by David Trumbull
May 15, 2009
“In Massachusetts the worst men get into the Legislature. Several members of that body have lately been convicted of infamous crimes. Men of indigence, ignorance and baseness, spare no pains, however dirty, to carry their point against men, who are superior to the artifices practiced.” – Elbridge Gerry at the Constitutional Convention, 1787.
Over the fifty years from January 1959 to January 2009, nine men serving in the Massachusetts House of Representatives were elevated by their peers to Speaker of the House. Of those nine politicians—every one a Democrat—four, John F. Thompson (Speaker, 1958-1964), Charles Flaherty (1991-1996), Thomas Finneran (1996-2004), and Salvatore DiMasi (2004-2009) resigned the speakership in disgrace, dogged by charges of legal or ethical lapses. One Speaker, Thomas W. McGee (1975–1984), was found so wanting even by the low standards of his fellow Democratic legislators that he was dumped from that leadership position in favor of George Keverian (1985–1991). Keverian left the post, and state politics, in 1991, after losing the Democratic party primary for Treasurer of the Commonwealth.
In the fifty years prior to that, 14 men served as Speaker, 12 Republicans and two Democrats. None, as far as I know, left office in disgrace or disfavor. About half went on, after their speakerships, to run successfully for higher office in state or national government. Among them Republican Christian Herter (Speaker 1939-1942) was later elected U.S. Representative and Massachusetts Governor and served in high positions in the Republican Administration of President Eisenhower and under Democratic Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. Thomas Phillip "Tip" O'Neill, Jr. (1949-1952) went on, after his leadership in the State House, to serve ten years as Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Perversely, as the quality of the men in the office of Speaker declined, the average length of time in the office increased, from around three-and-a-half years for Speakers in the first fifty year period to around five-and-a-half years for those in the more resent fifty-year period. Of course I have my bias, but one has to notice the absence of scandal and the generally high level of personal and professional conduct of the Speakers in the period when Republicans were dominant, supplying 12 of 14 Speakers.