July 21, 2002
Thomas Birmingham became the president of the Massachusetts Senate in January 1996, succeeding the unpleasant William Bulger, whose pet he had been since his political career began five years earlier. "There's nobody in public life I have more respect for," Birmingham said at the time, which was a disappointment to the many Massachusetts voters who had wearied of Bulger's disdainful and dictatorial methods.
One might have thought that after 6-1/2 years into his own Senate presidency, Birmingham would be over his Bulger worship. But apparently he continues to approach difficult situations by asking himself, "What would Billy do?" His crude sabotage last week of a proposed constitutional amendment that would have enshrined the traditional definition of marriage -- one man plus one woman -- was not just illegal, deceitful, and a slap in the face of millions of Bay State voters. It was also a page right out of Bulger's playbook.
In 1992, 75,000 voters signed petitions supporting a term-limits amendment to the Massachusetts Constitution. Under Article 48 of that constitution, their next stop was a joint session of the Legislature, which is required -- not invited or permitted, but required -- to put proposed amendments to a vote. If 25 percent of the 200 lawmakers had supported the measure in two consecutive years, it would have moved forward to the state ballot.
But the amendment never came up. The Legislature voted 106-81 to send it to the bottom of the agenda, accepting Bulger's argument that time was needed to seek an advisory opinion on its propriety from the Supreme Judicial Court. At every subsequent joint session, Bulger refused to bring the amendment up -- even after the SJC advised that it was entirely kosher. Time after time he stonewalled, blocking the vote the constitution mandated. When the legislative clock ran out, the amendment was dead.
Later Bulger claimed that the vote to temporarily move the amendment from the agenda had actually been a vote on the merits -- lawmakers "understood the import of the vote they were casting that day," he said, and intended to kill term limits. It was an obvious lie; everyone in the State House knew that a vote of 106-81 would not have killed term limits. On the contrary, it would have kept the amendment alive, since 81 was more than the 25 percent required.
The sleazy maneuver succeeded. The amendment never made it to the ballot. Its proponents asked the SJC to order the Legislature to perform its duty, but the justices said they didn't have that power. Still, they made it clear that Bulger and his minions had violated the Constitution: "Efforts to obtain term limits by a constitutional amendment foundered," they wrote, "because of the refusal of the Legislature in joint session to take final action on such a proposal as the Constitution of the Commonwealth directed."
Birmingham had the chance last week to show himself a more honest public official than his mentor. He chose instead to mimic Bulger's duplicity. He strangled the proposed marriage amendment by allowing only a vote to adjourn, thereby denying more than 130,000 petitioners the up-or-down vote they were entitled to and wiping his feet on the Constitution he took an oath to uphold. A Bulger wannabe to the end, Birmingham even parroted his predecessor's claim that the vote to stab Massachusetts democracy in the back was actually a vote to effect it. "Today we saw democracy in action," he smirked. "They may not like it, but they lost 2 to 1."
It was the same old lie, and for the same old reason. The vote to adjourn was 137-53, and 53 was more than the needed 25 percent. In other words, if it had been a vote on the merits, the amendment would have advanced.
Birmingham was not alone in his hypocrisy. Senate minority leader Brian Lees complains that Republicans are hurt by rules abuse, yet it was he who offered the abusive motion to adjourn. Representative Jay Kaufman, a critic of procedural underhandedness when committed by House Speaker Tom Finneran, supported Birmingham's underhandedness because it suited his views. Senator Cheryl Jacques, normally so passionate about fairness even for unpopular minorities, had no problem with cheating the amendment's supporters out of a fair vote. "I'll take a victory on this any way I can get it," she gloated.
You don't have to be an opponent of same-sex marriage to be dismayed by last week's travesty. Indeed, gay and lesbian advocates should find it particularly unsettling. For if democracy in Massachusetts now means that full political rights are available only to those who agree with the kings of Beacon Hill, it is gays, lesbians, and other minorities who have the most to lose. Birmingham was willing to pervert the rules to kill an amendment they deeply despised. The next Senate president may be willing to do the same thing to an amendment they deeply crave.