Rep. Birmingham opposed a state Senate bill that would have limited the use of public referenda to policy issues within the purview of the state legislature, reported the Boston Herald (March 28, 1929, p 1, 34).
The Senate passed the bill in response to a referendum the previous fall on whether Congress should repeal Prohibition imposed by the 18th Amendment. A majority of the public voted in favor of the referendum, which directed the state Senate to send a “memorial” to Congress seeking repeal.
Birmingham opened the debate in the House on the Senate bill, opposing the measure and arguing that the public opinion act, which authorized public referenda, had not been abused by the voters. He said the people of Massachusetts should have the right to express their views on federal as well as state matters and urged his colleagues to vote against the bill.
Arguing in favor of the Senate measure, Rep. Howard Fall of Malden said that the purpose was to prevent useless legislation, as memorials to Congress are usually ignored.
Rep. Martha N. Brooks agreed, saying that the discussion of the Senate bill should not be based on the merits of Prohibition; rather, the Senate bill was designed to prevent the situation where people voted on ineffectual referenda.
Rep. Eliot Wadsworth of Boston said that 1,200 certified signatures of registered voters are required for a referendum and that many voters are unlikely to sign up on trivial or foolish subjects. He said the people should be able to expresses their views on important questions, whether they involve the state legislature or not.
The House voted March 27 overwhelming against the Senate measure by a vote of 35 in favor and 172 against.
According to J. Joseph Huthmacher in his Massachusetts People and Politics, the referendum favoring repeal of the 18th Amendment appeared on ballots in 36 out of 40 state senatorial districts and was approved by an aggregate of 285,000 voters.
The holding of the referendum in the first place was partly a result of surging popularity in the state of Democratic presidential candidate Al Smith, an Irish Catholic politician from New York who favored repeal of the 18th Amendment. Smith beat the Republican candidate Herbert Hoover, a strong supporter of Prohibition, in Massachusetts but lost the national presidential election to Hoover.
Rep. Birmingham supported a measure, introduced by Rep. Henry L. Shattuck of Boston as an amendment to legislation setting a tax limit for Boston of $16 per one year, to give Boston home rule on tax issues, the Boston Herald reported (March 7, 1930, p. 16).
The Shattuck amendment was also supported by Rep. Luke Mullen of Charlestown and Rep. James J. Twohig of South Boston.
In advocating for his bill, Shattuck said that current approach of the House setting the tax rate limit for Boston was actually an invitation for the city to spend money rather than a limit. He argued that the current practice of fixing the tax limit for Boston had done nothing to keep tax rates down.
Opposition came from Rep. John Higgins of the West End, who was regarded as the House spokesman for Martin Lomasney. Higgins argued that the tax limit bill should not be used as a vehicle to obtain home rule for Boston. Higgins was not opposed to home rule, but thought that the selection of a police commissioner or a preferential primary would be a better home rule vehicle.
The House municipal finance committee recommended the tax limit bill without the home rule provisions. The committee was supported by Rep. Eliot Wadsworth, Rep. Martin Hays, and Rep. George P. Anderson, all of Boston. Anderson argued that the tax limit was liberal toward the city while retaining the legislature’s authority over Boston’s tax policy.
The Shattuck amendment was rejected by the House by a vote of 123 to 69.
Rep. Birmingham attacked Mayor James Michael Curley for trying to manipulate the Democratic nomination for governor by backing John F. Fitzgerald even after Fitzgerald withdrew from the race due to illness, the Springfield Republican reported (Sept. 10, 1930, p. 1, 18).
Birmingham issued a statement chastising Curley for vowing to battle to nominate Fitzgerald despite the candidate’s decision to withdraw due to poor health as an “insult to the intelligence of the Democratic voters of Massachusetts.”
Curley’s effort to have Fitzgerald nominated was an attempt to substitute his candidate, Gen. Edward L. Logan, for Fitzgerald at the convention, according to the newspaper. Fitzgerald’s withdrawal left Joseph Ely and John J. Cummings in the race for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination.
According to J. Joseph Huthmacher in his Massachusetts People and Politics, Curley originally backed Fitzgerald for governor based on an agreement that aging Fitzgerald would only serve one term, making way for Curley in 1932.
Curley continued to support Fitzgerald even after the latter’s withdrawal so that he could push for a weak candidate at the convention and ensure Republican Governor Allen would be reelected, according to Huthmacher, citing “common reports.”
The Republican party had an “escalator system” in which the lieutenant governor would become the next candidate for governor once the current governor served two terms. Curley considered the Republican lieutenant governor, William Youngman, to be a weak candidate whom he could beat in 1932, according to Huthmacher. This plan by Curley was hinted at by Birmingham in his statement opposing Curley’s effort to continue supporting Fitzgerald.
Birmingham’s full statement is below (Source: Springfield Republican):
"Mr Curley today appears in the role of a party dictator when he would override the wishes of former Mayor Fitzgerald and the members of Mr. Fitzgerald’s family, have the party nominate Mayor Fitzgerald and then have the state committee ‘substitute the ablest man in the Democratic party.’ Is he running out on Allen now? He already has run out on Whipple and Logan.
"Mr Curley’s proposition is an insult to the intelligence of the Democratic voters of Massachusetts. Moreover, he shows not the slightest consideration for former Mayor Fitzgerald or the latter’s family, confirming the opinion held all along by those familiar with the situation that Mr Curley had not the slightest interest in Mayor Fitzgerald’s success after the primary but was simply using him to prevent the nomination of someone who he feared might defeat Gov Allen and thus stand in the way of the fulfilment of Mr Curley’s pipe dream that he could be nominated and elected in 1932.
"Mr. Curley flouts the voters as usual. He would have them go through the form of nominating Mayor Fitzgerald and then have the former mayor withdraw and let 100 or more members of the state committee fill the vacancy. In other words, he would have 100 Democrats instead of the 800,000 in Massachusetts do the nominating for the party. It is ridiculous. Mr Curley [illegible] fast thinker, but apparently he thought too fast in this situation, not stopping to reflect that the state committee, if it did not nominate Mr Ely, might choose former Mayor Peters as the candidate in the event of the nomination and withdrawal of former Mayor Fitzgerald.
"I am a better friend of Mayor Fitzgerald than is Mr Curley. I sympathize with Mayor Fitzgerald and can do this without changing my previously expressed belief that the Democratic voters of Massachusetts would have chosen Mr Ely as their standard-bearer even with Mayor Fitzgerald as his opponent. The Democrats of Massachusetts will nominate Ely next Tuesday and the voters of Massachusetts will elect him on the first Tuesday of November. Mr Curley and his friend, Gov Allen, are very uncomfortable today.”
In a letter to Attorney General Joseph E. Warner, Rep. Birmingham criticized Warner for inaction on combatting auto insurance fraud, which was pushing up rates, despite expressing “indignation and promised actions” during last fall’s election campaign, according to the Springfield Republican (April 5, 1929, pp. 1, 16).
Birmingham also attacked Republican Governor Frank Fuller for not taking action, despite requesting as lieutenant-general that Commission Monk allow the rates on compulsory auto liability insurance to remain at the present levels until further data was collected.
“Why doesn’t Gov. Allen take definitive steps now to relieve the situation if he held such views before election?” Birmingham asked.
Frank A. Goodwin, former registrar of motor vehicles who was ousted by Gov. Fuller, denied rumors that he wrote the letter sent by Birmingham to Warner. Before leaving his post as registrar, Goodwin had compiled a list of around 80 cases in which no accident report was made but later a claim was filed for personal damage insurance. In some of these cases, the lawyers had filed the claims without the operator’s consent.
In response to Birmingham’s letter, Warner referred to the report he made to the legislature in which he determined that information given to him by Monk was insubstantial and did not warrant prosecutions.
Below is Birmingham’s letter addressed to Warner in full:
Hon Joseph E. Warner, attorney-general for the state of Massachusetts, State House, Boston, Massachusetts:
Dear Sir: As a representative of the people, I feel it my duty to interest myself in the present compulsory automobile insurance law and am writing to you as you have shown interest in it to the extent of promising a complete investigation of the corrupt practices of lawyers and doctors in presenting fraudulent claims—an alleged reason for the higher rates. I dissented, as a member of the rules committee on the resolve presented by the committee on insurance that a special commission be appointed to study these insurance rates in the future. The time to look into them is now. If this vital question is longer postponed, the people will protest actively against their slow moving public officials. Most earnestly do I desire to be quick to defend the people of this commonwealth; and, therefore, I am going to ask you to give the results of your investigation.
First let me quote some of the fervent official denunciations of these rates, made, it is true, in August 1928, when the Republication party was seeking votes.
You, yourself, said in your letter to Commissioner Monk in August 1928 that you “would act as prosecutor to the rights of the people of the commonwealth in an investigation of the connection between ‘quacks’ and ‘shysters’ and insurance rates.”
Gov Fuller was also aroused to state on August 21, 1928--
“Large numbers of people have made fraudulent claims under the law and were aided and abetted in this contemptible practice by doctors and lawyers alike to a point where the insurance commissioner is going to make a complaint to the Bar association that certain lawyers notorious for practice in this regard should be disbarred. It is well known that certain doctors have collaborated in offering evidence for fraudulent claims and this matter the state board of registration in medicine has already taken up.”
Was this indignation and promised action a gesture? If not, why is it all so soon forgotten? What was the outcome of your investigation? The people of this state should not be penalized to uphold the practices of dishonest lawyers and doctors. If these frauds were perpetrated, by all means let us have the matter brought into light. If the statement of Commissioner Monk had no foundation, then this feature which contributed so largely to the adopting of higher rates should be corrected, and the rates correspondingly lowered.
The present silence after such a storm of protest makes those anxious to clear up this situation feel that something has been hushed up. Was Commissioner Monk fair with the people? Let me remark here that I understand that he is now holding a position with an insurance company which pays him about $15,000 a year.
Commissioner Monk also stated that approximately $6,000,000 was held in reserve for the settlement of 13,000 odd cases. This was in August 1928. Now, in April 1929, it is still maintained that the same amount and the same number of cases are still outstanding. Has none of the cases been settled by the court procedure? It is strange that this large sum of money does not decrease, nor the cases reach conclusion.
Our present governor, then Lieut-Gov Allen, injected himself into the issue and on August 25, 1928, he requested Commissioner Monk to allow the present rates on compulsory automobile liability insurance to remain as at present until at least further data had been received. Why doesn’t Gov Allen take definitive steps now to relieve the situation if he held such views before election?
Lieut-Gov Youngman was so deeply interested as to file a bill against this unjust legislation, but what has he done to further corrective measures? His voice so often raised on the platform election time was silent when an opportunity came for him to pursue tangible policy. Does he oppose the dilly-dally policy of the Republican legislation, or is he a party to it?
On the Republican party rests the responsibility of these rates and they must assume the responsibility. Now in April 1929, just in August 1928, these office-seekers must clear themselves in the eyes of the people of this state. They must do something—now. Next year the insurance companies, fattening on the easy money of the present tax, will seek and obtain another larger tax. Let us seek to make one rate for the zoning law, and that one the minimum and not the maximum rate. Let up take up the fight as earnestly as the Republicans promised to do before election, and let us accomplish this vital reform without further delay.
I have risen as a representative of the people of this commonwealth to bitterly oppose a further postponement of this question. As you have in the past professed a deep interest in the subject, will you join forces with me in the present to settle this subject of insurance rates by giving me details of your investigation?
May I have a speedy reply to this important matter?
Very truly yours,
Rep. Leo M. Birmingham
Three Democratic representatives—Rep. Paul Dever of Cambridge, Anthony A. McNulty of Boston, and William H. Hearn of East Boston—mounted challenges to Rep. Birmingham for the position of minority floor leader in the waning days of 1930, the Boston Herald reported (Dec. 14, 1930, p 57).
Governor-elect Joseph Ely was asked to remain neutral on the question, although Birmingham backed his election even when that was unpopular among Irish Catholic politicians, the newspaper said.
Dever became the leading candidate but his close relationship with Mayor James Michael Curley, a political opponent of Ely, made legislators who support Ely reluctant to elect him as the governor’s spokesman in the House.
Dever told the newspaper that he believed he had sufficient support to be elect House minority floor leader. Birmingham had done little to retain his post, although he was eager to continue, the newspaper said.
In the end, Birmingham defeated Dever by a vote of 68 to 26 on Jan. 7, according to the Springfield Republican (Jan. 8, 1931, pp. 1, 18).
Rep. Birmingham advocated for clemency for the three individuals convicted of the car barn murder and sentenced to death, according to the Boston Herald (August 4, 1926, pp. 1, 9).
John J. Devereaux, John J. McLaughlin, and Edward J. Heinlein were convicted in the murder of James H. Ferneau, a watchman on duty at the Boston and Middlesex Street Railway office in Waltham, during a 1925 robbery.
Devereaux killed Ferneau during a struggle in which the watchman was shot and beaten. At the time, McLaughlin and Heinlein were robbing the railway cashier on the second floor. The jury found that all three men were guilty of first degree murder and given the death penalty.
Birmingham said that he had known the men for 30 years and had been friends with them at one time. He attributed their getting into trouble to abuse of alcohol.