The Speaker Who Believed in Democracy

Ask someone today, “Who is George Keverian?” and the typical response is a blank stare. Those who recall him at all might say he was the portly Speaker who presided over an out-of-control House of Representatives that bungled the state’s response to the fiscal crisis of 1989-90. But even among Massachusetts politicos, Keverian has faded into memory.

When last we saw him–those few who bothered to watch–it was around 3 a.m. on December 19, 1990. Defeated in a bitter Democratic primary for state treasurer, Keverian knew his political career was over, and he was presiding over the House for the final time. There was little to be done. By then, several rounds of budget cuts and two major income tax increases had not stopped the state’s flood of red ink. Weeks of futile efforts by lame ducks like himself to shape another cutback package ended in stalemate. With the holiday season approaching, members milled aimlessly through the corridors. Finally, Keverian threw in the towel. He thanked his loyal staff and his members, then said simply, “I’ll see ya around,” and turned the gavel to his successor, Charlie Flaherty. Keverian withdrew from the chamber, never to return to the House he loved so well.

With symbols of a Massachusetts Miracle gone bad such as Keverian and Gov. Michael Dukakis banished from the scene, the stage was set for bold and decisive action. Newly minted Gov. William Weld and a new House leadership team slayed the fiscal dragon and restored the Commonwealth to economic vitality.

Or so legend would have it. I have a different view, one based on my experience as a rank-and-file legislator during all six years of Keverian’s speakership. Indeed, I propose that the Everett lawmaker should properly be remembered as one of the Legislature’s most honorable leaders, and one of its most persistent and successful reformers.

My evidence: In the 1970s Keverian twice managed sweeping overhauls of House districts without political bloodshed, legislated early campaign-finance reforms, and established independent ethics oversight of public officials. In the 1980s he overthrew an autocratic House leader in the only upset of a sitting Speaker to date and ushered in rules reforms that empowered rank-and-file legislators at the expense of his own clout. And he stuck to those principles of legislative democracy under the most difficult circumstances imaginable, struggling to pass remedies to the fiscal crisis by means of persuasion, not intimidation. If the votes to do what was necessary were hard to come by, the fault lay not with Keverian, but with the members he led.

My view is a judgment rarely expressed in Massachusetts political circles. Last February, in a review of my book, Experiencing Politics, Brian Mooney of The Boston Globe quoted my assessment of Keverian as “a profile in courage” who “deserved better than he got.” Soon thereafter, I found this message on my answering machine: “John, this is your friend, George Keverian. Thanks for the only nice thing anyone has said about me in 10 years.”

A subsequent lunch with George at the Hilltop Steak House inspired me to write. My purpose in reviewing Keverian’s career is not only to rehabilitate the reputation of a gentle and decent man whose service to the Commonwealth has been distorted by selective political memory. It is also to remind today’s political leaders, at a time when the fiscal sky is darkening in a way that is all too reminiscent of 1989-90, of all that was lost in that painful budget crisis–not only the state’s fiscal credibility, but an impulse toward legislative reform that did not recover along with the economy or the state’s balance sheet. Massachusetts government could once again use a little of George Keverian’s faith in democracy.

A picture-perfect political start

George Keverian is the second son of Armenian immigrants who left Turkey prior to the 1915 genocide that left 1.5 million dead. His parents settled in Everett where his father, Nazar, took over Peter’s Shoe Repair on Nichols Street, leaving the store’s name unchanged, and his mother, Eliza, worked as a dressmaker out of the same home in which Keverian lives today. Valedictorian of Everett High School’s class of 1949, Keverian went to Tufts for two years, then transferred to Harvard, graduating magna cum laude in 1953, along with future Cardinal Bernard Law.

He dove right into politics. The unexpected retirement of all three of his home ward’s representatives to Everett’s Common Council, the lower house of the city’s bicameral government, gave him an opening. Still, with dozens of candidates in the race and a city dominated by Irish and Italian voters, the challenge for the the young Armenian was how to get noticed. With the help of his brother and Tufts classmate Richard Goodwin, later an aide to President John F. Kennedy, Keverian took photos of every house in the ward, then pasted each on a separate flier next to a picture of his own house. The flier read: “This is a picture of your home. This is my home. We are neighbors.” The trick got him noticed not just by voters who placed him first but by the Associated Press, which sent the story across the nation. Years later, Keverian would still be asked by constituents, “Why did you send a picture of my house to everyone in the ward?”

Though a star runner in high school, Keverian soon developed a weight problem that nearly kept him out of the military. He spent two years running an Army post office in Alaska, but that didn’t stop him from topping the Everett political ticket in 1955, an achievement that made the front page of the newspaper in Fairbanks. Re-elected in 1957 and 1959, Keverian moved up to the Board of Aldermen in 1965, then ran for state representative the following year. Through old-fashioned door knocking, Keverian defeated 16-year former mayor Philip Crowley to take one of the two seats representing the district. Keverian’s freshman class included future Speaker Charlie Flaherty, future Judiciary chairman Mike Flaherty from South Boston, longtime Milton legislator Joe Manning, and future Republican leader Charlie Mann from Hanson.

When Keverian took office in 1967, the House was a strikingly different institution than it is today, with 240 members instead of the current 160, more than half of them in districts represented by two or even three members. Most lawmakers had no staff or office, received minimal salaries, and served in a legislative session that rarely ran more than six months. Mann recalls a different culture, as well.

“It was impossible for leadership to please so many members, so we had a much more independent streak,”says Mann. “You had a real chance to win a bill on the floor, so you had lots of excellent debates that really meant something.”

Master of minutiae–and reform

But debating policy issues was not the way Keverian would make his mark in the House. He served a brief stint as vice chairman of the powerful Ways and Means committee in 1975, but fled the spot after six months. Rather, Keverian became the acknowledged master of governmental and legislative process. While others grappled with high-profile issues such as education, taxes, and health care, Keverian took on chores no one else in the House wanted but that affected every one of them.

While others grappled with high-profile issues, Keverian took on chores no one else in the House wanted.

Beginning with the very seats they occupied. In preparation for the 1974 elections, the House drew its own districts for the first time, the result of a 1970 constitutional change that took authority for redistricting away from the county commissioners. With political careers at stake–and, arguably, not much else–redistricting can be among the most divisive legislative issues. Behind closed doors, incumbents whine, cajole, demand, and threaten, all to obtain borders favorable to their re-election. And never more so than that year: The constitutional amendment also eliminated multiple-seat districts–57 at the time–so all those shared constituencies would have to be carved up.

House Speaker David Bartley chose rank-and-filer Keverian for the job, one he enthusiastically embraced. Keverian’s rationale for taking on such a thankless task was straightforward: “If you’re offered anything, take a tough job, ” Keverian explains. “If you fail, no one will blame you. If you succeed, you’ll make a name for yourself.” Keverian met with every member to hear their concerns, then started to draw, wielding the assortment of colored markers that would become his trademark.

“I started in Williamstown and moved from there,” he says. “One time I mistakenly left out Lunenberg and had to start all over.” It was tedious work, for which the consequences would all be his. “I did it all by myself, with no one looking over my shoulder,”he says. The “Keverian Plan,” as newspapers took to calling it, was accepted in the House by a vote of 202 to 26.

Keverian would face an even more perilous redistricting assignment four years later. After a push that began in 1965, the League of Women Voters won voter approval in 1974 for a constitutional amendment to shrink the House from 240 members to 160. The group reasoned that a less ungainly Legislature would be more professional and more accountable. The two-to-one vote gave the League its victory, and forced a 1978 redistricting that could only be a political bloodbath. The map drawn by Keverian, by now majority whip under House Speaker Thomas McGee of Lynn, pitted incumbents against one another in 74 districts. Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket threatened to secede over loss of their Islands-only district (New York, New Hampshire, and Maine all made offers). Peabody and Danvers were gerrymandered together to help leadership favorite Rep. Jack Murphy–a move Keverian regrets to this day. But carping in the State House hallways was muted, in part because Keverian’s map required both him and Speaker McGee to square off against fellow incumbents themselves. The plan was approved by a vote of 179 to 48, earning Keverian the approval of The Boston Globe for his “honesty and fairness.”

Redistricting was not the only way Keverian helped his fellow lawmakers face up to realities they considered distasteful. In response to a 1974 Common Cause ballot question, he crafted a campaign-finance reform plan that established the Office of Campaign and Political Finance, lowered the limit on donations to candidates from $3,000 to $1,000 per year, and increased reporting requirements. In the late 1970s, in response to another initiative petition, Keverian crafted the law establishing an independent State Ethics Commission. In 1983, he brought live television coverage to the House, expanding Rep. Nick Paleologos’s proposal to allow television cameras into the House chamber. McGee had declared that TV coverage of House proceedings would take place “over my dead body,” Paleologos remembers, and with the plan passing the House by just three votes, it’s clear that McGee could have killed it. “It was only because of George’s role that he didn’t,” says Paleologos.

Keverian never considered himself a crusader, but he found he had a talent for bridging the political culture gap between reformers and the old guard. “I could speak to a liberal group on their level, and then talk to McGee and his group in language comfortable to them,” he says. “I could bring folks together and work out a compromise. Never having a family of my own, I always wanted to be involved, to keep the peace, and to do good for the public.”

The Keverian coup

In May 1982, Keverian’s mother died, leaving him depressed and alone in his Everett home. But in the House, he had moved up to majority leader and was poised to take the final step to the top. Later that year, Speaker McGee, a gruff, cigar-chomping former Marine, promised Keverian he would step down during or at the end of the 1983-84 term. Either way he would retire as the longest-serving Speaker in the Commonwealth’s history and pave the path for Keverian, his second-in-command, to take his place.

“I was on cloud nine, finally seeing a result for my years of service,” says Keverian. But in the fall of 1983, McGee decided to stay put. As to Keverian’s ambitions, McGee told a Lynn reporter, “Let him wait.” To Keverian, who confronted him one evening in the Speaker’s office, McGee brusquely said, “Yeah, I changed my mind,” then asked him to preside over the next day’s informal session. After years of carrying out the institution’s most difficult and controversial chores, this effrontery pushed Keverian over the edge. “It seemed the harder I worked, the better the Legislature looked, and the less likely I would ever be Speaker,” he says. After a final confrontation on a windswept Revere Beach Parkway (immortalized by a Boston Globe photographer) on October 20, 1983, Keverian resolved to challenge McGee at the next election for Speaker, which would come on January 2, 1985.

After a set-to on Revere Beach, Keverian
vowed to oust Speaker McGee (right).

Once Keverian began signing members to confidential “pledge cards,” starting with Taxation Committee chairman Charlie Flaherty, the battle was joined. Stripped of their leadership posts and posh offices by McGee, Keverian and Flaherty took their campaign to all corners of the State House and the Commonwealth. Over 14 months, the House of Representatives waged bitter civil war, with every legislative issue colored by the leadership fight. But none more so than rules reform. Since the late 1970s a bipartisan coalition of roughly 40 legislators–including Democrats Phil Johnston of Marshfield and David Cohen of Newton and Republicans Andy Card of Holbrook and Andrew Natsios of Holliston–had fought unsuccessfully to reform House procedures to give more power and influence to rank-and-file members. (Outside reformers had gathered signatures for a proposed 1982 ballot initiative to reform legislative rules, but the Supreme Judicial Court struck down the question, declaring these self-imposed rules the sole prerogative of the Legislature. Their efforts were not futile, though, helping to fuel a public demand for legislative reform.) In his battle to unseat McGee, Keverian threw in his lot with these upstarts, dubbing himself a “born-again rules reformer.”

Though McGee tried to get in front of the rules-reform parade by proposing his own changes, the Democratic reformers went as a bloc to Keverian; after the 1984 primary, Keverian held commitments from 77 members and members-elect from both parties. As the Legislature convened in January 1985, McGee refused to concede, but Keverian won the Democratic caucus, 80 to 44, and was elected by the full House with 90 votes, the first–and so far only–upset of a sitting Speaker of the Massachusetts House in 357 years.

Open house

Although rules reform had become an integral component of Keverian’s campaign for Speaker, it was hard to know how committed Keverian was to legislative democracy, as opposed to using the issue as a wedge against McGee. For me, the answer came in December 1984, at a meeting for freshmen legislators-elect pledged to Keverian held in the office of Rep. Richard Voke, who would become Keverian’s chairman of Ways and Means. One proposed new rule required all bills held by the Committee on Bills in Third Reading–an obscure graveyard from which hundreds of bills never emerged–to be released to the full House after 45 days if not reported sooner. I asked George, “But aren’t there a lot of stinker bills that are better off left there rather than forcing floor debate on them?” His answer surprised me:”Yes, and that means members will have to do their jobs and vote on bills.” At that moment I realized he was serious about opening up the House.

As Speaker, Keverian made a series of changes, substantive and cosmetic, that empowered rank-and-file members in unprecedented ways. Besides automatic discharge of bills from third reading, rules changes included member ratification, by secret ballot, of all leadership appointments and chairmanships; a requirement that all appropriation and capital outlay bills be in print at least 10 days before floor consideration; a committee on personnel and administration to make staffing and office assignments, rather than leadership; and an eight-year term limit for Speaker. As to this last provision–repealed by the House membership last January–Keverian says, “It seemed important to me to have an orderly transition without repeating the civil war we had all just gone through.”

Keverian changed more than the formal rules. Under McGee, one had to travel through three outer offices to reach the Speaker’s inner sanctum. Keverian made the room just outside his office a kind of front door, openly welcoming members to drop by anytime for a cup of coffee from an ever-brewing pot. (Keverian’s successor, Charlie Flaherty, in a move that symbolized his style as a mid-point between Keverian and McGee’s, made visitors travel through two offices to reach his own.) In the new order, members–including freshmen–were encouraged to take leadership roles on policy issues, head up commissions, and challenge leaders. One former representative saw these informal changes as equally important: “It doesn’t matter what the rules say. A Speaker can get as much or as little power as he wants by the way he acts.”

In a way far different from today’s political environment, openness and accountability in the legislative arena was a public issue with traction. “I was overwhelmed with the changes he brought into the House–in style, in giving members confidence in themselves, and in providing an open atmosphere instead of settling everything in back rooms,” remembers Barbara Gray, a longtime Republican legislator who jumped to the Democratic Party in 1993.

“My mission was to respect the membership and the leadership,” says Keverian. “I believed that a 160-member House meant 160 members fully contributing. I wanted every chairman to be a star.”

Keverian’s “stars” came from a politically far-flung universe. Voke at Ways and Means, Cohen at Third Reading, Tom Finneran at Banks and Banking, Sal DiMasi at Judiciary, Nick Paleologos at Education, Steve Karol at Transportation, Bill Galvin at Government Regulation, Jack Flood at Taxation–these were an ideologically diverse lot. And each put his personal stamp on government policy. “Never once did George say to me, ‘This has to be in,'” Paleologos says of his work in education reform, the first major policy initiative of the Keverian era. “It was always, ‘Do what you think is best and make sure you keep in touch with me and your committee members.'”

Such respect for each chairman’s portfolio left Keverian open to the charge that he was a Speaker without an agenda. Keverian pleads guilty, and makes no apology. “I didn’t have an agenda,” he admits. “The agenda is the work of the Legislature. I wanted people to be known for the work they do, not me to be the one who dictates the process.” His six years were active policy years in education, health care, pension reform, criminal justice, housing, and more–but these are not the things Keverian chooses to remember. Indeed, he resists recounting the signal accomplishment of his speakership. “The question is how should the Legislature act and be responsive–if we produce less legislation, maybe that’s the way it should be.”

One former colleague sums up Keverian’s leadership philosophy this way: “If you give representatives the dignity, respect, and responsibility to which they are entitled as elected officials, they will measure up and do the right thing. When times were good, it worked well and unleashed a lot of creativity.”

Democracy comes undone

In 1989, however, times got bad–really bad–and Keverian’s model of leadership was put to the test. Three forces combined in the late 1980s to open a crater in the Commonwealth’s economy and in the state budget: The Cold War’s end shriveled the state’s defense industry; a computer sector led by high-tech dinosaurs Wang and Digital missed the PC revolution; and 1986 federal tax reform triggered the collapse of commercial real estate and an accompanying banking crisis. Beginning in mid-1988, each month brought lower state revenue estimates, a rising tide of red ink, and Wall Street threats to reduce the state’s credit rating to junk.

Two times–in July 1989 and July 1990–bare majorities of legislators performed their two most loathsome tasks, cutting the state budget and raising the income tax. And each time, getting there was torture. Because the constitution requires the House to take the lead on tax bills, House leaders had to come up with a package of tax increases and budget cuts that members–and ultimately, the Senate as well–would accept. This task was made more difficult by Keverian’s unwillingness to use brute political force. Traditionally, the price of a chairmanship–with its higher salary and influence over matters in the committee’s bailiwick–was the obligation to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with House leaders on issues they deemed of the utmost importance. But Keverian refused to discipline his chairmen who not only voted against his proposals but openly ridiculed them. Editorial writers who in 1985 praised Keverian’s willingness to accommodate dissent now criticized him for failing to punish dissenters.

But Keverian would not stoop to intimidation. Rather, he talked endlessly with members, keeping track of their shifting positions with his multicolored markers. There was nothing civil about the legislative democracy of those days, as members hurled insults and accusations at each other as their political careers faced extinction. On each of those tax votes–the 1989 bill passed 82 to 78, the 1990 bill 80 to 76–more than a dozen members of Keverian’s leadership team voted no. (Despite these agonies, in both years the state budget was enacted before the end of July. Perhaps democracy is not always less efficient.) Nonetheless, the measures passed, providing desperately needed revenue to help balance the state’s books. And the Speaker never broke with his principles about how a leader should function.

The hardest part of those final years for Keverian was his sharp betrayal by members he elevated to positions of privilege.

If only the same could be said of the members he served. In the heady years of his speakership, Keverian often referred to the House as “my family.” If so, it was the most dysfunctional family one can imagine. Indeed, the hardest part of those final years for Keverian was his sharp betrayal by members he elevated to positions of responsibility and privilege. At his wake-like concession party in September 1990, after he lost the Democratic primary for state treasurer to then-Rep. Bill Galvin, only one legislator, David Cohen, bothered to show up.

The truth was that Keverian’s House was not a “family.” It was more like an unruly high school where participants come and go, relationships are fragile and transitory, and true friends are few and far between. Unfortunately, it was a lesson George Keverian learned a day late and a dollar short.

Today, George Keverian sits in a spartan office in Everett City Hall, the part-time chairman of the city’s Board of Assessors, with plenty of opportunity to use those multicolored markers. His decency and wit are as evident as they were years ago. (One time introducing Gov. Dukakis, whom he often teased, George offered some cost-saving advice on the Big Dig: “If you would talk to the Central Artery the way you talk to us, it would slowly depress itself.” To which someone in the audience added, “Yeah, and then he can bore the Third Harbor Tunnel.”)

Keverian has stayed away from the State House since the day he stepped down from the rostrum for the last time. His key partners from those days–Flaherty, Voke, former Senate president William Bulger–all parted with him on the coldest of terms, and he has no desire to bump into any of them at the kind of ceremonial occasions that might draw him back to Beacon Hill. Avoidance has become habit, and his involvement in Everett and Armenian community affairs is sufficient to keep him engaged.

Happily, the city of Everett has begun to take public and justifiable pride in one of its most admirable and honorable sons. A new elementary school now under construction will be named for him this year. Last year, the public hearing room in Everett City Hall was dedicated in his honor. Only three former House colleagues were invited to the ceremony: Cohen; Rep. Bob Correia from Fall River, his former majority whip; and current House Speaker Tom Finneran, who delivered cordial remarks. Keverian speaks fondly of Finneran: “I adore Tom as a friend. He’s one of the most decent people I’ve met in my life.”

Still, their styles of leadership could not be more different. Finneran often declares that it is his memory of the fiscal crisis of 1989-90 that guides him as Speaker, and it is hard not to think that it is the unbridled democracy of those times as much as the fiscal indiscipline that he seeks to avoid under his leadership. Even though Keverian paid the price for letting the House fall into disarray, the sadder but wiser former Speaker does not hide his disapproval of today’s State House culture, which has reduced representative government to the tripartite rule of House Speaker, Senate president, and governor.

“We should not allow a triumvirate to have all the power to run the state,” says Keverian. “There are 160 members of the House and 40 members of the Senate, each elected by the same population of voters. Each of them deserves a substantive role.”

Meet the Author

Keverian’s disappearance from the public spotlight is our loss more than his. More than we recognize, his story holds meaning for the rest of us, especially the dwindling numbers of Massachusetts residents who pay serious attention to public affairs. “At the end of the day, he suffered because democracy in real life is a big, ugly mess while autocracy is efficient,” says Nick Paleologos. “Democracy undid him, but along the way, he accomplished some truly great things.”

John McDonough, an associate professor at the Heller School at Brandeis, served in the House from 1985 to 1997.