With Senate President Tom Birmingham

Thomas Birmingham, in the regal office of the Senate President, says he feels like the proverbial kid who shows up for dessert. He gets to enjoy the delicacies–in this case his tasteful surroundings–without having labored through the main course.

Sen. Birmingham has risen quickly in the Senate. He became chairman of the education committee shortly after his election in 1990. Along with former Rep. Mark Roosevelt in the House, Birmingham was instrumental in the passage of the 1993 education reform law. Former Senate President William Bulger appointed Birmingham to lead the powerful Ways and Means Committee in 1993. When Bulger stepped down last year after 17 years in power, Birmingham leapfrogged Senate Majority Leader Louis Bertonazzi to become the new Senate President.

Educated at Harvard and Oxford, he graduated from Harvard Law School in 1978. Now 47, Birmingham begins his second year of presiding over the institution Bulger did so much to shape. He spoke with CommonWealth editor Dave Denison in the second week of January, in the Senate President’s office on the third floor of the State House. What follows is an edited transcript of their conversation.

CommonWealth: I wanted to start off by asking your general perspective on how things have changed up here. We have a new, or somewhat new, Senate President, and a somewhat new House Speaker, so that’s a changing of the guard. How have things changed, and how are they changing?

Birmingham: I succeeded a legend in the person of William Bulger, who is both a mentor and a friend. And it’s hard to make contrasts between my tenure and his, because I don’t think there’s a person in public life about whom there was a greater disparity between the real person and the public image than William Bulger. That being said, there are differences which are perhaps more generational and attitudinal than political or philosophical. Temperamentally I’m more open with people, such as [the press], and more willing to articulate publicly the position of the Senate. Bulger had many reasons, many of them good, for his reticence with the press, but I think he would admit that he paid a cost for it, and to a certain extent the Senate paid a cost as well. In an era such as we’re now living in where it’s fashionable to decry what government cannot do, I think it is important for those who believe in the positive things that government can do to improve the real lives of working-class and middle-class people, to tell those stories, to tell them loudly and clearly.

I’m not naive. I don’t soon await the day when a grateful populace will carry legislative leaders on their shoulders around the Boston Common. It’s the nature of a legislative institution that we appear to be, because we are, disagreeing–often about matters of deeply held principle. But I think one of my responsibilities is to tell the good news stories where we have done things which have positively effected change in the lives of ordinary people. Like we did when we passed the minimum wage increase. Like we did when we increased health care access to over 130,000 previously uninsured kids. Like we did in education reform.

CommonWealth: You talk about one of the differences between you as Senate President and your predecessor. Can you give us a specific sense of how things may work differently as far as running the Senate–the way that you want to exercise power, and the way that he exercised power?

Birmingham: It’s very difficult to talk about it because, I think, most of your readers will have a preconceived notion about how Bulger ran the Senate which is at odds with the reality. Bulger was not the autocrat or the dictator that most people have heard about, at least not in my tenure. And we served five years together. It had been my experience that the caucus determined the agenda of the Democrats on virtually every issue. So there’s an awkwardness in drawing the distinction because it seems to play into the stereotypical view. But I do believe that the caucus ought to be the final arbiter of the majority party’s position. There will be some issues where it is preposterous to believe that there can be a party position: the death penalty, choice, things of this sort. There will be individuals who are good Democrats, I’m sure, who will disagree. But I think there is a core of largely economic issues where we can coalesce in support of our broad middle-class and working-class constituencies.

In terms of running the Senate I have offered the [committee] chairs as much authority as they want, commensurate with their willingness to accept responsibility for their actions. So it is both a promise and a challenge to the members that I am strongly predisposed to support them in their initiatives if they’re willing to both roll up their sleeves and do the work and then take the responsibility to do the conscientious, and sometimes politically controversial, thing.

CommonWealth: Are you a New Democrat or an old Democrat?

Birmingham: I’m not sure what you mean by those terms. On economic issues, I would put myself in the progressive wing of the Democratic Party.

CommonWealth: There’s this wing now that calls themselves New Democrats.

Birmingham: Yeah. I know. I’ve also been the chair of Ways and Means. And amongst my prouder accomplishments as a legislator is the production of three state budgets that have been balanced without new taxes, and in which we have forwarded important, progressive initiatives. So I think if the question is meant the way I may be understanding it, I think it is vitally important for Democrats to demonstrate not just by their rhetoric but by their actions that they will be fiscally conservative, in the sense that we will not spend a single penny that we don’t have. At the same time, that is not inconsistent with defining a progressive legislative agenda that supports working and middle-class people–whether it’s the minimum wage or health care or education reform, or let’s say the assault weapon ban, when you talk about crime control measures. I don’t think the two are dichotomous or in any way inconsistent. Ultimately a budget is about values and not about dollars. We have been very explicit about what our values have been, in support of major expansions in areas such as I mentioned, and in terms of affirmative budgetary cuts. For instance, I take either full blame or responsibility for gutting the lottery advertising budget. We were spending over 12 million dollars a year encouraging our own people to place what statistically is a sucker’s bet.

“We were spending $12 million dollars a year encouraging people to place a sucker’s bet.”

CommonWealth: Do you ever play the lottery?

Birmingham: Oh sure.

CommonWealth: You do?

Birmingham: Oh yeah. I am not moralistic about gambling. And it might come as a shock to your readers but where I grew up in Chelsea, even before there was a lottery, people actually did gamble. And I think people will gamble whether it’s legal, or illegal, whether it’s in Massachusetts or not, and I’d go even further and say for most people it’s a fairly benign recreational activity. I don’t think it’s an act of moral turpitude to put a dollar on the lottery and fantasize for a few days as to what you would do if you won millions of dollars.

CommonWealth: That makes it sound like you wouldn’t have much objection to a bill coming through the Senate that would open up Massachusetts to casino gambling.

Birmingham: Well, we can talk about that. I think it ought to be analyzed as any other economic development project. But I think what I mean to sound like is to say I don’t have an a priori, philosophical, moralistic opposition to gambling, or to the state receiving revenue from gambling. I think however there is an absolutely intellectually defensible distinction between tolerating gambling–and that debate as far as the state is concerned was decided decades ago when we went into the lottery–and affirmatively encouraging with public dollars people to place what are almost guaranteed to be losing bets.

CommonWealth: In the early days of education reform, and I’m thinking back to ’92, before it passed in ’93, there was a bit of discussion that you were involved in about Proposition 2 1/2 perhaps being an impediment to getting localities spending the right amount. Do you still have strong feelings that perhaps somewhere down the line, especially if inflation goes back up again, that some of those 2 1/2 restrictions have to be relaxed?

Birmingham: Proposition 2 1/2 is a serious constraint on what municipalities can do, not only in terms of education but in terms of public safety and the other services that are provided. Proposition 2 1/2 is not a sacred cow to me, although if there is a sacred cow on Beacon Hill that’s probably it. I have supported changes to Proposition 2 1/2, some of which seems to be fundamentally irrational. Having said that, I think that one of the problems that public education in Massachusetts faced was its excessive reliance on the local property tax, which produced the grossest disparities in investment in our kids’ education, based simply on the accident of place of birth, so that property-rich communities making a lesser effort could produce something on the order of $10,000 per child per year to educate their kids, whereas communities with a poorer infrastructure making the same or greater effort might produce only $3,000 per child per year. And in those circumstances, to pretend that we were providing anything approaching educational opportunity was just short of fraudulent. So one of the beauties of the Education Reform Act is that by doubling state investment in education we begin to move away from what I thought to be the excessive reliance on the local property tax.

CommonWealth: I’m curious about what you think about the way the press covers the Legislature these days.

Birmingham: You know, personally, I have very, very few complaints about the way the press has dealt with me. By and large, with some exceptions, I think that they are fair and honest. There is a tendency, a pressure, to highlight disagreement, and I suppose that must sell papers, or it’s easy to frame the issues as some sort of boxing match. That is an occasional source of frustration. One year we passed a budget in about 18 hours of debate, with very few matters really contested. And that wasn’t because we broke peoples’ arms or we muzzled them. It was because the process of developing the budget was very inclusive, and as chair of Ways and Means I’m not so thick-headed that if 24 members suggest to me that some initiative is important, I’m not going to be responsive to that. So we produced a budget, with the strong input of each and every member that met with broad agreement and little controversy on the floor of the Senate. I think our major debate, and this is no joke, was about whether we should ban voice mail in state government. That was the most controversial issue in the budget. And that was covered as though it were the death penalty. Because it was a dispute. And Senator X said this, and Senator Y said this, and it went back and forth. About voice mail! That’s an extreme example, but sometimes I think the temptation to focus on conflict renders the coverage almost without a context.

CommonWealth: I’m thinking also, though, of something like the Globe Spotlight series in ’95 that so memorably showed legislators socializing with lobbyists on faraway beaches. That had an effect.

Birmingham: Oh, sure. Sure.

CommonWealth: On the public perception, and on what followed.

Birmingham: Sure. I think it reinforced the most cynical views that the public has as to what we do.

CommonWealth: The upshot of that kind of coverage, as you know, is that something is rotten up here. What I notice is that among the critics on the outside there is again emerging the sense that one of the major problems that has to be dealt with is the effect of money, special interest money, that supposedly corrupts the process up here. Do you think that’s a fallacy?

Birmingham: It’s not a fallacy, but it’s a half-truth. I would draw the distinction more between the organized versus the unorganized than the monied versus the non-monied. There’s something in the process–it’s not new–that small, well-organized groups will bring pressure to bear on legislators, and their interests may not coincide with the public interest. The public interest is very diffuse, it’s very disorganized. And small well-organized groups can have a disproportionate impact. Machiavelli actually talked about this in The Prince, where he said the reformer comes in and he faces well-organized passionate defenders of the status quo and has as his own allies only the lukewarm, generalized population. And even though that population may vastly outnumber the well-organized, it doesn’t mean you’re necessarily going to win the fight.

“The public interest is very diffuse; it’s very disorganized.”

I’ll give you one almost macabre example in the last term. There was a bill to allow families of people who wanted to be cremated to rent rather than to purchase coffins. This was against the financial interest of funeral directors. It seemed almost self-evidently to be in the general public interest. But [it affected] a very diffuse public who probably doesn’t want to think much about how they’re going to dispose of [their] remains. Anyway, we passed that bill. But that was a real fight. And it was because the funeral directors–and I’m not meaning to single them out as the bad guys of state government, I’m picking kind of an extreme example–the funeral directors had a big self-interest in the issue; they’re well-organized and, by definition, they’re everywhere. The general public was just kind of out there. That’s just one example, but I draw it in that extreme way because I think it is illustrative of the way things work. And I think that’s much more important than the money issue.

CommonWealth: Let’s take another variation of that. Your background is as a labor attorney. Do you perceive that strong business interests have an easier time getting their issues taken seriously up here than, for example, labor unions?

Birmingham: That’s been my experience over the past few years, yeah. And I don’t want to sound anti-business. I think some of the initiatives we’ve taken have been entirely positive. Some of the tax cuts we’ve passed, you know, the Raytheon [cut] there was a plausible case to be made. But we have been exceedingly responsive to the needs of business. And that has been a revelation to me. Because when I came here I was told–and these were like apocryphal stories in the distant misty past–about the cultural chasm which separated business from the politicians, if you will. I’ve seen scant, if any, evidence of that. To the contrary, I’ve seen a strong predisposition to accommodate, whenever it’s remotely reasonable, the needs of business. Raytheon was one example. But we’ve done a billion dollars in tax cuts since I’ve been in office, and the lion’s share of those have gone to business. I think we have succeeded in changing the notion that Massachusetts is unfriendly to business, and more particularly, that the Legislature is antipathetic to business interests. I think there’s been a good spirit of cooperation between business and legislators, and I hope it will continue. But there are limits. Because the other things that make Massachusetts an attractive place to do business, our infrastructure, our educational systems, will eventually be compromised, will eventually be impinged upon if we continue to go down the road of infinite breaks for business. You know, some of my friends in the Republican Party, and some of the business interests, often talk as though we were merely an economy and not a society. But we’re more than an economy. We are a society with mutual rights and obligations, and I think the role of government is much more exalted than simply being the infrequent arbiter between those trying to cut the best deal for themselves.

CommonWealth: What do you hate most in politics?

Birmingham: I love this business. I go to sleep at night, and can’t wait to wake up and come in to work the next day. I’m not a good fundraiser, and I don’t relish it. It’s the nature of the enterprise to do it, but it’s the least palatable, I suppose.

CommonWealth: I guess it’s no secret that you’re looking at the Congressional seat that could open up if Congressman Joe Kennedy runs for governor. To the extent that people around here believe that, does it hurt your ability to run the Senate smoothly, keep people in line, if they think you’re going to be gone soon?

Birmingham: No, it has not. Look. Most people around here recognize that any politician who tells you he doesn’t even consider moving on to a different or perhaps higher position is probably not telling you the truth. I, however, just was elected president of the Senate, that was the only election I was focusing on, and although this sounds corny, I believe the way one advances in politics is doing the best job one can in the position one is in. I’m not suggesting life is fair and everything will always work out the way one wants it to, but the way I do my job is the only thing I have control over. And that’s what I try to focus on, and I hope that whatever I decide things will work out, but this is a business that is highly contingent on the decisions of other people.

CommonWealth: Would you like to go to Congress, though, at some point?

Birmingham: I’m in a great position now. And some might argue that it is not even a lateral transfer to go to Congress. On the other hand, Congress deals with national and international issues and that has a certain attraction. There are also important family issues in my case. My kids are 14 and 11 years old. And although I have a crazy schedule, I took my kids to school this morning, I go to their hockey games, I go to their dance recitals, we go to the movies together, we go to the theater together, we go to sports events together. I’m a presence. I’m here. That’s an important factor in the equation I’m going to have to weigh.

CommonWealth: Do you think the specter of term limits is already beginning to play into people’s decisions in this respect?

Birmingham: Sure. I mean, just look what’s happening with regard to the constitutional officers. I think several of them have made it fairly clear that they would not be seeking different positions but for the fact that term limits required them to do so. So it’s having an effect.

CommonWealth: Is that a good thing?

Birmingham: It’s mixed. I am not a term limits supporter. I think people should ultimately have the right to decide who they want to send to whatever office they want to send them to. [But] there are great advantages to incumbency, and even more subtly and perhaps insidiously, the longer one is around there is a danger that you become kind of a Gulliver tied down by 10,000 Lilliputian strings–connections, ties that you’ve developed, not sinisterly, but quite naturally with people who you’ve been with for 20 years. I’m blessed in that regard. I’ve only been in office for six years. I have sometimes consciously tried to insulate myself from those types of entangling alliances. So like any other serious issue about which there’s controversy, it’s not black and white. There are certain positives that one can reasonably point to about term limits. I think on measure, it’s a very bad idea.

CommonWealth: We haven’t said anything about the governor, who I think you once described as exceptionally intelligent, and also I think you once used the word “goofy.”

Birmingham: Yeah. I stand by both. Maybe I should say I was half right: He’s goofy.

CommonWealth: Can you imagine him serving another term as governor?

Birmingham: I could imagine it. I mean, he’s nothing if not unpredictable. I said just the other day, had he announced on New Year’s Eve he was quitting I wouldn’t have been shocked, and if he announced on New Year’s Day he’s definitely running for a third term I wouldn’t have been shocked by that either. I’d guess, though, the odds are against it; but he’s mercurial.

CommonWealth: But you work with him close enough to know what his interest in the job is, or seems to be. Do you get the impression that he maybe is bored with it?

Birmingham: I’ve always had that impression, so that’s not a change. And all joking aside, that’s one of the most endearing parts of Weld’s personality. It’s also a damning part. He brings a real arms-length kind of gamesmanlike perspective to the business of state government, which can be infuriating when you want him to put his shoulder to the wheel and push us out of the rut. Because his follow-through is not his forte. On the other hand, that kind of Brahmin, cavalier attitude means that you can negotiate with him, you can reach compromises with him on virtually everything, with the exception of his unequivocal no-new-tax pledge. Which I don’t even know whether that’s principled or political. With the exception of that, there’s nothing you can’t discuss and try to find some common ground with him on.

Weld brings a “gamesmanlike perspective to state government.”
Meet the Author

Dave Denison

Founding Editor, CommonWealth magazine
CommonWealth: He took a lot of credit during the [U.S. Senate] campaign for things that have gone on up here, and projected the image that he was the one kind of whipping the Legislature into shape. I get the feeling from the House Speaker that there’s a little resentment there from him taking credit for things the Legislature has done.

Birmingham: I can’t speak for the Speaker. I don’t personally feel resentment. I think it’s inherent in the governor’s position that good things that occur on his watch will inure to his credit. I don’t think it’s particular to Weld; I think it’s just inherent. At the same time, I would say that over the past few years the agenda has been driven by the Legislature, not alone with regard to education reform but to balanced budgets. Two of our biggest initiatives last year were the expansion of health care to uninsured kids, which we did by passing a tax increase. We did that by overriding the governor’s veto. Increasing the minimum wage we did by overriding the governor’s veto. I think if you were to look at the state budget, and if you were to do a DNA test the paternity would be unmistakably legislative and not executive.