WHAT EVER GAVE RICHIE VOKE THE IDEA that the speakership of the Massachusetts House of Representatives is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Democratic Party? For a couple of centuries, speakers have been elected by a majority of House members, but all of a sudden the gentleman from Charlestown insists that that isn't the way it's meant to work at all: It isn't the House that should decide who becomes the next House speaker, it's the Democratic caucus.
Indeed, declared Voke on Monday, it's the Democratic caucus that should decide -- everything. "The agenda of this House of Representatives in the foreseeable future is going to be driven by the Democratic Party through its caucus and through its members," he vowed.
This was by way of explaining why he, not House Ways and Means Chairman Thomas Finneran, should succeed the disgraced Charles Flaherty as the next House speaker -- even though a majority of the House wants Finneran in the job. Voke's argument, if that's the right word for something so flabby, boils down to the fact that some of Finneran's supporters are (gasp!) Republicans. Some folks might consider a speaker of the House who enjoyed bipartisan support to be an improvement over the customary arrogance of one-party rule. But not Richie Voke. In his view, any Democrat who would accept Republican votes in a bid to become speaker is a disgrace.
"Today Mr. Finneran released a list of 34 Republican members to constitute a majority," Voke all but spat. "I have never seen that before. I don't think that's the type of way a legislative body should be governed." Really? So why were Voke's lieutenants, right up through Monday morning, feverishly lobbying Republicans for their votes? At least five GOP representatives were urged to switch their support from Finneran to Voke. None did. So Voke called a press conference, proclaimed himself "the Democratic standard-bearer," and warned of dire days to come if the next speaker depends on Republican votes. Hypocrisy, thy name is Richie.
Of course, if Democrats really don't want their colleagues across the aisle to be kingmakers, they have an easy solution: A majority of them should get behind Finneran now. Among other benefits, that would end the fighting within their own party before it escalates to civil war. On Tuesday, Democrat Eric Turkington of Falmouth crossed over to the Voke camp for just that reason. "I think the worst thing to do is drag it out," he said.
And speaking of dragging things out, what possible reason can there still be for Flaherty - now a convicted felon -- to remain in office until summer? The idea that he has to stay on as speaker until the budget debate concludes so as to spare the House "a lengthy succession battle" never made much sense, since the longer he remained, the more protracted the battle would be. Now even that excuse is gone. The battle for the speakership has come to full boil. It is ready to be voted on -- today. If Flaherty truly cares about the welfare of the House, he will vacate the chair and resign his seat. Not until he leaves can the healing, as Finneran puts it, begin.
In the mouths of most politicians, calls to "let the healing begin" is just so much palaver. But Tom Finneran is a legislator of uncommon heart and integrity; from him, a call for peace rings true. He is (usually) a square shooter and (always) a man of virtue. That is why most of his colleagues, including virtually every member of the opposing party, want him for their next speaker.
Republicans do not, as a rule, sing Democrats' praises. But to a person, Republicans in the House acclaim Finneran as fair, honest, upfront.
"Tell you the truth," says Minority Leader Ed Teague of Yarmouth, who is leaving Beacon Hill to run for Congress, "Tommy Finneran is solid as a rock. He's more ethical and moral than I am. I'll go out of here feeling great for knowing that one of the three key people in the state -- the speaker of the House -- is a sober, honest, legitimate, decent guy."
Kevin Poirier, the veteran North Attleboro representative, was asked Tuesday why Republicans lined up en masse behind Finneran. "Tommy's a great guy; that's the foremost reason." And what is the GOP getting from the future speaker in exchange for its support? "Nothing. Honest to God, there's no deal. Not one of our members even asked for anything. It's just having faith in a good person."
This is no Boy Scout they're talking about. Finneran isn't Mother Teresa or Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. He has thrown his share of parliamentary fastballs. It was he who secretly attached the legislative pay raise to an unrepealable appropriations bill in 1994, for example. It was he who just killed the proposed tax cuts in the '97 budget. And it will be he -- because Finneran is a loyal Democrat who understands the rules of party politics -- who will not, as speaker, designate a single Republican to be a chairman or enlarge the Republicans' share of committee seats.
All this the Republicans know, and still they respect him. Admire him. If there's a better credential for becoming speaker of the House than the respect and admiration of your opponents, I don't know what it is.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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