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Finneran's fall

LOSE THE trust, lose the power.

After Thomas M. Finneran lost his colleagues' trust, power began slipping through his fingers like the finest of sand -- as did the opportunity to be a great speaker of the House of Representatives.

The people of Massachusetts turned against Finneran a long time ago, offended by his obvious belief that he is smarter than they are. But his demise as speaker ultimately occurred because his own troops deserted him. For the past several months, Finneran's top two lieutenants -- Salvatore DiMasi, the House majority leader and now Finneran successor, and John Rogers, who chairs the Ways and Means committee -- quietly but openly lobbied for his job. They knew the controversial speaker was weakened by disclosure of a federal perjury investigation this year. They also knew that a growing number of Beacon Hill colleagues felt betrayed by the powerful House leader.

Unfortunately for Finneran, one of the betrayed was Senate President Robert E. Travaglini. The relatively new Senate president looked to Finneran for guidance and support as he presided for the first time over a gut-wrenching constitutional convention to take up the future of gay marriage in the state. Travaglini called the convention to order, then turned over the podium to Finneran, who asked if he could be extended the courtesy of making some opening remarks in his own chamber.

Finneran's introductory remarks turned into a surprise amendment that would have barred gay marriage and permitted but not required authorization of civil unions. It shocked the legislators, who had no idea it was coming, and angered Travaglini, who was among the blind-sided. The amendment was defeated by two votes. With that defeat, the sands of power sifted more quickly through the speaker's fingers. The bond that he and Travaglini had been working to forge disappeared, and "the most important, trusting relationship he had was destroyed," says one Beacon Hill insider.

Travaglini has no vote in the House, and chilly relations between the leaders of the two legislative bodies are nothing new in Massachusetts. But what Finneran did to Travaglini added to the feeling in the House that the speaker could not be trusted and therefore could not lead.

Loyalty was running dry, anyway, drained by a speaker who, year by year, grew less tolerant of legislators who opposed or questioned him. An unpleasant pattern developed. Although Finneran always denied there was any connection, those who challenged the speaker lost titles and/or clout: Douglas W. Petersen of Marblehead stood up for the Clean Elections Law and was demoted from chairman of the Committee on Natural Resources to vice chairman of the Committee on Taxation and from that to nothing; Corey Atkins of Concord backed the speaker on Clean Elections, then changed her mind and lost her position as vice chairwoman of the Committee on Election Laws. Daniel Bosley of North Adams lost influence after he led a minirevolt against Finneran in December 2001. Other legislators, such as Barry Finegold of Andover and Charles Murphy of Burlington, were marginalized after speaking out against the tactics Finneran embraced.

For those who knew Finneran when, it is sad to see how he abused the power his colleagues handed him with such promise. A smart, funny, gracious, and at times even humble man allowed other, less-flattering traits to define his term as speaker.

"The Tom Finneran that could have been . . ." muses Harriette L. Stanley of West Newbury. "The man I voted for was someone you could have intellectual combat with, someone you could pound the table with, swear back and forth with, and when you left his office you knew you had been heard, even if you were not agreed with. He welcomed that. Somehow, over the eight years he was speaker, he stopped welcoming it and in fact, almost resented it." Stanley says she once "laughed with him, cried with him, and fought for him" on the floor of the House. But she was demoted as chairwoman of the Committee on Health Care after she opposed Finneran's tax hike legislation and told him he was taking "the wrong approach" when he refused to fund Clean Elections despite a mandate from voters.

Intent on wielding power, Finneran ignored the power of other people's convictions. He tossed critics aside at will and failed to see how doing so would eventually undermine his own authority. Without trust, power cannot be sustained. The betrayed will make sure of that.

Joan Vennochi's e-mail address is 

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