Beacon Hill Ends Session Tonight

BOSTON--As the State Legislature winds down its business tonight, Massachusetts lawmakers are scurrying to pass bills before the busy end tonight of the legislation session.

The death penalty riveted Bay State voters and their representatives on Beacon Hill this fall. The legislature reversed itself on Nov. 7, declining in a dramatic 80-80 vote to reintroduce the death penalty.

Cambridge's four legislators in the House of Representatives, meanwhile, struggled to push forward policy initiatives even as they defended their views on capital punishment before their constituents.

One of the four Democratic legislators--State Rep. Timothy J. Toomey Jr. (D-Cambridge), who is also a Cambridge city councillor--broke with party ranks and voted to reinstate the death penalty.

The issue sharply divided city residents. The memory of slain 10-year-old Jeffrey Curley was fresh on many of their minds. And the surprise reduction of an English au pair's murder conviction, following the death penalty vote, raised anew residents' doubts about the death penalty.

Now, Cambridge's lawmakers in the House are pushing a bill to preserve low-income housing and resist an effort by the government to put federally subsidized rental units on the open market. That bill currently sits in committee. Although it may not be considered by the end of the day, the bill may be resubmitted in January.

The Cambridge City Council in April forwarded a home-rule petition to Beacon Hill requesting a 1 percent tax on home sales over $300,000 in Cambridge, which would be used to bolster affordable housing. Like the affordable-housing bill, the so-called transfer-tax petition is in committee and is likely not to be voted on tonight.

In recent interviews with reporters from The Crimson, Cambridge's representatives in the House shared a variety of perspectives on their legislative priorities and policy achievements this term.

A Death Penalty Supporter

As both a city councillor and a third-term state representative for Cambridge, Toomey said he is familiar with what it means to be a grassroots politician.

"I believe both roles compliment each other," Toomey, a Democrat, said in an interview from his State House office yesterday.

"I try to get things done quicker [in the legislature], because I know they'll have an impact at home."

As the sole Cambridge representative advocating the death penalty, Toomey found himself defending his politics this session.

Attacks came not only on the House floor, but also at home from his constituency in the Lechmere and Inman Square areas of North Cambridge.

"It was an individual decision," said Toomey. "Certainly there are a lot of people [in Cambridge] who oppose it, but I was still reelected to City Council last week."

Toomey said his decision was influenced by his close relationship with the Curleys--the parents of Jeffrey, whose body was found October in a Maine river.

Toomey said he supports the death penalty primarily because of its potential to deter criminals and protect local citizens.

"The last couple of months have been horrific in terms of [local] violence," Toomey said. "The death penalty sends a message that we're here to protect society and the children."

Although Toomey said he does not see the death penalty as a "cure-all," he said he views it as the best available method for dealing with repeat offenders. Rather than allowing sexual predators and violent criminals to return to their home communities and offend again, Toomey said, the legislature should take responsibility.

"We need to reconsider the direction we're going...to establish a respect for life because right now there's no fear," he said.

Approached by other representatives to change his vote, since the bill would affect juvenile offenders, Toomey declined.

"If a 14-year-old clearly committed premeditated murder, there's something wrong," he said. "We're not going to rehabilitate murderers."

Education and proactive work with city youth-training programs can help discourage potential offenders, Toomey said. However, once someone commits murder, he added, rehabilitation and probation are no longer options.

As chair of the House's public service committee, Toomey has been working on a "rule of 90" that would allow Cambridge teachers to retire when the sum of their age and years of service equals 90.

The rule would enable teachers to retire early, but not obligate them to do so. Although the initiative would mean increased turnover in the Cambridge school district, which is still adjusting to a new superintendent, Toomey said it would be a change that most eligible teachers appreciate.

"I think 99 percent of the teachers would take it," said Toomey. "But it's a very costly measure and it may be held until the next session."

Pushing Affordable Housing

Although he disagrees with Toomey on the death penalty, State Rep. Alvin E. Thompson (D-Cambridge) is no stranger to victims of violent crime. Three years ago, one of his relatives was murdered, shot to death during a Cambridge basketball game. Now Thompson, a part-time security guard at Harvard, is one of the strongest local opponents of the death penalty.

Thompson said he could not support the law. "The bill was dealing with juveniles, kids 14 to 15 years old," he said. "I've always thought that you need to retrain or counsel them. To me, there's no person who can't be rehabilitated."

Thompson said he sympathizes with the Curley family, but that retribution cannot be a driving force behind a bill that would have imposed the death penalty for juveniles.

"On both sides the families lose," he said. Although Thompson said he does not question the "atrocity" of violent crimes committed in the state, he said the onus of punishment should be on the administration and on the prison system--not the legislature.

"Prison should be a hard punishment every day of the week," Thompson said.

Thompson, who represents the Central Square, Cambridgeport and Riverside areas of Cambridge and is now in his fifth term, also has made the affordable-housing bill--which is sponsored by all four Cambridge representatives--a priority. Thompson also supports a bill to fund "Just a Start," a city youth training program.

"We've got a bill to train teens and get them off the streets, and another to provide more funds for the food pantries and AIDS programs," Thompson said. "The city still relies on state support."

Securing Social Programs

Alice K. Wolf, who today is completing her rookie year as a state representative, said she is most proud of her work in getting funding for a crime prevention program as well as programs for young people and mentally ill people.

Looking to decrease crime in her district, the former Cambridge mayor sought out funding for a North Cambridge crime task force.

At the statewide level, Wolf helped to secure funding for the Safe School program, which she described as "a program to support gay and lesbian youth."

Wolf said she also worked to provide funding to "a number of child-care programs" as well as programs that help the mentally ill. Recently, Wolf voted against the death penalty.

In an interview, she described the recent vote as "probably the most dramatic moment we will have" in the state House of Representatives.

Wolf said she is opposed to the death penalty for "many, many" reasons.

"Around the country it has been shown to be discriminatory against low-income people and people of color," Wolf says.

"It's an awesome power to give the state," she added. "The state has a tendency to expand its power." She also said she opposes the death penalty because "innocent people can be convicted."

Wolf's district is approximately 2.5 square miles in the northern and western reaches of the city. Wolf represents about 40 percent of all Cantabrigians. She is a member of the House's education and housing committees.

Wolf said she requested placement on these committees because "both education and housing are very big issues for Cambridge."

Wolf is currently involved in oversight hearings on charter schools.

Wolf was a member of the Cambridge School Committee from 1974 to 1982, a city councillor from 1984 to 1994 and mayor from 1990 to 1991.

She said that the biggest difference between the House and the City Council is the House's greater size, with 160 delegates compared with the council's nine.

Wolf said she opposed electricity deregulation efforts in the House, inserting clauses to protect low-income utility users. She said deregulation is inevitable. "It's a train out of the station," she said.

Combating Underage Drinking

He may represent one of the smallest precincts in the state, but State Rep. Paul C. Demakis '75 (D-Boston) has his sights set on the big issues.

One of them--cracking down on underage drinking--has become his priority.

"There are some steps that need to be taken to prosecute to people who serve to minors," Demakis said Friday in an interview from his Boston home.

Underage drinking is of particular importance in Demakis' precinct, which includes the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the row of MIT fraternity houses on Beacon Street. Demakis said he encourages schools to be more proactive in both educating students about the dangers of drinking and monitoring student activities.

"We also need to control the deliveries of liquor to buildings where underage drinking is likely to happen," he said.

Demakis, a self-described "Liberal Democrat and pragmatist," is a graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School and worked for 10 years as a tax lawyer in state government. During his two terms in the House, he has firmly established an allegiance to liberal allies--from pro-choice to gay and lesbian constituencies--in Boston and Cambridge.

This year, Demakis' liberal politics were put to the test when the state legislature contemplated restoring the death penalty.

Demakis sided with Wolf and Thompson in opposing the death-penalty bill. Although he was unsuccessful in persuading Toomey to join them, Demakis said he recognizes a spectrum of opinion on the issue.

"Everyone has their own reasons," Demakis said. "There are some people that just think it's wrong for the state to be killing, and I agree with them. There's just too much of a chance for imperfection in the system."

As the session winds down today, Demakis and the three other Cambridge representative will be busy lobbying for the affordable-housing bill