Two of Massachusetts House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran's top lieutenants are openly acknowledging their desire to succeed him, the clearest sign yet that Finneran and the lawmakers around him have begun planning his departure from Beacon Hill after eight years as the Legislature's most prominent power broker.
The candid admissions were made by House majority leader Salvatore F. DiMasi and House Ways and Means chairman John H. Rogers, as Finneran suggested in a lengthy interview with the Globe that he would be open to taking a position in a John F. Kerry White House and signaled an open-mindedness to other opportunities.
''If Kerry said, 'Gee, Tom, would you be interested in, you know, who-the-heck-knows,' I wouldn't close the door on anything," the speaker said.
But ''with regard to the prospects in a John Kerry administration, I think the members speculate more about me than other members of the institution because there's a different situation," he said. ''It's not realistic for the speaker to become secretary of transportation at the state level."
Finneran said he plans to run for speaker again in January, despite being the focus of an FBI investigation into whether he lied under oath in a federal redistricting trial. He said he fully expects DiMasi and Rogers to cast their lot with him, and said he has not told the two lawmakers to begin collecting pledges for a vote for their own speakership bids.
''There's no green light," Finneran said. ''But I could be hit by a car tonight, so at some point, members are going to kind of have to make a decision. But that point is not here. I drive carefully and put on my seat belt."
Finneran, 54, a lawyer and a Mattapan Democrat, has largely set the Legislature's agenda since taking over as speaker in 1996, playing a crucial role in the killing of the Clean Elections Law, opposing expanded rights for gay couples, and pressing for fiscal restraint whether the state's coffers were full or nearly empty.
But for months, speculation has swirled around the State House that Finneran was eyeing less stressful and less political positions, such as president of the University of Massachusetts or as the head of Caritas Internationalis, a worldwide Catholic relief organization.
DiMasi, 59, a 13-term Boston Democrat with ties to the moderate and left wings of the House membership, said he has every intention of being among the first to stand up and cast a vote for Finneran as speaker in January. But DiMasi conceded that he believes that he would be a natural successor when Finneran decides to try another line of work.
''I am the majority leader, it's the usual transition of authority, [and] only in the past few years has that changed, when Finneran was elected from Ways and Means," DiMasi said. ''As the majority leader, I am interested in succeeding Tom Finneran, but it's a little premature."
Rogers, 39, a fifth-term Democrat from Norwood with support among House conservatives and moderates, said he is not banking on Finneran departing anytime soon.
The House is well-served by his ''fair, firm, and honest" leadership, Rogers said. But ''when Speaker Finneran chooses to pursue other challenges, I would be honored to be considered by my colleagues and peers at that time."
Such statements were simply unimaginable in the House even one year ago, when the man whom some of his critics derided as King Tom was accused of closing an iron fist around all matters in the House.
But in recent months, Finneran has endured a few major legislative defeats, as well as the opening of a federal investigation into whether he lied about his role in the 2001 House redistricting process during a federal trial, a trial in which his redistricting plan was thrown out because it watered down the voting power of Boston minorities. Investigators have taken computers and other materials as evidence and have interviewed at least two House members to date, but lately, the case appears to have slowed drastically.
Rogers, whom Finneran has likened to a son, and DiMasi have both wined and dined their colleagues at a pace that has suggested to many lawmakers that this was not the typical fun and games.
Said DiMasi: ''The whole idea is, you let people know you're interested. That's what you do with any campaign. And basically, that is happening so people can be looking at you. They can say, 'Hey, Sal is the majority leader; he's interested,' so if Kerry offers [Finneran] a job, who do we pick as our leader? If you let people know you are running, they can look."
Rogers, taking a more subtle tack, said he has been engaged in ''activities to get to know the members outside the building."
''I think that makes you a better leader," he said. ''Not only to get to know them [as] members, but it makes you a better leader to get to know them as people, their families, their extracurricular activities. And going outside the State House is the way to do that. I've been doing it unabashedly."
Rogers recently treated his fellow committee members, including Republicans, and their spouses to a Boston harbor dinner cruise. And DiMasi has been spotted at several tony restaurants in recent months chumming with his fellow Democrats.
What's more, according to campaign finance reports from 2003, the most recent available, DiMasi spent more than $12,300 on dinners and lunches with House members, including nearly $5,000 at a golf outing at Ipswich Country Club.
Rogers, for his part, spent nearly $5,000 in the same period on lunches and dinners for colleagues.
''I think the speaker encourages us to be friendly, but no member has received a green light" to jockey for votes, Rogers said. ''The only green light is one for Tom Finneran as speaker when the roll call board lights up in January.
Finneran became speaker in 1996, after Speaker Charles F. Flaherty pleaded guilty to a tax felony and resigned.
Since taking control, Finneran has often been portrayed as in control of virtually all matters before the House. But DiMasi said yesterday that, if the public was shocked that he and Rogers were openly discussing ambitions to become speaker someday, those who know Finneran know he would hardly be enraged.
''The problem is, everyone assumes Finneran is not as tolerant as he is," DiMasi said. ''He himself must realize that he's been here for eight years and that after that period of time, these things are the natural progression that takes place."