man from a different time. His mind was just as quick but it was so much more open."
When I contacted Stanley, she was circumspect about her relationship with the Speaker, saying only, "The Tom Finneran that I voted for in 1996 with great hopes of changing the way the legislature did business is not the person leading the House today."
Granted, the circumstances surrounding Stanley’s removal are somewhat complicated. Sources say that she can be prickly, and her award-winning reform idea — which would require Medicaid recipients to pay some of the cost of their care — was not designed to win the hearts and minds of progressives. But she is obviously a smart, capable woman, and yet Finneran decided he would rather do without her expertise than allow any independence on his leadership team.
And here’s a delicious irony. Sometime this fall, the House Democratic Council plans to stage a debate on health-care policy. All House members will be invited to hear from two experts. Their names: John McDonough and Harriett Stanley.
McDonough and Stanley are hardly alone in the punishment they received. In January 2001, the House overwhelmingly voted to abolish an eight-year limit on the Speaker’s post, a limit that had been imposed in 1985, when George Keverian vanquished another powerful Speaker, Tom McGee, by promising reform. Among those who voted against Finneran was State Representative Tom McGee Jr., of Lynn — who was promptly removed from the Taxation Committee and stripped of his post as vice-chair of the Public Service Committee, according to a column by the Globe’s Eileen McNamara.
Another former Finneran supporter is State Representative Doug Petersen, of Marblehead, a moderate liberal who voted for Finneran over Voke in 1996.
"I never got along terribly well with Charlie Flaherty," says Petersen, who recalls sessions with Finneran in his pre-Speaker days when "he would genuinely have tears in his eyes" while talking about his desire to restore the reputation and effectiveness of the House. "I trusted Tommy more," Petersen recalls. "I thought he would be more of a fiscal disciplinarian, which I felt that we needed."
But Petersen soon saw his friend’s need for control supersede his better instincts. To increase the number of members who would be personally loyal to the Speaker, Finneran created four new positions with extra pay known as division chairs — "hall monitors," as they have been derisively dubbed by critics.
Petersen was named to chair the Natural Resources Committee, but he says he chafed as Finneran worked behind the scenes to weaken a voter-approved law to regulate animal traps, and to make a "brownfields" bill, regulating the reuse of polluted land, more industry-friendly.
The final rupture, though, came over Clean Elections. When Petersen made it clear that he wasn’t going to back down from his support for the voter-approved measure to provide public-funding for candidates who agreed to spending limits, he was demoted to vice-chair of the Taxation Committee and, finally, removed from leadership entirely.
"I think this, in some ways, is a real tragedy," says Petersen, who voted for Byron Rushing last January. "I think [Finneran] could have been a terrific Speaker. There’s a part of him that wanted this place to be the penultimate in respect and efficiency, but his emotions got in the way. He was never comfortable enough with his position, so he had to keep tightening and ratcheting the process until he had control of the whole thing. He wasn’t confident enough that his own ideas would prevail."
Bob Keough, the editor of CommonWealth magazine and a long-time State House observer, says Finneran’s need for total control is beginning to harm his record of genuine accomplishment. "Whether you agree with him or disagree with him, I think he’s been a masterful legislative leader," Keough says. "But over time, he now seems to be making enemies out of members for no good reason."
Indeed, so thoroughly established is Finneran’s record for settling every score that even members of the Massachusetts Senate — traditionally considered a more prestigious and powerful chamber than the House — dare not cross him.
"He’s a very vindictive guy, and I’ve got a lot of legislation in the pipeline and a lot of things I’d like to do for my constituents," says a senator who requests anonymity. "I do think senators watch what he does and try to stay out of his line of fire."
THERE IS, of course, another way of looking at Finneran’s Speakership. Under his rule, the House has run more efficiently — certainly when compared with the chaos of the Keverian era, a time when the very reforms that brought Keverian to power turned the institution into a morass of indecision.
Finneran’s social conservatism makes progressives chafe, but, though he does not support abortion rights, his House has not taken any significant measures to restrict a woman’s right to choose. His hostility toward gay and lesbian rights may come into play if, as expected, the state’s Supreme Judicial Court creates a right of same-sex marriage or civil unions when it renders a decision in the Goodridge case.
State Representative Paul Demakis, a Back Bay Democrat who’s aligned with the progressive bloc, argues that Finneran’s opposition to measures that would help lesbians and gay men is the single-most-important reason the state has not passed a domestic-partnership law, a proposal that he says has "broad support" among House members. "I think that area is the one where I am probably in strongest disagreement with him," says Demakis.
On the other hand, Finneran’s opposition to the death penalty is arguably responsible for capital punishment’s failure to make a comeback in Massachusetts. Several years ago, following the horrific kidnap-murder of a Cambridge boy named Jeffrey Curley, the House came within one vote of bringing back the death penalty. The narrow defeat was largely credited to — and blamed on — Finneran’s legislative maneuvering. Byron Rushing, who opposes capital punishment, concedes that sometimes substance trumps process, commenting, "None of the anti-death-penalty people complain about Finneran and how he handles that."
Finneran also deserves kudos for shepherding through last year’s $1.2 billion tax increase, taking heat that might otherwise have been directed at his members. Last November, the liberal political-advocacy group Citizens for Participation in Political Action placed a nonbinding referendum question on the ballot in 18 House districts directing legislators to vote against Finneran for Speaker. The question passed in all 18 districts. Perhaps some of those "no" votes were cast on the basis of Finneran’s public image as a power-monger; but surely some were an anti-tax statement as well. By letting himself become a lightning rod for voter anger, Finneran protected his members. That just 17 Democrats voted against his re-election as Speaker may have represented genuine affection and gratitude as much as it did fear of retribution.
Then, too, Finneran’s woes these days — what few there are — may be based on his longevity as much as they are on his leadership style. By January 2005, he will have served four full terms as Speaker, and would have had to step down if he hadn’t pushed for the repeal of term limits. During last fall’s gubernatorial campaign, there was talk that the Democratic candidate, Shannon O’Brien, would find Finneran a soft place to land if she were elected. That didn’t happen, obviously, and so it appears likely that Finneran will try to remain Speaker for some time to come. Recently he even had to shoot down rumors that he was getting ready to leave. People used to talk about his running for mayor someday, but Tom Menino seems unlikely to go anywhere for a long time. Finneran’s continued presence in the House, in itself, creates tensions, as ambitious members seeking to move up find themselves stymied not just by Finneran’s continued presence, but by that of his entire leadership team.
Nick Paleologos, the former state representative who admires Finneran, nevertheless warns that there are hazards in trying to stay too long. Paleologos speaks from experience: he participated in the coup against Tom McGee that resulted in George Keverian’s ascension in 1985. Says Paleologos of the restlessness over Finneran: "This has much less to do with the tyranny of one than it does with longevity simply taking its toll. People get restless. You can only have fun on the back bench for so long."
So where does the opposition to Finneran go from here? The opposition to his pay-raise bill, and to some other matters such as an insistence among House members that legal-aid funding be restored, demonstrates that Finneran can be defeated as long as Mitt Romney weighs in.
"I think the current state of opposition to Finneran is stronger than it’s ever been before," says Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts, which has opposed Finneran on issues such as Clean Elections and the pay raise.
Barbara Anderson, executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation, says Finneran’s record on issues such as freezing the voter-approved cut in the state income tax belies his reputation as a fiscal conservative. Of his defeat on the pay-raise bill, she remarks, "The members sensed that they had some power themselves, and maybe they liked it. I think now that he’s lost once, there’s certainly no way to hide the perception that maybe he could lose again. I think the earth has tilted a little bit on its axis."
But there are some problems with this. Getting the 54 votes necessary to sustain a gubernatorial veto is a lot easier than rounding up the 81 votes needed actually to defeat Finneran on a floor vote. And even the votes to override aren’t going to be there all that often: the staunchest anti-Finneran members are left-leaning Democrats and conservative Republicans, and obviously their interests don’t converge all that often. On process and reform issues, there may be some common ground. But on substance? Not likely.
"If you get down to philosophical issues, the Republican caucus doesn’t tend to share a lot of views with Byron and his group," says House Republican leader Brad Jones. "If we can’t bridge the gap on philosophy, the only time we can work together is on procedural stuff."
THIS FALL, Finneran will face another challenge. After the last round of redistricting, the Speaker and the House were hit with a federal lawsuit filed by several plaintiffs, including the voting-rights organization MassVOTE, the Boston-based Black Political Task Force, and the Latino advocacy group ¿Oiste?
According to George Pillsbury, MassVOTE’s policy director, 12 of Boston’s 17 House districts are majority-white under the Finneran-backed redistricting plan, even though the city is now only 50 percent white. Two, in Dorchester, are nearly all African-American — what Pillsbury calls "apartheid-style" districts. Finneran’s own district, long centered in the heavily minority community of Mattapan, has been stretched in the direction of mostly white Milton. "He saw the numbers on the wall. The black vote has gone up in the last two years," Pillsbury says.
In Chelsea, Pillsbury adds, Finneran passed up an opportunity to create a Chelsea–East Boston seat that would likely elect a Latino, instead keeping Chelsea united with mostly white Charlestown — thus protecting State Representative Eugene O’Flaherty, a Charlestown Democrat.
The lawsuit is scheduled to go to trial this November in US District Court.
Of course, it could turn out that the suit goes nowhere — just like the Byron Rushing challenge, just like the brief flurry of excitement generated over his retreat on the pay raises, just like the talk that this time he’d gone too far over Clean Elections, over term limits; hell, over the time he said he wasn’t going to give a tax break to "some fat-ass millionaire" looking to build a football stadium. His insistence that he wasn’t referring to Patriots owner Bob Kraft was undermined by the inconvenient truth that Kraft at that moment was getting ready to up and move to Hartford, Connecticut.
But you know what? Kraft stayed. Finneran’s stand saved the taxpayers a bundle. It worked out. It always does.
Until, one day, it doesn’t. Finneran’s reputation for total control has been tarnished this year, but he’s a long way from being finished. The questions now are simple ones. Can he change his ways? Will he eventually be pushed aside? Or will he do what he does best: crush the opposition, reward his friends, and continue his reign?
The thing is, though, that nothing lasts forever. Invincibility has a shelf life. Speakers such as John Thompson in the ’60s and Tom McGee in the ’80s were toppled. The most tyrannical Senate president of them all, Bill Bulger, got out while the getting was good — only to have his family’s demons catch up with him years later.
So, too, will the time come for Tom Finneran to leave. Surely he understands that as well as anyone. But when? And on his terms — or on those of an opposition that has finally grown too large and too angry for him to contain?