Tom Finneran, once the most powerful and, by his own measure, the most unpopular man in Massachusetts politics, sits on a curb outside the Stockyard restaurant in Brighton on a steamy July day with much of the sizzle in his life gone, but with the spirit of a lead buffalo on a drive. Mr. Speaker, the former leader of the Massachusetts House who always insisted that his Mattapan, Dorchester, and Milton constituents in the 12th Suffolk District call him "Tommy," is dressed in an open-collar white shirt with the sleeves rolled to the forearms. He looks ready for the stump.
And why not? For years, he has taken broadsides from the feds, the media, and critics at large, who dubbed him "King Tom" - detractors he now refers to as "frustrated white liberals who couldn't find Mattapan if I gave them a day and a full tank of gas, and they wouldn't spend more than five minutes there without a police escort."
He pauses, then adds, "And they are going to preach to me about my motives in a redistricting case? I don't need a lecture from any of these fakers!"
For those who just arrived on the boat from County Clare, Finneran, a Democrat, was indicted in 2004 by federal prosecutors in the Republican-grounded U.S. Attorney's office, charged with three felony counts of perjury and one count of obstruction of justice for allegedly misrepresenting his participation in a 2001 House redistricting plan that critics argued favored white incumbents over candidates preferred by blacks, and was an attempt by Finneran to strike back at opponents by attempting to eliminate their districts. The prosecutors took their cue from judges on the federal bench who in their ruling on the case questioned the truth of Finneran's testimony in court proceedings. Finneran, an attorney, pleaded guilty in January to one count of obstruction of justice for making misleading and false statements under oath in U.S. District Court. He was fined $25,000 and given 18 months of unsupervised probation, a period that ends next June. In the meantime, Finneran's license to practice law has been temporarily suspended, and the Massachusetts Board of Bar Overseers will decide in months to come whether to permanently revoke it.
The cerebral Mr. Speaker, a third generation Irish-American born in Southie and raised in Dorchester, a devout Catholic with working class roots, a graduate of Boston Latin, Northeastern, and Boston College School of Law, who used to scrub carpets and upholstery with his father, clearly wants to talk about the case today. "Anything I say will sound like I'm whining and looking for sympathy," he says during a lengthy and wide-ranging interview over coffee and fried asparagus inside the Stockyard, "but I will say this: The charge was wrong; it was false right from the start. I might have had eight, to ten, to twelve meetings regarding redistricting over a period of a year and a half, all of which I acknowledged in court. These were meetings that I did not initiate and were among 2,000 to 3,000 meetings on other issues. The accusation that I was involved with the racial manipulation of an electoral map - that I was sitting up on Beacon Hill as the master map drawer - is absolutely untrue. I was indifferent to it."
So why did a man who is wholly at ease, personally and politically, around people of color, and who has lived and continues to live in a Mattapan neighborhood dominated by African Americans, plead guilty to an obstruction of justice charge with racial overtones? Simple Jesuit logic, he asserts. "I didn't want to risk my liberty. I could not waive my right to a jury trial without the prosecution's assent under federal court rules. I was the most unpopular guy in Massachusetts politics from 1999 to 2004 in every poll taken, and was not about to put 12 people in a box under those circumstances to decide my life and my freedom."
It wasn't always this way for Tom Finneran, now host of "Finneran's Forum," the new WRKO morning drive talk show that airs Monday through Friday from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. There was a time when Finneran's political favorability rating was as high as the State House dome. He was golden, or gold-leafed, at least - House Speaker from 1996 until 2004, elected in 2002 by the House Speakers nationwide to serve as the president of the National Speakers' Conference, and, en route to the speaker's chair, chairman of the influential Committee on Banking and chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. "I look back with great pride on my years in the House," says Finneran, 57, also a former president of the Massachusetts Bio-Tech Council. "It was an immense responsibility, a great privilege, and a great honor to have been elected multiple times by my colleagues to positions of responsibility. I am very comfortable with who I am and what I have done, and the record is clear to anyone who cares to be fair about it. I will say that to my grave. On balance, I have had a fabulous, rich life that has exceeded all that I ever imagined."
The cornerstone of his life is his family, he says -- his Dorchester-born wife of 32 years, Donna, his two successful daughters, Kelly, 30, a practicing attorney at Choate Hall and Stewart, and Shannon, 27, a state bank examiner and new mother to Reagan, her first.
"Family, when it's the center of your universe, puts life in perspective," says Reagan's proud grandfather.
Tom Finneran has been surrounded by family throughout his life, and in many ways he doesn't fit the traditional mold of a child in the middle (he has a sister and four brothers) who often feels insecure and out-of-the-loop without a sense of belonging. He is rooted in confidence, a trait he inherited from his mother, Mary (Fitzgerald), who grew up in Southie, and whose family hailed from Galway. Finneran's late father, William, whose family roots trace back to Roscommon, was self-employed in a rug and upholstery business, and taught his children a strong work ethic by example.
Always the pragmatist, Finneran saw the end coming in more predictable ways before it was upon him. "There is a shelf life in American politics," he says. "Public opinion is going to change with high profile positions. I probably accelerated the public's and the media's turn on me by taking on a handful of controversial issues." Among them, he notes, opposition to stadium subsidies and the so-called Clean Elections campaign - campaign finance reform. "They were absurd proposals," he adds, "They made no sense, and so I decided that if I had any say about it that I would try to stop them."
Looking back, he acknowledges, "the biggest mistakes that I made were not being more attentive to public perceptions and not being more solicitous of the media."
As to the immediate future, Finneran plans to focus his energies on his WRKO radio talk show, with thoughts of lobbying or teaching law school courses in years to come, as he did previously at Suffolk Law School. Will he ever consider running again for public office? "My wife would put her foot down," he is quick to note, but then adds, "I would never say never. I wouldn't close the door on it. Friends have said that I would make a great mayor of Boston."
This article consists of excerpts from a profile of Tom Finneran by Greg O'Brien in this month's Boston Irish Reporter.