Veteran state Representative Salvatore F. DiMasi yesterday consolidated his hold on the speakership of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, moving quickly to fill the vacancy expected by the sudden departure of Thomas M. Finneran from the leadership of the 160-member chamber, lawmakers said.
DiMasi, a Boston Democrat and the House majority leader, struck a deal with his major rival, Ways and Means chairman John H. Rogers, late Friday night, heading off what could have been a divisive showdown to succeed Finneran.
A senior House leadership source said Finneran helped arrange a meeting Friday night between DiMasi, 59, and Rogers, 39, at the majority leader's North End home. Knowledgeable lawmakers said yesterday that DiMasi held the upper hand because he had close to a majority, if not more, of Democrats in the House.
Finneran, the most controversial Beacon Hill figure in years, is expected to leave the Legislature this week to become president of the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council on Oct. 4, lawmakers said yesterday. The speaker has avoided the media for the last several days, but he was said by confidants to be wrapping up negotiations with the industry group, with a formal announcement expected as soon as tomorrow.
His resignation this week, barring a breakdown in the negotiations, would clear the way for the House members to return to Beacon Hill this week and elect a new speaker.
DiMasi, Finneran's second-in-command for the past two years, told colleagues yesterday that he hoped to complete the process by midweek. His succession to the post will be a major change for the House, which has been dominated by Finneran's strong hand and his socially and fiscally conservative views. DiMasi is far more liberal than the speaker, particularly in his support for same-sex marriage, abortion rights, and other social issues.
He said that he wanted to move quickly to avoid a distracting internal fight in the middle of election season, and to grab the reins of the House before a rival could muster sufficient votes. His move to consolidate power seemed to be successful. By yesterday, other potential rivals, including representatives Daniel Bosley of North Adams, Eugene O'Flaherty of Chelsea, and William Straus of Mattapoisett, were lining up behind DiMasi.
Both DiMasi and Rogers had been quietly campaigning for the speakership this summer, as it became increasingly clear that Finneran was looking for a job in the private sector or in Washington if fellow Democrat John F. Kerry were elected president.
As news of Finneran's plans to vacate the office broke late last week, Rogers, a close Finneran ally, had tried to bargain a deal with DiMasi, saying he would take the majority leader's position in return for a commitment from him for a time-certain on the length of DiMasi's tenure. He also wanted a say in the appointment of a new Ways and Means chairman.
One senior legislative source said DiMasi did not agree specifically to any of Rogers' suggestions, but he has agreed to reinstate the House rule limiting a speaker's term to eight years. Finneran, who became speaker in April 1996, persuaded colleagues to eliminate the rule in order to continue serving.
To convene the House, which ended its formal session in late July, 55 lawmakers must sign a petition. After the House formally gathers, the two parties meet in separate caucuses in which they nominate a candidate for speaker. Republicans have only 22 members in the 160-member House, so the Democrats' choice will prevail.
In 1996, Finneran quietly cobbled together a coalition of Democrats with the Republican leadership, a move that stunned the Democratic leadership, which had lined up behind then majority leader Richard Voke. Finneran's lightning-quick power grab created deep divisions that still run through the Democratic caucus.
Lawmakers said yesterday Governor Mitt Romney, who has fielded a slate of GOP legislative candidates and is using the Democratic leadership as a foil, has asked the Republican leadership to remain clear of making any deals with the Democrats.
If DiMasi grabs the speakership, he would join Senate President Robert E. Travaglini of East Boston at the top of the Legislative leadership as the two most vocal counterweights to Romney. It would also mark the first time that two Italian-Americans led the Legislature; they are joined on the local political scene by Mayor Thomas M. Menino, first Italian-American mayor of Boston.
DiMasi is expected to bring a sharply different leadership style to the House. He pledged to colleagues yesterday that he would run a more open House than Finneran, who was considered an autocrat who tolerated little opposition from colleagues. DiMasi said he hoped to diversify the leadership of the House, adding more women and people of color to top House posts next year.
O'Flaherty said DiMasi will bring a different managerial style and political philosophy to the House leadership, resulting in a more open process. "Some people will perceive a more open House as a positive thing, and others may see it causing some problems with reaching consensus on important issues," he said.
When the state needed to raise taxes to respond to a fiscal crisis, the decision was "politically unpalatable," he said, because of pressure from Romney, but Finneran was able to "marshal the forces" and get the increase passed. "His management style was able to deal almost instantaneously with the crisis, without getting into too many meddlesome details," O'Flaherty said.
DiMasi, a lawyer, has a generally liberal voting record, getting high ratings from the Massachusetts Audubon Society and the National Organization for Women, and relatively low ratings from Citizens for Limited Taxation, according to the Massachusetts Political Almanac. He has voted against adding slot machines at the state's four racetracks.
In this year's battle over same-sex marriage, DiMasi voted against Finneran's proposed constitutional amendment that would have defined marriage as solely the union of a man and a woman, and that stated the Legislature "may enact" civil unions for gay couples. The Finneran amendment, seen as weak endorsement of civil unions for gays, failed 100-98 in a Constitutional Convention earlier this year.
Lawmakers later advanced a proposed amendment that would ban same-sex marriage and establish civil unions. It must clear the Legislature one more time in order to get on the November 2006 ballot, putting DiMasi in the position of influencing the outcome of that divisive debate.
Jennifer Levi, senior staff attorney for Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, said last night DiMasi was a friend to their cause while Finneran failed to support them.
"Finneran has been no friend to the gay community, and a change of leadership will be helpful," she said. "There's a lot that can happen between now and the next vote, but I would hope that this would be something positive for gay and lesbian families throughout the Commonwealth."
Finneran's quick departure will leave Romney without a foil in the unfolding campaign for Legislative seats this fall. Romney has labeled Finneran as a major hurdle to the GOP governor's effort to overhaul state government, as he tries to seat more Republicans in the Democrat-dominated Legislature.