Being labeled as “Billy Bulger’s butler” was never a good career move for any local politician – just ask Chester Atkins, Gerry D’Amico or even Billy Bulger Jr.
But to me, the ultimate Billy Bulger’s butler will always be Tom Birmingham, handpicked by the Corrupt Midget to succeed him as state Senate president in 1997.
Birmingham died Friday at the age of 73. Survivors include his master, William M. Bulger, who will turn 89 on Feb. 2.
Very little of what I’m about to tell you has been mentioned in any of Birmingham’s obituaries, which include such phrases as “towering intellect” and “erudition.”
Maybe, but Birmingham’s connections to the Bulgers were a lot more street-level. Billy’s brother was a gangster. Tom Birmingham was named after a gangster – his ex-con uncle, who was slain gangland-style in Charlestown in 1969 in a “blood-splattered bed.”
One of the obituaries mentioned Billy Bulger in passing, saying he was “friends with Mr. Birmingham’s father.”
That’s one way of putting it, I guess. Actually, Jackie Birmingham was a Boston City Hall hack, and he once arranged welfare payments for the family of yet another local wise guy by the memorable name of “Suitcase” Fidler.
When Birmingham intervened for the Fidler clan, Suitcase was doing a stretch in prison, and his family wasn’t eligible for the dole. So Jackie Birmingham was jammed up, criminally, until he hired a young lawyer named Bulger. Billy intervened with the Suffolk County district attorney.
“The result,” Bulger wrote in his memoir, “was that Jackie never had to appear, never had to tell his story, never had to take a hit.”
Fast forward to 1990. Tom Birmingham was a lawyer and he wanted to become, well, Billy Bulger’s butler. His senator was Franny “I Am a Veteran” Doris, who had already defeated Birmingham once.
Franny was running for re-election, and everyone in the district knew they couldn’t beat him, so they didn’t file papers. Only Tom Birmingham did. And then, just before the filing deadline, Doris abruptly decided not to seek re-election.
After a nationwide search, Doris got a job at the MBTA – Mr. Bulger’s Transportation Authority.
Thanks to Bulger’s machinations, Birmingham was elected without opposition, and it was off to the races. Soon he was running Ways and Means, and when Bulger fled to take over UMass, Birmingham became Senate president after just six years of “service” to the family.
The plan seemed to be that Birmingham was to be the “regent” – seat-warmer as president during an interregnum of sorts until Billy Bulger Jr. was ready to succeed his father as the new godfather of the Senate.
But Billy Bulger Jr. couldn’t defeat Steve Lynch in the special election to replace his daddy. In fact, no Bulger has ever been elected to anything since Uncle Whitey took it on the lam in late 1994.
So Bulger was at UMass and his liegeman Birmingham was in control of the original family fiefdom on Beacon Hill. As is customary in such situations, both padrones took hostages from the other’s family. Bulger hired Birmingham’s wife to some no-heavy-lifting UMass administrator’s job.
Likewise, Birmingham kept both Billy’s sister and niece on his Senate office payroll. Seldom was heard a discouraging word.
See what I mean about how he was Billy Bulger’s butler?
Anyway, it gets to be 2002 and Birmingham thinks that he can be elected governor. So much for his “towering intellect.” I guess he forgot his political history, including how such Senate predecessors as John E. Powers and Maurice Donahue failed so miserably when they tried to “move up.”
Legislative leaders are electoral poison, and Birmingham proved no exception.
He believed he’d get the hacks because he was one himself. But payroll patriots preferred Shannon O’Brien, a second-generation hackette married to a former solon-turned-lobbyist.
Birmingham thought the liberals would love him because he’d blocked some bill that would have put a gay-marriage referendum question on the ballot.
But the moonbats preferred Robert Reich because he was a blow-in and because he was, shall we say, different. It didn’t matter what Birmingham had done for them in the past, they preferred the new flavor of the month. Think Mike Capuano and Ayana Pressley.
How out of touch was the “erudite” Birmingham in 2002? I still treasure an artifact of his doomed campaign – a plastic Kelly green ashtray with “Birmingham Governor” emblazoned on it.
It would have been perfect… in 1954, for Foster Furcolo’s campaign.
But by 2002, smoking had already become utterly low-rent and verboten among the chattering classes that Birmingham fancied himself a member of. Maybe he thought ashtrays remained coveted items because he was still a chain smoker at the time. (Word was that at home in Chelsea at night his wife Selma would make him go outside to their car to smoke.)
Anyway, Birmingham finished a dismal third in the Democrat primary in 2002. His state senators had all walked away from him, just like with Maurice Donahue in 1970.
There’s an old saying that no man is a hero to his valet, and I think that was the case with Billy Bulger’s butler.
Birmingham returned to the private practice of law and pretty much disappeared. He was both forgotten and gone.
I last saw him one spring day long ago at the graduation of Dana Hall School, which is in my neighborhood in Wellesley. He was walking and I was driving. I honked my horn and waved at him but didn’t stop. I think that was the way a lot of the old crowd treated him.
When you’re out you’re out.
In the hackerama, the success of the grift is ultimately judged by the size of your pension, at least compared to others in your own weight class.
For the record, when he died, Tom Birmingham’s state pension was $22,648 a year. David Bartley, the former House speaker who is neither erudite nor a towering intellect, grabs $158,316.
As for Billy Bulger – 20 years after his “retirement,” he’s still pocketing $273,369 a year.
Bottom line: it was, and still is, a lot better to be Billy Bulger than Billy Bulger’s butler.
Thomas Birmingham in his Senate office in State House in 1995. (Herald file photo)
He took over for Billy Bulger, who moved on to UMass. (Herald file)
All the old State House gang. (Herald file)