Tom Finneran is in control

A GOOD POLITICIAN learns to make the most of what he has. One thing Thomas Finneran has is intensity in the eyes. His gaze can convey anger even when he is holding his anger in check. Watching Finneran, you get the sense that a major source of his power as a politician is his cold hard stare–“the ice face,” as one legislator calls it. Then, as he moves among his fellow members of the House of Representatives, you see that he’s got something else, as well: a rollicking, head-thrown-back laugh. His eyes light up and the laugh seems to come from down deep. It moves in instants right up his spine and then into the noisy chamber. He is clapping somebody on the back. The somebody, often a legislative nobody, is left standing tall as Tom Finneran, the Speaker of the House, makes his way to the rostrum.

For most of the 160 members of the House, even the block of 29 Republicans, laughing and backslapping with Finneran is vastly more rewarding than opposing him and having to meet his hard stare. Every Speaker starts out with a built-in power advantage over other House members, but Finneran is the type who wants to be seen as earning it in his own right. He wants to win people over, sometimes as Patton–but sometimes as Tip O’Neill.

By the time a new session of the Legislature began this year, it seemed that he had. He had come to power in a close vote last spring, but when the House was called into session to swear in new members and elect its Speaker on January 1, Finneran had only token Republican opposition. As family, friends, and lobbyists watched from a crowded gallery, the name of Thomas M. Finneran filled the House chamber 256 times, as 128 Democrats stood one by one and announced their choice, and House Clerk Robert MacQueen sonorously repeated each vote. In a symbolic show of party division, there were 29 votes also announced for David M. Peters, the Republicans’ floor leader.

Almost audible, but only if one listened with imagination, was another name: Richard A. Voke. Last spring, the majority of Democrats had called out the name of Rep. Voke of Chelsea to be the next Speaker. But Finneran, who was seen as the more conservative Democrat, had lined up the Republicans to swing the election his way. He had weathered a continuing resistance from some Voke supporters through the end of the last session, and by the end of the year Voke had given up his seat to return to the practice of law. Now, hoping to start with a clean slate, the former Voke supporters put themselves on record for Finneran. By charm or by muscle, he had won them over.

Finneran, 46, is arguably the most ambitious House Speaker Massachusetts has seen since O’Neill left Beacon Hill for Congress in 1952. But his is an unusual kind of ambition. It’s not difficult to imagine him running for higher office, perhaps even for governor, some day. That’s not the unusual part. What’s different about the hopes and dreams of Thomas Finneran is this: He wants to lift up the Legislature. He is on a mission to bring a new order to the House, to make the place run, or at least appear to run, as a modern, businesslike, ethical, and productive institution, and thus to refurbish the tarnished image of the Great and General Court of Massachusetts.

There are many who would call this a quixotic mission. This is, after all, the Legislature that, in a lame-duck session a little more than two years ago, created a public outcry by giving itself a whopping pay raise. And Tom Finneran was the one who secretly tinkered with the legislation to make it almost impossible for voters to repeal it. It was only last year that the previous Speaker of the House, Charles Flaherty, resigned after pleading guilty to a felony tax charge. The House was then wracked with rancor as Finneran came to power in a fight that divided the Democratic Party down the middle.

When Finneran was elected Speaker on April 9 last year, he said, “I would ask the members to reflect on our public image, and the need to bring about the diligent rehabilitation of that image.” Since then, Finneran has labored steadily to give the public the impression that the Legislature is not the den of self-interest and special interest they’ve heard so much about. The day he was re-elected in January he laid out four principles that the House was to abide by during his tenure: integrity, civility, truthfulness, and strength “to build up, not to tear down.” He has not yet draped the “Under New Management” banner over the House chamber, but that is the message he has in mind.

Old ways

The Speaker’s office is on the third floor of the State House, and is connected by a hidden passageway to the House chamber. It is a spacious room that gets west sunlight, with walls of rich hand-carved wood. On the four walls are 74 portraits of former Speakers. There is a fireplace, a blue painted ceiling with a many-tentacled brass chandelier, a large, glass-topped (and uncluttered) desk, and a couch and two plush chairs arranged around a coffee table. In an interview, Finneran can be almost overwhelmingly voluble. His mind is full of policy details and legislative initiatives, as well as justifications for the Legislature’s actions, or his actions, seemingly stretching back over the 19 years he’s been in the House. We were well into a discussion, at a recent meeting, of his priorities for this year’s session, when a call from his daughter came through. “This is the only priority call,” he said as he went to his desk to talk.

I had been trying to figure out who Finneran was reminding me of. He has a way of cocking his head slightly, especially when he makes a stern statement, that is reminiscent of Reagan, but he is not otherwise Reaganesque. He gives the impression of being tightly wound. He greets people with a strong swinging handshake, and sometimes gives a sharp salute when taking leave. He has the eyes and eyebrows, and the thin Roman nose, of Charlton Heston. He has a muscular face, with cheekbones that become prominent with even a hint of a smile. He also has a small build, a Friar Tuck haircut, and a quite obviously bald forehead–all of which pretty much eliminate the Charlton Heston effect.

“I wrote you two letters this morning,” I heard Finneran tell his daughter, Kelley, who is a sophomore at Holy Cross College in Worcester. Naturally, I assumed he meant he sent her two electronic messages. But I looked again around the office. There was no computer. When he got off the phone, I asked him about the letters. He said he makes a practice of writing a letter to his daughter, in longhand, just about every morning. He confessed that he does not know how to use a computer. “I am technologically illiterate and, honestly, technologically intimidated, as well,” he said. “I know I’ll get to it one of these days, but I’ve been able to sort of hold my own with my little pen and paper.”

Finneran makes a habit of dropping handwritten notes and letters to his colleagues, as well. Some legislators keep Finneran’s letters, written with a graceful blue-ink flourish, almost as mementos that could be an important part of the historical record. But Finneran professes an intention to someday use electronic mail. “I owe myself some lessons and some time, to at least begin to converse” and here he pauses to laugh at the idea, “using the medium everybody seems to use these days, everybody but me.”

The still-present past

Citizens outside of Finneran’s Boston legislative district would probably have a hard time recognizing the House Speaker if they met him on the street. To those who read the newspapers closely he is known as the guy who is always throwing cold water on various high-stakes spending projects, such as a new stadium for the New England Patriots or a new convention center for Boston. He has aggressively cultivated the image of a fiscal tightwad, unwilling to commit public money for projects he believes should be privately financed.

Some may also know him as the politician who won the unusually bitter power struggle last spring at the State House. When Finneran talks about that political drama now, you can sense a tension within him. Though he has resolved time and again to put the acrimony of that period behind him, it doesn’t take much to see that it is close to the surface, still a little raw, still something he turns over in his mind.

Finneran broke some unwritten rules last April. By tradition, the leader of the majority party is thought to be next in line for the Speakership. When it became apparent that Charles Flaherty would resign his office due to legal troubles, Majority Leader Richard Voke was ready to step up. But Finneran’s end-run surprised Voke, and many Democrats. Some in the block of Voke loyalists thought Finneran had sold out his party for his own ambitions. They wondered if he had struck a deal with the Republican governor in exchange for Republican support.

When Finneran is asked now about his motivations, his lengthy explanation begins with the parliamentary particulars. But his perspective on the events, as with many of his political opinions, derives from what he saw in the depths of the 1991 recession in Massachusetts.

Voke had been chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, which writes the state budget, in the waning days of the Dukakis administration. Finneran was appointed to take over in 1991, just as the budget crisis was at its worst. Finneran contends the Ways and Means Committee under Voke was “a disaster area.” The state budget was not coming to terms with the realities of the recession. “The Commonwealth was in wreckage,” Finneran recalled.”How do you go from having the best credit rating in the nation to having the worst, in four years? How does that happen?”

Running the Ways and Means Committee, Finneran said, means “19 times out of 20 you’re saying no” to spending requests. The problem with Voke, as Finneran would have it, was a tendency to over-promise, and an unwillingness to say no. “The curious thing is, honestly, Richie Voke and I are both very conservative people fiscally. Richie was acting in a different way. Very conservative person–very wealthy person. He’s made an awful lot of money. He has a great respect for the bottom line in his own life–no respect for the bottom line in public life.”

As with most hotly contested issues in the legislative realm, it is easy to find a different version of history. Though Voke was seen as the liberal and Finneran as the conservative, anti-tax activist Barbara Anderson had warm things to say about Voke during the Speaker’s fight. (Voke himself declined to return several phone calls.) Anderson contended Voke was the better steward of the public’s money, partly because he resisted moves to weaken Proposition 2 1/2, the limitation on property taxes. Finneran has been more willing to support tax increases to keep budgets in balance, and has not been averse to changing some provisions of Prop. 2 1/2. Anderson recalls Voke’s tenure at Ways and Means for its openness. In contrast, “the minute Finneran moved in, everything shut down,” she said.

On the other hand, the leading liberal in the Legislature at the time, former Senator Patricia McGovern applauds Finneran’s work during 1991 and 1992. “He did some very gutsy things in those two years,” said McGovern, who as chairwoman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, worked closely with Finneran to resolve budget differences. As the state budget was hemorrhaging, Finneran was not then, and has not been since, afraid to suggest that entitlement programs had to be changed. “That took a great deal of courage,” McGovern said.

Finneran’s stinginess with public money, and a hard line on welfare spending that continued into recent years, were two of the leading factors that led most liberals to back Voke for Speaker. Another factor was fear. In a body that has always given the Speaker a powerful gavel, some feared that Finneran would rule with too strong a hand. His tenure at Ways and Means suggested the possibilities. But a few members who consider themselves strong progressives supported Finneran. Rep. Charlotte Golar Richie, a second-term Democrat from Dorchester, was one. Richie concedes that her support was based, in part, on common urban interests–her district in Boston is next door to Finneran’s. And she has her differences with Finneran on social issues. But what she found encouraging is “that he’ s not an ideologue.” McGovern also saw an open mindedness, noting that when Finneran came into the Legislature he favored capital punishment, but has gradually moved to the other side. Said Richie, “That’s a beautiful example of someone who was able to say ‘I was wrong on that one. I’ve changed my mind.'”

Old friends

Not many who knew Tommy Finneran as he grew up would have guessed he would become one of the state’s top political leaders. Born in East Boston in 1951, the fourth of seven children of Mary and William Finneran, he lived his first seven years in a South Boston public housing development. His family moved to the Lower Mills section of Dorchester after that, where he lived until he got married. From seventh grade through high school, he attended Boston Latin School, where he played center on the football team, though he weighed little more than 150 pounds as a senior.

His friend Larry DiCara said because the young Finneran was pigeonholed as an athlete “people sometimes underestimated how extraordinarily bright he was.” Not putting too fine a point on it, DiCara said, “I think there’s a bias sometimes that people don’t want to believe Irish and Italian folks from blue-collar neighborhoods who play football are smart.”

Nor did Finneran show an early interest in politics. It was DiCara, now a Boston attorney, who was elected senior class president, with Finneran’s support, and who was elected to the Boston City Council five years later. “Tom was not viewed as a political person–I was,” DiCara said.

Finneran worked for a year after high school in his father’s business cleaning rugs and upholstery, and saving enough money to start college the next year at Northeastern University, a short trolley ride away. Of his days studying business and finance at Northeastern, Finneran says “I wasn’t particularly focused in life–had no idea what to do.” Then in his last year of college, his older brother Bobby casually suggested that he take the law school and business school aptitude tests. “I took them and did so well in each that people told me that I could probably get into Harvard Law School or Harvard Business School if I wanted to,” he recalled. “I got rejected at Harvard and Yale law school fairly quickly,” Finneran continued, breaking out into a loud burst of laughter. “Very, very quickly.” He was accepted to Boston College Law School in 1974.

Finneran admits he had a fun-loving side in college. “I wasn’t taking off across country with the Devils’ Disciples, nor was I doing a kind of Woodstock epiphany. I think anybody who grows up has sort of a period of rebellion, but my rebellion was maybe staying out a little later than I should, or maybe having two too many beers.”

I asked him about a story that has been around the State House about him skiing naked down a nearby mountain in his younger days. Finneran again let loose with a laugh. “We had a race,” he admitted. “It was a group of guys. We were in on a chalet. We were crazy, we truly were crazy, in that regard, you know what I mean. You bring the flask of wine for the day, and a couple of beers or something like that, and you do crazy things. I think it was at the end of the year, and we decided we were going to have a race, top to bottom, bare-assed.”

The story got out because one day a few years ago at the State House Finneran bumped into Charles Henderson, who was at the time the head of the State Police. Turned out Henderson had been skiing on the same mountain many years ago. “He said, ‘I remember you. You skied from the top of Attitash Mountain to the bottom, bare-assed, one day.'” Finneran recalled. “I said, ‘O.K., Colonel. You and I are going to have a talk,'” and they quickly ducked into an office, leaving a gaggle of legislators standing in the hallway.

Tension in the house

At B.C. Law, Finneran began to show his intellectual talent. But he did not get off to a fast start. Just as he was to start his first year, he found himself dealing with a family crisis. His father and mother were at the point of separation–his father wanted to move to the Cape and take his business with him. Finneran took a yearlong leave of absence from law school so he could keep the rug cleaning business going and provide a means of support for his mother. His younger brother Paul was eventually able to take over the business and has kept it going since.

Finneran refers to his parents’ divorce as “the break.” Though he speaks about it in a matter-of-fact way, there is a puzzlement that is evident as he tries to understand the events that led up to it. “I can’t describe my father other than this: He was one of the most articulate, talkative, conversational guys you could ever meet in your life. But he’d have these episodes. I mean, he could be very charming and conversational and pleasant to be around for days, weeks, sometimes even months. And something, whatever it is… I still couldn’t even begin to describe it. Smallest thing in the world. It’d throw him off, and he would go into, almost, these periods of silence. Like, kind of, like a sulk almost. Like the world was… I just can’t even begin to describe it. And when we were younger these periods were more explosive. There was a tension in the house. There was always a tension in the house, even during the good days. When’s dad gonna go off? When’s he gonna explode? And then when he exploded there was tension, because it was like literally walking on eggshells.”

I asked him about his own temper. “Oh, I have the flash of temper sometimes,” he said. “I have it very much under control. Probably now better than 98 percent of the time. I had a terrible temper growing up. I started to get rid of it, probably around 14, 15, 16 years old. But I still had it. And it’s still there. But having children, serving in the legislature, starting a business, just growing up and maturing generally gets rid of it.”

The family difficulties didn’t allow for much frivolity as Finneran made his way through law school. As well, he married young. He met Donna Kelley, a Dorchester girl, in 1973 at a political reception for then-Rep. Brian Donnelly, and they married while he was in his first year at B.C. By the time he graduated in 1978, his first daughter had been born, and he received his diploma with Kelley in his arms.

Absorbed in his work and family life, Finneran had little time left for friends, both at Northeastern and B.C. Asked about people who knew him in college, he thought for a while and came up empty. “The friendships are friendships, but they’re not… I mean, literally I could give you a half dozen names. I don’t even know where they are. Don’t even know where they are at this point. Haven’t seen them for 20-something years.”

The contrast between Finneran and his predecessor Charles Flaherty is a much noted change at the State House. Flaherty was tagged “Good Time Charlie” by detractors in the press, and what set in motion the federal investigation that brought him down was newspaper accounts of his vacations and relationships with various longtime friends who also happened to be lobbyists.

By all accounts, Finneran avoids the social circuit and prefers to vacation with his wife and daughters. He grants that there are lobbyists he knows well. “I don’t socialize with them,” he said. “I don’t dine with them, I don’t drink with them.” Even the legislators he works closely with are hesitant to call themselves friends of Finneran. “Tommy and I have always hit it off,” said Doug Peterson, who was one of several legislators who accompanied the Finnerans on a trip to Israel in October. But it’s not exactly that they are friends, he said. “We’re friendly,” he amended.

Finneran doesn’t seem to mind keeping his distance. “A lot of people think I’m, notwithstanding that I’m a public figure, they think I’m sort of a mystery figure–that nobody ever really knows me.”

Hard times

Finneran won his seat in the Legislature as soon as he was out of law school in 1978. At 27, he was elected to represent the ethnically diverse and racially mixed 15th Suffolk district, which includes parts of Dorchester and Mattapan, south of Boston. His political strength was tested early. When he was up for re-election in 1980, a candidate emerged who had the backing of Boston Mayor Kevin White. Finneran had first pledged his support to White in the mayor’s race and then switched to David Finnegan. “Kevin tried everything that he could, and unleashed the whole machine against me, to try to rub me out and make an example of me,” Finneran said. Newspaper reports from the time portray a bitter campaign in which Finneran made an issue out of his opponent’s lack of a high school degree. His opponent, James Gregory Kelley, tried to portray Finneran as a tool of the banking community. In the end, it wasn’t close: Finneran won by a 3-1 margin.

Two years later, Finneran had another challenge: He faced Robert C. Johnson, Jr., a well-regarded black professional from Hyde Park, in the Democratic primary. It was a test of whether a white Irish Catholic could maintain the seat in a district that was at least half minority. Finneran again won easily. He has had no well-known opponents since then, and customarily wins with 88 or 90 percent of the vote.

Finneran retains support among the sizeable African-American community in his district partly because he has not bailed out of the Mattapan neighborhood he has lived in since the 1970s. “He stays in the area. And I think that is significant,” said Paul Parks, a former chairman of the Boston School Committee who lives not far away. Parks said Finneran has been a key player in getting an abandoned hospital site in Mattapan redeveloped. “I call him and within 24 hours he’s on the phone. That’s the way he is. He’s always done it,” Parks said.

Charles Walker, who attended law school with Finneran, points to a straightforwardness that helps Finneran bridge the racial gap. Walker, who is now the chairman of the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, remembers Finneran drawing him into a conversation early on in law school about integration and busing. Finneran was “resentful about the forced aspects of busing,” Walker recalled, and was adamant that the people in South Boston, the people he grew up with, were not as narrow as some in the media made them out to be. What Walker, who is black, remembers is that Finneran was engaging without being offensive. “Some people are very patronizing when they talk about race to me. But Tommy was very sincere,” he said.

Finneran’s political bearings are still set by the outlooks of working-class Dorchester and South Boston, though he has prospered financially as the law firm he set up shortly after entering the Legislature has grown. He has reported at least $100,000 a year in income from the firm in recent years. He now earns a salary of $81,410 as Speaker, and owns a home on the Cape.

In recent years, Finneran has taken a leading role in attacking a welfare system that he believes has not emphasized individual responsibility and the value of work. Before last year’s federal welfare reforms passed Congress, the Massachusetts Legislature anticipated the debate. As chairman of Ways and Means in 1994, Finneran pushed a bill to cut back on state welfare spending and to put a limit on family benefits. The bill had strong opposition from the liberals in the House, but Finneran swayed the debate. In a 40-minute extemporaneous speech, he returned time and again to the problem of out-of-wedlock births and the “sin” of parents bringing children into the world who they are not prepared to support. At one point in his speech, he spoke more personally than he had ever spoken in front of the House. “I grew up in a housing project,” he said. “My father was self-employed, cleaning rugs on his hands and knees. I put myself through high school and college doing that. I have two children. I can do it tomorrow. I can clean rugs and upholster furniture I think better than anybody in this Commonwealth, and if that’s how I have to provide for my children, beginning tomorrow I’ll do it.”

Since Massachusetts made comprehensive changes in welfare policy, Congress has gone even further, eliminating a key element that had been built into national policy since the New Deal: the notion that any American in poverty was entitled to government assistance. Now states are free to make policy decisions that don’t presume a “right” to a welfare benefit. I asked Finneran if he was bothered by the course welfare reform has taken. “I don’t think it’s an error to eliminate the entitlement,” he said. “I don’t think there should be an entitlement in any budget, anywhere. I just don’t think citizens have an entitlement claim against their government. The government can, if it chooses, provide certain benefits and certain programs, but that should be a matter of choice, not statutory obligation.”

You can hear in Finneran’s answer the besieged chairman of the Ways and Means Committee talking again, feeling the pressures of having to cut the state budget in the throes of a recession, with noisy social spending advocates all around, protesting, demonstrating, accusing him of heartlessness. Finneran’s political bearings were set by those experiences. It was a time of unprecedented cutbacks: $200 million came out of local aid in 1991… there were 20 percent cuts in the budgets of mental health and mental retardation agencies…. He believes if the Legislature had acted with “discipline” earlier it wouldn’t have been so painful.

But recession is the ultimate enemy. It increases the demands on government while decreasing its means. Finneran’s instinct is to avoid ambitious social spending commitments and to do nothing that could be seen as hurting the business climate. His years at Ways and Means made him exceedingly cautious, almost a Professor Gradgrind, and have prevented him from joining with his party in traditionally progressive impulses.

The most telling example is the 1993 education reform law. A measure to reverse the extreme disparities between rich and poor school districts, the bill called for a doubling of state spending on public schools over seven years. As the bill was pushed by former Rep. Mark Roosevelt and Sen. Thomas Birmingham and shepherded through the House by Speaker Flaherty, Finneran was nearly paralyzed by the idea of committing such vast resources to education. When the bill finally came to a vote, Finneran took a pass, unable to come out for it or against it.

Now, as Speaker, Finneran ranks the continued funding and implementation of education reform as one of his top priorities. Having missed the moment for bold vision, he is nonetheless comfortable as a steward of the progressives’ handiwork.

His use of power

“You are the members; the power resides in you,” Finneran told the House when he was elected Speaker last spring. It was a stock line, of the sort used by every Speaker who feels the occasional need to present himself as the mere tool of the people’s representatives.

There is in the House a group of skeptics who expect Finneran to preside over a tightly controlled institution in which the membership has less power than ever. Most refuse to say so publicly, out of fear of being perceived as hostile to the Speaker. Privately, they point to Finneran’s closed style as a committee chairman. “He’s one of the most controlling persons I’ve ever met,” said one legislator.

“He’s a control freak,” said another legislator who described the atmosphere last session as “suffocating.” Finneran’s chief House critic, Rep. Christopher Hodgkins, a liberal Democrat from Lee, describes the Speaker’s use of his power last year as “mercurial.” Hodgkins portrays Finneran as a leader who brooks no opposition. “There’s not one thing Mr. Finneran doesn’t take personally, whether it’s a rules challenge or anything else,” Hodgkins said.

Former Rep. Susan Schur, a Democrat from Newton who served on the Ways and Means Committee under Finneran, said his style was to avoid delegation and to hoard information. “It was a very tightly held shop,” she said. “The decisions were handed to you.” Schur said she expects little change in the House as long as members remain cowed by the leadership. “I like Tom Finneran; he’s a nice guy,” she said. “But they’re still afraid of him.”

“I was very hierarchical at Ways and Means, I’d be the first to admit,” Finneran conceded. “It was a one-man show.” The idea that the budget emergencies of 1991 and 1992 could be dealt with in any other way is beyond him. “To have 20 people sit around a conference table on a Saturday morning discussing this line item in social services was going to take two hours,” he said. “When I had to make an intelligent decision in two minutes. And then to move on to the next one, and make an equally intelligent decision. And boom, boom, boom. And so in the end, I’ll be the first to admit it was a one-man show down there for the first two, closer to three years.”

But what balance between leadership and inclusion does he hope to strike as Speaker? Loyal Voke supporters such as Hodgkins tested Finneran throughout last year’s session, which ended on a tense note on July 31. As Finneran worked furiously to move his priority bills through on the last day, Hodgkins and an ally, Rep. Joe McIntyre of New Bedford, attempted to speak from the floor. “Mistah Speakah!” they called out, as Finneran ignored them. In a test of wills, McIntyre and Hodgkins bellowed louder and louder, while Finneran refused to recognize them. It was a break in decorum that had even the old-timers in the press gallery looking on with amazement.

By autumn, Hodgkins was ready to engineer a rebellion that would challenge Finneran’s re-election as Speaker at the start of the new session in January. In a November interview, Hodgkins told me that there was a block of “23 solid folks who are very disappointed in the way the House is directed.” There was even talk of a contested Speaker’s election.

But Finneran was already moving to ensure his re-election. One by one, he called in Democratic members of the House. He asked each one if he could count on their support. Almost all the former Voke supporters were happy to get a chance to join the winning team. Even Rep. McIntyre, who some saw as a potential challenger to Finneran, requested a meeting and gave his commitment. In a matter of weeks, the Hodgkins rebellion was down to one member: Hodgkins himself. Hodgkins was the only Democrat to withhold his support, voting present, when Finneran was re-elected.

Two weeks later, Finneran consolidated his power. He pushed through rules changes that created several new committees–and allowed him to appoint more of his allies to positions that pay $7,500 in addition to the base legislative salary of $46,410. He had left a few well-regarded Voke supporters as committee leaders last spring, but not this time. When Finneran assigned new committee chairs January 16, not a single Voke supporter was kept on.

Finneran’s ethics

In the weeks before his re-election, Finneran had won over the membership without breaking a sweat. He has a track record, as well, of friendly relations with the press. Almost alone among legislators, Finneran even gets kid-glove treatment from Boston Herald columnist Howie Carr, who specializes in character attacks. But there has been one wrinkle. Last fall, the Boston Globe raised questions about how Finneran mixes business with politics. The Globe found two examples of votes Finneran took in the Legislature that could be seen to overlap with the business interests of his Boston law practice.

In one instance, Finneran had voted in a closed-door conference committee to continue the existence of an insurance association that also was a client of Finneran’s firm. Shortly after this disclosure, Rep. Hodgkins filed a complaint with the House ethics committee. The matter was investigated and quietly dismissed in December. Finneran told the Globe in September that he was dropping his partnership in the firm to avoid further appearances of conflict. He confirmed in January that he has given up the partnership and now serves in an “of counsel” capacity with the firm. He expects his outside income to decline. “I’m probably going to lose income as a result of being elected Speaker,” he said.

Finneran has made honesty and integrity the watchwords in his drive to improve the image of the Legislature. He knows the whole game is lost if serious conflict-of-interest charges continue to come up in the press. As long as he is seen by House members and the press as someone who does not let personal gain color his views of the public interest, he ought to be safe. And yet, as the Charles Flaherty case showed, ethics inquisitions sometimes take on a life of their own. At the heart of the matter is a simple question: Is Finneran who he says he is?

Few, if any, of Finneran’s critics believe he is unethical. Some, however, do not believe he has a record of candor. I pressed him on one specific example tied to the ethics questions. Referring to his law firm, Finneran told the Globe in 1995 “We are scrupulous about refusing anyone who has business before the state as regards regulatory matters, rate setting, corporate mergers.” And yet among the companies listed in the Martindale-Hubbell law directory as clients of Finneran’s firm are: Arbella Mutual Insurance Co. of Quincy; Commerce Insurance Co. of Webster; Plymouth Rock Assurance Corp. of Boston; several banks; and the Liquor Liability Joint Underwriters Association of Massachusetts, which is the association he voted to extend the life of in 1993.

Among these, Commerce Insurance has been especially involved with decisions in front of state government. Finneran’s explanation is lawyerly. “We don’t represent Commerce,” he said; the firm represents individuals who are insured by Commerce, should they need representation. This is business the insurance company sends to the law firm, but Finneran said the key point is that neither he, nor anyone in his firm, goes before a state agency, or the Legislature, representing the company directly. The fact that companies his firm has had dealings with also are affected by legislation is something that cannot be avoided, he said. “There are hundreds of bills, I’m sure, if somebody wants to examine the record, that Commerce and the insurance companies are interested in, or that banks are interested in, that directly–on my watch down at [the] banking [committee] or at Ways and Means–that never went anywhere. If I wanted to push them or promote them I could have. I chose not to. Because I can separate it.”

His triumph

A week after Finneran was re-elected as Speaker, he called the House into session and delivered a speech grandly entitled “The Speaker’s Address to the Citizens of the Commonwealth.” His ambitions were once again the talk of the Legislature. It was the first time in anyone’s memory the Speaker of the Massachusetts House began the session by publicly laying out an agenda and timetable for the session. It was certainly the first time a Speaker had set up TelePrompTers to make a speech to the membership. Finneran was, in effect, giving a State of the State address in advance of the governor’s annual State of the State.

The Speaker described the legislation he wished the House to consider over the coming months. And again he spoke of the need to make integrity “the cornerstone of all our actions and decisions. The public interest must always be paramount to private interests.”

His carefully measured, 40-minute address was without a touch of humor or frivolity. He stuck to common-sense, middle-class themes–policies and proposals that would play perfectly well in the blue-collar neighborhoods of Dorchester. Toward the end he said, “This is a noble enterprise in which we are engaged.” It was the kind of line that goes unheard. Just a politician speaking. But Finneran has come far enough from the streets of Dorchester that he actually seems to believe it.

“I think the integrity of the institution means a great deal to him,” said Rep. Dan Bosley, a North Adams Democrat. “He says things sometimes that people think sound hokey. But he really means it.”

Meet the Author

Dave Denison

Founding Editor, CommonWealth magazine
Can he get the public to believe it? The challenge is fraught with complications. To be seen outside the State House as a clean-it-up politician, Finneran’s best hope is to tighten his control over the House: If he doesn’t keep the trains running on time he will jeopardize the ambitious legislative agenda he set before the House. But as he clamps down, he risks being portrayed in the press as an old-style, iron-fisted Speaker, and perhaps even risks a revolt from Democrats who opposed him last year.

Which is why Tom Finneran, at this point in his career, is a man to watch. What you see when you watch him at work is a political leader who doesn’t want sweeping reform, yet wants the appearance of reform. You see a man who wants representative democracy to work, but not to suffer from an excess of democracy. He is a study in power, and the techniques of power. He is someone who knows that the successful politician in any contested arena is a man of many faces.