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Finneran's Iron Fist

Michael J. Ring

The year was 1996, the speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives was Charles Flaherty, and his majority leader and expected heir apparent was Richard Voke, a liberal Democrat from working-class Chelsea.

When the feds came calling for Speaker Flaherty on tax and ethics charges, Richie Voke had most Democratic representatives lined up with him. The speakership, it seemed, was all but his.

But as any student of Massachusetts politics knows, it ain't over till it's over. And when the vote to replace Charlie Flaherty was taken, his loyal servant, poor Richie Voke, had been reduced to a backbencher, soon to be up and out of the General Court. At the rostrum was a new speaker elected under the most unlikely of circumstances, one Thomas M. Finneran of Mattapan.

While Voke had won the support of most liberals and mainstream Democrats, Finneran forged an unusual alliance to win the Speaker's gavel. He led a coalition of conservative Democrats and Republicans in his fight for the chair, getting the Republican minority to support him instead of nominating their own sacrificial lamb candidate. This Democratic speaker was elected on Republican votes. Voke allies soon found themselves out of plum committee chairs and assignments, and some soon left the legislature altogether.

For the past three years Finneran has been known as the Man with the Iron Fist on Beacon Hill. Any piece of legislation that gets passed must go through him. Indifferent to political and public opinion, he wields nearly absolute power over a body largely submissive to his demands.

In the last legislative session, however, as a minimum wage increase, an ATM surcharge ban, and HMO reform died in the House, the backbenchers began to get restless. And in this new legislative session there are signs of a liberal resurgence and revolt on Beacon Hill a sign that progressives are mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.

Recently, a group of House liberals and a Republican caucus becoming increasingly disenchanted with the man they elected speaker united to attempt to loosen Finneran's choking grasp on the rules process. Their rebellion failed and Finneran actually emerged with more power than before. And many of the liberal dissidents, such as Lexington's Jay Kaufman, Peabody's John Slattery, and Arlington's Jim Marzilli soon found themselves shipped off to the Federal Financial Assistance Committee, an obscure body currently debating such momentous legislation as whether to institute year-round daylight savings time in the Commonwealth.

Is this democracy or dictatorship? Are those residents who elect legislators at odds with Finneran entitled to a little representation? Or are they second-class citizens to be crushed by the Man with the Iron Fist?

The reforms sought by the backbenchers were anything but radical. Their main demands were to restrict the use of graveyard committees and to draft a fairer debating structure. The disenchanted House members were simply looking for a little infusion of democracy.

With a firm grasp on the loyalty of the House's moderate and conservative Democrats, Finneran was destined to succeed in quashing the rules rebellion. Still, it is promising that a group of rank-and-file members would stand up to this speaker and fight for their causes and their rights as members.

This odd coalition of liberals and Republicans will need to speak and speak loudly in this legislative session. The speaker has set his sights on two-year budgeting, by which the legislature would only need to pass one budget per session. At first glance, this idea may be appealing: Proponents such as Finneran could argue it cuts down on acrimony and partisan battle.

But sometimes a little donnybrook is just what the legislature needs to pass something substantive. Each and every member should have ample opportunity to scrutinize the budget and suggest amendments or changes. Without such an opportunity, the governor and a small group of powerful legislators can easily cut a backroom deal and bang the budget through on a fast gavel. With $20 billion being budgeted per annum by this state, anything but a slow and deliberate democratic process in approving the budget is inexcusable.

Admittedly, Speaker Finneran has done a very good job in administering the House and should be admired for his refusal to cave in to public pressure. But like Jefferson, I like a little rebellion now and then to give our democratic institutions a shot in the arm. Judging from his recent behavior, I think Mr. Speaker may need a large dosage of that medicine.