Son Of Chelsea Now Atop Beacon Hill


BOSTON--Massachusetts Senate President Thomas F. Birmingham '72 (D-Chelsea) is 47 years old and he still hasn't made a name for himself.

"In Chelsea, Tom is known as Agnes' son," said Gene O'Flaherty, the State Representative whose district includes the working-class neighborhood where Birmingham is now raising his two children.

Even as a former Rhodes Scholar, a Harvard Law School graduate, a Massachusetts labor lawyer and one of the state's top legislators, Birmingham hasn't traveled far from the Chelsea cradle in which he was born.

"He's one of us, he's a Chelsea guy," O'Flaherty says.

After spending 10 years studying on the manicured campuses of the world's finest academic institutions, Birmingham returned to the familiar streets of Chelsea in 1978.

Although he was part of a generation where saving the world was a top priority, Birmingham was not driven by a specific set of plans.

"It is not as though I had a blueprint from college or high school," he says. "I think that's healthier."

Much more significant has been Birmingham's background and accompanying set of political ideals.

Birmingham's approach to life has facilitated his rise through the ranks of state labor law and the Massachusetts Senate. But his uncharted approach also has kept him down to earth.

Michael A. Feinberg, Birmingham's partner in law, says that even with his hectic schedule, the Senate President is often found driving his children to school or watching one of their plays.

Feinberg says that while Birmingham brings to the Senate an important set of political goals, he also carries with him a refreshing new attitude.

"I don't think he takes himself as seriously as some of the other people in the same office," Feinberg says.

From Chelsea to Oxford

Like most first-year students living in the Yard during the spring of 1979, Birmingham didn't exactly lead the take-over of University Hall.

But also like most of his peers, Birmingham says that the events that year and throughout his career at Harvard permanently altered his political sensibilities.

"My experiences during that time have contributed to the formation of my political values," he says. "I probably started out in the center and maybe even a step to the right, and ended up fairly far to the left."

Birmingham says that his Harvard experience was also shaped by his classes in the interdisciplinary Social Studies program, where he enjoyed tutors such as William J. Bennett, the conservative moralist who would later become Education Secretary and head of the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Birmingham's Harvard experience did not launch him into graduate school or a rigid career track, but by winning the Rhodes Scholarship in the fall of 1971, he did not have to focus on such future plans.

"If I hadn't won the Rhodes Scholarship in my senior year, I was completely uncertain of what I was going to do," he says.

Recounting his days in England, Birmingham places less emphasis upon his course work in English literature than on the experience as a whole, which ultimately helped him make several important decisions.

"It tested my commitment to academics, which I ultimately found wanting," Birmingham says.

The Senate president says that some of his fondest Rhodes memories are of a spring break when he and fellow Harvard Rhodes Scholar R. David Luskin '72 drove a Ford Mustang from Oxford to southern Italy.

During a luncheon in Rome with Italian millionaires, the two Harvard graduates managed to talk themselves into an invitation to a luxurious villa on the Amalfi coast owned by a close friend of the women.

Although Birmingham says that their host, Carlito Cinque, was probably only expecting them to stay for a weekend, the two drove off 29 days later.

Luskin, now a criminal lawyer in Washington, D.C., says this was the life of most Rhodes scholars.

Few spent their time in England plotting a career at home.

"None of us were doing a hell of a lot of work," he says. "There were one or two people who were going to be a Bill Clinton...but for most of us it was like we were on the shelf for a while."

But while Birmingham and most other Rhodes scholars were not pursuing an intense academic track, Luskin says it was always clear where the Chelsea native would end up.

"I had a very strong sense that Tom was going to go back home, get married to Selma and do good things," Luskin says.

After returning from England and entering Harvard Law School in 1975, it was not long before Birmingham began to spend summers working for labor lawyers.

This choice, he says, was largely inspired by his ability to help working people and support a movement in which he believed.

After 18 years in labor law, Birmingham says he still believes passionately in the movement's ideals, but says he is also aware of its problems.

"I know them warts and all," Birmingham says. In his tenure on Beacon Hill he has occasionally run into conflicts with the state teachers' union.

A New President

Birmingham's legendary predecessor William M. Bulger (D-South Boston) was a state legislator for 18 years before he took over the ornate wood-paneled office that comes with the president's gavel.

Birmingham moved into the office after only six years in the State Senate.

Although he won the chair after a clash with fellow Democrats, many of Birmingham's colleagues say that his rapid ascendance is a tribute to his new approach to doing business in the State House.

State Senator Mark C. Montigny (D-New Bedford) says that Birmingham has changed the way things are done in the Senate.

"He opened [the Senate] to the ways and wishes of the electorate," Montigny says.

Unlike many who have run the Senate over the past 300 years, Birmingham does not necessarily need to craft every piece of legislation that comes out of committee.

"I respect the committee structure and it is not personally necessary for me to have my thumb-print on every page of every bill that gets passed," Birmingham says.

Birmingham has crafted this new power structure by delegating considerable authority to the committee chairs which he appointed upon taking office.

According to Montigny, Birmingham identifies promising legislation produced by his committee chairs and shepherds it through the Senate.

"I look at the Senate as a bunch of political entrepreneurs and Birmingham as the curious venture capitalist," Montigny explains.

But two weeks ago during the Senate's annual deliberations over the budget, which was largely agreed upon before reaching the floor, there were many indications that Birmingham still maintains a strict control over legislation passing through the Senate.

As Birmingham slouched in his throne-like chair, seemingly oblivious to debate on the floor, rank-and-file Senators like Montigny scrambled to please the Senate president.

Few were willing to slight Birmingham's record.

"Only a fool would say something disrespectful of the Senator at this point in time," says Senator Robert E. Travaglini (D-Boston), one of the two Senators with whom Birmingham shares representation of Cambridge.

Birmingham's new style of doing business should not be confused with the generalized ideal of a "New Democrat."

Having worked with other state leaders to balance the budget and increase the state's rainy-day fund, Birmingham says that he is fiscally responsible, but not fiscally conservative.

"I find it difficult to pigeon-hole myself," Birmingham says. "I'm something of a hawk on balanced budgets, but on spending issues I'm rather progressive within the block of money that we have."

As chair of the state legislature's Joint Committee on Education Reform, Birmingham was the chief architect of the Massachusetts Education Reform Act.

During his second term, Birmingham became the chair of the Senate Committee on Ways and Means, where he helped the state work toward fiscal stability with balanced budgets.

The Senate president says that with his roots, the ultimate test of legislation is how it will affect the people of his community.

"I try to view all legislation through the prism of how it affects ordinary middle-class and working class people."