The Speaker succession well never see
When the state House of Representatives voted in January to scrap the eight-year limit on the Speaker’s position, lawmakers came under blistering attack for summarily jettisoning the one true check on the exercise of unlimited leadership power. But if the move had newspaper editorialists and government watchdog types in a tizzy, many legislators seemed to suggest the commotion was much ado about nothing.
Perhaps that’s because so few lawmakers had personal memory of the bloody battle that gave rise to the Speaker term-limit in the first place–a repeat of which that limit was intended to avoid. Just 17 of the current 158 House members were in office in 1985 to experience the legendary McGee-Keverian leadership showdown. And of those, just two–Democrats Byron Rushing of Boston and Philip Travis of Rehoboth–joined the small bloc of 39 legislators who voted this year to retain the eight-year rule.
It was in January 1985 that well over a year of nearly nonstop State House warfare came to an end, when Speaker Thomas McGee was toppled from power by his one-time deputy, George Keverian of Everett. McGee, a pugnacious Lynn Democrat, had ruled the House with an iron fist for nine-and-a-half years, the longest reign of a Speaker in state history. Keverian had served loyally as his majority leader–until, according to Keverian, McGee broke a 1983 pledge to step down, a move that would have paved the way for the portly Everett lawmaker’s ascent to the Speaker’s post. Their rift set off a 16-month battle for control of the House. “I think people on both sides felt it ruined the session,” says Rushing, recalling the chaos that enveloped his freshman term.
Once Keverian assumed power, the rules reformers were suddenly part of the House leadership. And the eight-year limit on the Speaker’s chair was one of their reforms.
Rushing says the restriction was intended not only to prevent run-on rule, but also to “regularize” the process of leadership succession. Although the rule didn’t guarantee eight years at the rostrum (Speakers are elected by House members for two-year terms), it meant that any Speaker elected to a fourth term would be serving his last. That would undoubtedly set off jockeying for the powerful post, but nothing like an insurgent candidate conniving to depose a sitting Speaker, who would have the means to retaliate against the conspirators of any failed coup.
As it happened, the eight-year rule was never put to the test. Keverian gave up the post during his third term to mount an unsuccessful bid for state treasurer in 1990. His successor, Charles Flaherty, resigned during his third term, in 1996, after pleading guilty to tax evasion charges. Then came current Speaker Thomas Finneran, who has been spared the limit only halfway to reaching it.
Rushing says his biggest regret is that we’ll never know whether the reformers’ plan for orderly succession would have been an improvement, in practice, over festering-dissent-followed-by-revolt as the alternative to voluntary abdication.
“Shouldn’t we see if it works before we change it?” Rushing asks–rhetorically, at this point.The danger now for the House, of course, is that those who haven’t learned from the McGee-Keverian history may be doomed to repeat it. But that scenario may not come to pass, at least when it comes to the Speaker the Boston Herald dubbed “King Tom.” One line of thinking is that Finneran wants to hold the post for just one year beyond the eight-year mark, in order to run for mayor of Boston in 2005 from his powerful and prominent perch. If so, the House may well be spared the agony of a palace coup to end his reign.
But that, like so much else on his tightly run ship, will be up to the Speaker.