McGee Has Shot at Making Father-Son History in Next Senate Leadership Transition

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

On an autumn morning in 1967, a person I know, a friend of a friend, was standing on a corner in Lynn, Massachusetts, shooting the breeze with some friends, when an encounter with a hard-charging member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives changed the course of his life.  For the purposes of this story, let’s call this friend of a friend “Robby.”

The state representative, Tom McGee, drove by this corner every morning on his way to the State House after holding informal “office hours” at Bill’s Lunch, a small local restaurant.  Anybody could approach McGee when he was having coffee at Bill’s and talk about anything on their minds, or ask for favors.  McGee got a lot of business done that way.

On the morning in question, McGee decided it was time to have a word with Robby.  He stopped his car and walked up to the group on the corner.

“Hello, Mr. McGee, how are you today?” Robby said.

“Good, Robby, good.  But I want to ask you something: What are you going to do with your life?”

“What do you mean, Mr. McGee?”

“You’ve been back from Vietnam now for what -- two, three months?  Every day I come by this corner and see you standing here with your friends, just hanging around.  I understand you had to take it easy for a while after everything that happened over there.  Fine.  But you can’t spend the rest of your life on this corner.”

“I don’t intend to, Mr. McGee.”

“What do you intend to do?”

“I’m not sure.  I was thinking of going back to school.”

“What do you want to study?”

“You remember I was a medic?”

McGee nodded.

“I was good at that.  I helped some people when they were really hurting.  I’d like to do something like that again, maybe be a physical therapist.  You know, help people come back from injuries.”

“What’s stopping you then?” said McGee. 

“I’m not sure I can get into this program I’m interested in.  It’s very selective.  Lots of people get turned down.”

“Where is it?”


“I know some people there.  Let me see what I can do.”

McGee held both undergraduate and law degrees from Boston University, and was active in alumni affairs there.  In 1967, he was the Majority Whip, third on the House depth chart.

McGee took out a pen and a piece of paper, asked for Robby’s phone number, wrote it down, and started off again for Beacon Hill.

The following January, Robby entered Boston University.  He did well in his courses and hands-on work.  He eventually earned that PT degree he was dreaming about, and went on to a long and fulfilling career, including a stint as the owner of his own practice.  He made good money in most of those years and his family lived in a beautiful home in the suburbs.  Robbie and his wife raised two children, both of whom earned degrees from prestigious universities and are now doing well in their own careers.

“I don’t know if any of that would have happened if Tom McGee hadn’t spoken for me at B.U.,” said Robby.

Nothing could be more ordinary than a politician responding to a request for help from a constituent.  But how often do you hear of a politician going up to someone on a sidewalk, taking him by the hand, and asking, “What do I need to do to get you to a better place in your life?”  That’s more like missionary work.

McGee reached the political peak of his life in 1975, when he was elected Speaker of the House.  He served as Speaker for nine years, longer than anyone else.  Then he returned to the rank and file and stayed in the House for another six years. 

Last December, 21 years into retirement, Tom McGee gave up the ghost at the age of 88.  His death notice listed his military service, appropriately so, ahead of his political accomplishments.  He fought as a Marine in some of the fiercest battles in the Pacific during World War II.  Though he had a soft heart, McGee was tough as nails, ready always to fight for what he believed in. 

Since the death of Speaker McGee, I’ve sometimes found myself wondering if his son and namesake, State Senator Tom McGee of the Lynn-centered Third Essex District, might one day make Massachusetts history by becoming the only child of a former House Speaker to become President of the Massachusetts Senate.  It could happen.

Early in 2015, Therese Murray is scheduled to step down after serving four two-year terms as Senate President, the maximum allowed by Senate rules.

McGee is one of a handful of senators who are credible candidates to succeed her.  What he has going for him is a strong character and a first-class temperament.  He’s quiet, thoughtful, trustworthy and likeable as the day is long.  At age 57, he’s in his sixth Senate term.  As co-chair of the legislature’s Joint Transportation Committee, he recently played a key role in the enactment of a bill to fund badly needed improvements to the state’s transportation infrastructure – projects that will cost hundreds of millions of dollars over the next several years and have a long-lasting impact on the Massachusetts economy.  If you depend on the MBTA to get to work, or if you're concerned about the condition of the roads and bridges you drive on, you have to like what McGee has done in the upper branch.

No one is now campaigning for the Senate presidency, least of all McGee, but that does not at all discourage political observers from speculating on his chances and those of the other likely candidates. 

Three other contenders, Steve Brewer of Barre, Stan Rosenberg of Amherst and Dick Moore of Uxbridge, have to be rated ahead of McGee on the most-likely-to-succeed list.  Brewer is chair of Senate Ways and Means, a position that has been the launching pad for two of the last three Senate Presidents, Murray and Tom Birmingham.  Rosenberg formerly served as Senate President Pro Tem and is the sitting Majority Leader.  Moore, now President Pro Tem, has one of the longest resumes in the building.  All three are highly respected and well liked in the Senate.

IF he decides to seek the Presidency, McGee would have the hard-but-not-impossible task of moving through the Brewer-Rosenberg-Moore pack, as would other second-tier candidates, like Assistant Majority Leader Harriett Chandler of Worcester, Assistant Majority Whip Mark Montigny of New Bedford and Majority Whip Karen Spilka of Framingham -- should Spilka lose the 5th Congressional seat race and remain in the Senate.  But with the election of a new Senate President some 19 months off, the dynamics of the race could easily change.

If the senator from Lynn doesn’t make the leap in early-2015, he could well have another shot at making history later. He won’t even be 60 years old at that point.  At that age, his father had almost a third of his life to live.  The clock and genetics could still favor the second Tom McGee.

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