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Massachusetts Liberal

Observations on politics, the media and life in Massachusetts and beyond from the left side of the road.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

RIP Mr. Speaker

George Keverian was as great a public servant as he was a lousy politician.

The former Massachusetts House Speaker, who passed away Friday at the age of 77, had a heart as big as the waistline he battled most of his life. His sense of humor was dry bit very sharp and acerbic. Some newspaper columnists chose to attack him on his appearance, ignoring the underlying goodness.

The Everett Democrat started the recent trend of ousting sitting speakers -- although his predecessor, Thomas McGee of Lynn, did not go willingly, reneging on a promise to turn the gavel over to his majority leader. The fight shook the roots of the House.

I was a political cub reporter in those days. Keverian's successful pitch was based on the shocking concept that legislatures are "small d" democracies and that he would bring openness and debate to the lower chamber.

He did -- and ironically it was his undoing.

His first major test was the economic collapse of the late '80s, the end of the Dukakis Massachusetts Miracle. Since the Massachusetts constitution requires all revenue and spending bills originate in the House, it was the paramount figure in dealing with the crisis.

But Keverian's leadership style -- to let the members and their chairmen and women make the decisions -- was ill-suited to the times. Tough actions on where the cut and what taxes to raise were delayed as lawmakers quibbled.

It was only after the House finally acted after endless squabbling did things start to happen. Why? Because the bill moved over to the Senate, presided over then by the anything but small d Democrat named William M. Bulger.

The Senate President's iron fist broke the logjam (in the now infamous words of then-Lt. Gov. Evelyn Murphy) and started the state on the road to recovery. The tax package that emerged helped to elect William F. Weld and three more Republicans as governor -- but also gave them the money they needed to get the state moving again.

Keverian tried and failed in a bid for state treasurer, then happily returned to his roots as a local official in his beloved Everett.

I always thought Keverian was too decent a man for the job of speaker. He practiced inclusion in an environment that sometimes demanded quick (and unpopular action). Bulger's tactics were more appropriate for the time and its no surprise that every speaker who followed Keverian had a touch of iron fist. Some of them wrapped it in a velvet glove.

The sharpest irony is that Keverian was the first of the succession of speakers to brush up against ethics laws. His sin -- an appearance of a conflict of interest for hiring a Statehouse employee (at full wages) to do home repairs for him -- was laughable in comparison to the litany that has followed Charles Flaherty, Tom Finneran and Sal DiMasi.

And Keverian's leadership style points out a real potential nightmare as the current Legislature fails to come to speedy grips with the crisis Massachusetts faces today. There's no time to leisurely analyze and decide to act.

Rest in peace Mr. Speaker.

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Blogger Judy Meredith said...

An accurate picture of the times. George Keverian was a honest, kind and principled public servant. And someday, somebody will write the story of Bill Bulger's extra ordinary leadership skills as he steered the the state through a succession of fiscal crisis whose number was only exceeded by the number of different players in the other two offices on the third floor.

March 07, 2009 9:41 AM  
Blogger Outraged Liberal said...

Thanks Judy. And you are right about Bulger. I shed conventional wisdom about him after that. Sometimes you need a leadership with a thick hide to take the heat and protect the members -- something Tom Finneran was also good at.

Bulger was the perfect counterpoint to Keverian. And time taught me he is a very complicated person who isn't what his press clippings make him out to be.

March 07, 2009 10:08 AM  

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