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Democracy Under Construction

Mike Hall

While construction continues on the exterior of Massachusetts’s crumbling State House, legislators and lobbyists continue to destroy the building from the inside. Every new story brings word of another day of destruction, led by House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran, Boston’s leading demolitions expert. Finneran is not destroying the pillars that physically support the building, though. Instead, he’s toppling the few remaining pillars of democracy which support what little legitimacy is left in Massachusetts state government.

Finneran’s path to power began out of similar destruction in April 1996, shortly after former speaker Charles F. Flaherty, in standard Massachusetts style, left office after pleading guilty to a tax felony. After Flaherty’s corruption, Bay Staters were looking for a breath of fresh air. Finneran offered an escape from the political cronyism that beset Flaherty and his predecessors. Unlike Flaherty, he was elected by a bipartisan coalition, which he maintained during his first four years in office.

As his term entered its halfway point, however, Finneran began to show the anti-democratic tendencies which plagued prior speakers. He began in January by proposing changes to the rules governing the way the House did its business. Among those changes was a rule requiring a lawmaker to propose cuts in the state budget equivalent to any of his or her proposed spending increases. For example, a proposed $1 million increase in public works spending would have to be counterbalanced by a $1 million cut in welfare spending. While appearing fiscally sound, the proposal actually would consolidate control over budget matters in the Ways and Means Committee, the committee that Finneran chaired before becoming speaker.

Finneran’s quest for control would only get worse the following day. A proposal to abolish the eight-year term limit on House speakers began to “float” on the House floor. If the amendment passed, Finneran could easily retain control of the speakership for the foreseeable future, a move which would counteract the clean government desired by Massachusetts residents.

Publicly, Finneran opposed the proposal, for fear of the public interpreting it as a power grab. But after the proposal passed over Finneran’s “objections,” the speaker’s true feelings became apparent. Within days, legislators who voted for the proposal were rewarded with choice committee appointments and accompanying pay raises, while those who voted against it were removed from the best committees.

Among those receiving the best assignments was social conservative John Rogers, a Norwood Democrat who spoke passionately against term limits during floor debate on the proposal. Rogers was rewarded for his blind obedience to the speaker with the coveted chairmanship of the Ways and Means Committee, the same committee which Finneran had placed under his thumb just days before.

Meanwhile, Finneran evicted opponents like Marblehead Democrat Douglas W. Petersen, the now-former chairman of the Natural Resources and Agriculture Committee. Petersen had been a longtime supporter of Finneran, but balked when the speaker asked him to sign on to the leadership’s proposal to water down the Clean Elections Law, which sets up a mechanism for public financing of campaigns.

“If the speaker is going to make me vote against my integrity and principles, he can take this chairmanship and shove it,” Petersen said to The Boston Globe.

While Petersen’s sentiments are understandable, they do little to counteract Finneran’s attempt to seize the House. Those who aligned with Finneran earned the speaker’s temporary affection. Perhaps the opportunity to snag a $7,500 pay raise and a bigger corner office is enough to sway the most well-intentioned representative. But even that lure can’t blind them to the fact that Finneran, like a scheming castaway on Survivor, makes and breaks alliances at will, just to keep himself on top. If any of Finneran’s new friends raise their voices once, they risk the same punishment that he gave to his old friends like Petersen.

Even more troubling than Finneran’s power play is Rogers’s ascension to the throne. The new Ways and Means chair has been identified by most Boston media as Finneran’s heir. It’s dangerous enough to have a sycophant in any position of power -- after all, how will he speak for himself when his lips are permanently affixed to his predecessor’s backside? -- but it’s even more dangerous when that sycophant brings a conservative social agenda to the table. Rogers has repeatedly professed social views which run counter to those of most Bay Staters. He opposes abortion rights, supports school vouchers, and has sponsored legislation which would uphold the “sanctity of marriage” by limiting the sacrament to heterosexual couples only. And now, this man and his controversial views are just a heartbeat away.

The House’s foundation of democracy is starting to shake. The people of Massachusetts need to wise up and fix it before it crumbles.