The Speaker Who Might Be Mayor

It was a harmless, if immodest, musing in his high-school alma mater’s alumni magazine that first cranked up the political rumor mill about Speaker of the House Thomas Finneran’s next career move. “I look at the different governors that I’ve known–Mike Dukakis, Ed King, Bill Weld, and Paul Cellucci. I’d be as good as or better than any of them,” he said in the Boston Latin School’s Fall 1998 publication. The Finneran-for-governor buzz soon became conventional wisdom, peaking last fall when he and Senate President Thomas Birmingham spent four months stalemated in their budget chess match.

But talk of Finneran’s gubernatorial ambitions has quieted down lately. Birmingham is walking the candidates’ walk–traveling the state, meeting local Democratic Party chieftains, and raising money–as is former Democratic National Committee chairman Steve Grossman. Tom Finneran isn’t, and for good reason. It’s unlikely that Finneran could win the Democratic nomination for governor, political analysts say. His staunch anti-abortion views, among other things, would hurt him with the Democratic faithful. But even if he could, somehow, become his party’s standard-bearer, he’d have an uphill climb in the general election, where voters statewide have historically balked at supporting big-shot Boston pols.

So what will Finneran do four years from now when, under House rules, he is term-limited out of the Speaker’s chair? After eight years running the show–if not the state–it’s hard to picture Finneran staying on as a back-bencher. And no one who knows Finneran, a man who enjoys power, imagines him retiring to his law office and his tomato garden at age 55.

It is still a slippery sort of rumor, but the quiet talk in the State House corridors has the Speaker running for mayor of Boston. So far, the talk is swirling around, rather than coming from, the putative candidate. “I’ve heard the rumor about the Speaker running for mayor of Boston,” says Democratic Rep. Jim Marzilli of Arlington, “but I’ve never heard him express any interest.”

Granted, Marzilli, a frequent critic of Finneran’s leadership style, doesn’t top the Speaker’s list of confidants. But to Boston politicos, interest in the mayoralty is a foregone conclusion–in Finneran’s case, almost a birthright. “Any politician who grew up in Boston would want to be mayor,” says former Boston city councilor Michael McCormack, who ten years ago mulled a run himself. “It has all the benefits of being governor without the burdens.”

Not even the wildest of these rumors has Finneran mounting a challenge to Mayor Thomas Menino in 2001, however. Menino’s favorability ratings are in excess of 60 percent and no incumbent mayor has lost a bid for re-election since the 75-year-old James Michael Curley, in 1949. McCormack, who is a friend of both Finneran and Menino, says, “I can tell you categorically, Tom Finneran would not run against Tom Menino next year. Having said that, however, Tom Menino is not going to be in that office forever.”

Still, the chatter so far is more that the Speaker ought to run for mayor than that he’s planning to. “There’s a difference between rumors that have a logic to them and rumors based in fact,” warns Rep. John Stefanini, a Framingham Democrat. A Finneran candidacy for mayor, he says, “is a logical conclusion people are drawing for two reasons: He’d be an excellent candidate, and people who don’t want him to run for governor want him to focus on something else.”

Indeed, it’s not at all clear that the Speaker is planning anything. So far, he has not even been willing to dignify the scuttlebutt with a denial. (Finneran declined to return numerous phone calls over the course of a month to discuss his political future.)

It may be that the Speaker simply doesn’t think that far ahead. “Tommy Finneran is not someone who has a grand scheme about his political future,” says one close friend and advisor. “It was the people around him who encouraged him to run for Speaker.” But with that encouragement, he ran–and has ruled–with gusto.

The qualities that analysts say would cripple Finneran in a statewide race–his opposition to abortion, his “Boston guy” image, his mouthiness–would be strengths in a mayoral contest. Democratic consultant Dan Payne says he believes Finneran “has a much better chance to win an open mayor’s race than he would even running against a wounded Cellucci.” Adds veteran pollster Tom Kiley: “There’s no question he could develop a populist-based, working-class appeal. He’s smart as a whip and a good urban campaigner.” In Finneran’s 22 years representing parts of Dorchester and Mattapan, some of the most racially and ethnically diverse neighborhoods in the city, this Irish-Catholic pol has never been seriously challenged for re-election. And his closest State House buddies-state reps Angelo Scaccia of Hyde Park, Sal DiMasi of the North End, and Kevin Fitzgerald of Mission Hill-make the core of a pretty fair citywide campaign organization.

Finneran’s “In the Giuliani mold…he has the personality of a mayor.”

Though Menino has not yet–formally–announced his candidacy for re-election next year, talk of the post-Menino era has already begun. Also mentioned as future mayoral hopefuls are Suffolk County District Attorney Ralph C. Martin II, state Sen. Stephen Lynch of South Boston, and former state representative (and current Menino housing guru) Charlotte Golar Richie of Dorchester. To some, the Finneran fit seems perfect, not only politically but personally. He has yet to assume a position in public life beyond his prodigious talents, and his strong Boston roots (he grew up in a South Boston housing project and the Lower Mills section of Dorchester), his attention to the details of government, and his willingness to shake things up are all qualities to be wished for in a Boston mayor.

“Given his style, which is really an executive’s style, the mayor’s job would be a good fit,” says Marzilli. One political insider compares Finneran to the most famous, if not necessarily most loved, mayor in America today: “He’s in the Giuliani mold, and I mean that as a compliment. He has the personality of a mayor.”

Meet the Author
It has been a long time since Boston has had a larger-than-life personality in the mayor’s office, and a big-city mayoralty, to a large extent, is about force of personality. There are few personalities in Massachusetts politics with more force than Tom Finneran’s.

Mark Leccese is a freelance writer and lecturer in journalism at Boston University.