Rep. Birmingham and other Democrats in the House pushed for a bill that would provide for primary elections for Boston mayoral and city council candidates, but the bill was defeated in the House by a vote of 80 to 113 on April 14, according got the Boston Post, Boston Herald, and Boston Globe newspapers, April 15, 1930 (JMC Scrapbooks, Vol 21, p. 147, 153).
Rep. Martin Hays, a Republican from Brighton, faced off against Birmingham, his fellow Brightonian, over the measure. Hays said that the bill was a ploy by the Democrats to ensure that the mayor and city council would always be Democrats. He stressed that if the measure should become law, there would never again be a Republican mayor of Boston.
Rep. Eliot Wadsworth of Back Bay agreed, saying the bill, if enacted, would leave it up to the Democratic Party to say who would be mayor.
Birmingham charged that opponents of the bill were “very friendly with Mr. Innes, the gentleman, who four years ago engineered the election of Mr. Nichols.”
Malcolm Nichols was a Republican who was elected Boston mayor for two terms, serving from 1926 to 1930. He beat Democratic mayor James M. Curley in 1925 to become mayor and then was defeated by Curley in 1929. Nichols was the first Republican mayor of Boston since 1910, and he would be the last Republican mayor of Boston to the present.
During a March 25, 1930, hearing of the Legislative Committee on Municipal Finance, Rep. Birmingham argued in favor of including unaccepted streets in a bill to authorize Boston to borrow $10 million to pave accepted and private roads. He said it was an outrage to force people to pay taxes on unaccepted roads without fixing them (JMC Scrapbooks, Vol. 20, pp. 31, 52, 65, 66; Vol. 21, p. 8).
Massachusetts defines an unaccepted street or road as one that is open to public travel but not formally accepted by a community, usually by a vote of the town meeting. Some private roads are also considered unaccepted roads.
Birmingham urged favorable action to help outlying sections of the city instead of spending road improvement money on widening streets downtown.
Rep. James J. Twohig of South Boston testified that his district badly needed money to improve its streets. Most of the accepted streets are in "horrible condition," he said.
Corporation Counsel Samuel Silverman testified that the mayor was seeking $10 million for permanent paving of new streets. He said that the city was ready to start work on spending between $5 million and $6 million on its street improvement program.
On March 30, the committee reconvened the hearing at which Silverman said that there were 502 petitions for permanent paving of unaccepted streets. Of the 502 petitions, 96 were for paving of Brighton streets. Silverman estimated that paving would cost $10,000 per street, or a total of $5 million, with Brighton getting $1.1 million.
Public Works Commissioner Joseph A. Rourke said that there were also a large number of accepted streets that needed paving and submitted his department’s paving plan to the committee. He said that $590,000 was already earmarked in the Boston city budget for street improvement.
Senator Frank W. Osborne of Lynn asked Rourke how much it would cost to “clear up the street problem in Boston?” Rourke replied that it would probably require between $80 million and $90 million in total.
In response to a question by Rep. John P. Higgins of Boston, Rourke said his department would have to double its workforce to implement the entire Boston road improvement program.
Silverman was then asked whether Boston would be asking for another $10 million loan next year to carry out the program. He replied that he did not anticipate that the city would ask for a similar amount next year.
Birmingham said that Rourke had told him that the money would be equally divided between improving unaccepted and accepted streets. He said the street improvement program met with his approval and favored the bills.
Also in late March of 1930, Birmingham was elected president of the newly formed Massachusetts Democratic Legislative Club, which was set up to assist Democratic party candidates in state elections and to elect more Democrats to the state legislature.
Rep. Birmingham spoke in favor of setting up a three-person panel to appoint Boston’s police commissioner, the American reported on April 7, 1930 (James Michael Curley Scrapbooks, Vol. 21, p. 89).
“The appointing power, now lodged with the governor, should be vested in a three-headed commission, one of whom should be named by the mayor, one by the chief justice of the municipal court, and the third selected by the first two. I believe there would be no difficulty in selecting the third member,” he said.
Birmingham noted that the Boston electorate had chosen a similar arrangement when it rejected having the mayor appointment all of the members of the Boston School House Commission. “The people of Boston at the last election had the choice of retaining the old school house commission, whose members were appointed by the mayor, or creating a new commission of three, one to be appointed by the mayor, one by the school committee, and in the event that these two could not agree on a selection, the third to be named by the governor,” he said.
“The people chose the latter system and thereby established a principle which I believe should be extended to the police commissioner,” he said.
“I claim that the police commissioner, under the present system of appointment, is responsible to no one. Although graft and corruption have been brought to the attention of the Republican governors time and again, the condition was allowed to continue. Only through local control of the police department can we get a responsive system,” he concluded.
Rep. Birmingham and William J. Walsh of Brighton submitted petitions to the legislature proposing the extension of the Boston Elevated rapid transit system to Newton along Commonwealth and Brighton Avenues and Washington St.
On Feb. 25, the Legislative Committees on Metropolitan Affairs and Street Railways held a joint hearing on the petitions, according to the Boston Globe (Feb. 25, 1925, p. A11). Testifying in favor, State Treasurer William S. Youngman said that the Newton-Brighton line experienced the most delays of any line of the Boston Elevated system. He said that increased taxation from the growing Brighton population should cover much of the expense incurred by extending the line.
Also testifying, Birmingham stated that Newton-Brighton line traffic is delayed at Governor Square, Cottage Farm Bridge, Harvard Ave., and other points along the line. Citing information from the Trustees of the Boston Elevated, he said that the Newton-Brighton line is carrying more traffic than any other line on the system. He added that it takes longer to reach Park St. from Brighton than it did 10 years ago.
Birmingham criticized the rapid transit line for “packing people into the cars worse than would be done to animals.”
Rep. Martin Hays, a Republican lawmaker also of Brighton, said that the extension was needed because of the rapid increase in Brighton’s population, but he said he would oppose any plan that resulted in a fare hike. He supported taking trolleys out of the subway and using rapid transit trains exclusively underground. He also said that putting in a terminal along Commonwealth Ave. might be a “necessary evil” but residents would rather have a straight ride to Boston.
Boston Transit Commission Chairman Col. Thomas F. Sullivan spoke against the proposal, saying it would cost $31 million to implement and would require increasing the fair to more than the current 10 cents.
In a May 14 speech to the Railroad Agents’ Association of New England, Rep. Birmingham attacked the state Senate for being the “death House” because it defeats so many bills passed by the House of Representatives that are in the “best interests of the Commonwealth,” the Boston Globe reported (May 15, 1932, p. A19).
The Senate is “too far away from the interests of the people,” he said during an address to the association’s 45th annual ladies’ night held at the Hotel Statler ballroom. Birmingham was representing Gov. Joseph B. Ely, who was a conservative Democratic politician who served as governor from 1931 to 1935.
The House minority leader noted that when Gov. Ely unveiled a proposal to the legislature earlier in the year to tax sales of cigarettes, movie tickets, and beverages, the hall was crowded with lobbyist seeking to defeat the measure.
Birmingham said that the people of Massachusetts needed to be more involved in public affairs to counteract the influence of lobbyists for particular interests. “It is the responsibility of all people to be interested in public affairs,” he said.
In addition, Birmingham called for relief to financial troubled communities in the state. Without the relief, “they will be as defunct as any corporation unable to protect itself….when the Governor says that all should take an interest in the matter, there is small attention paid to it.”
On March 21, 1927, Rep. Birmingham joined his colleagues Rep. John F. Buckley and Rep. James J. Twohig in attacking Martin T. Joyce, lobbyist for the Massachusetts State Branch of the American Federation of Labor, who charged that House Democrats “kill off legislation relating to labor,” reported the Boston Globe (March 22, 1927, p. 28).
Joyce and other labor lobbyists have shown little interest in pushing labor issues in the Massachusetts legislature, the three Democratic legislators responded. “The only written communication we have received on legislation so far this session from labor is the one urging that we vote for Sunday professional baseball,” they quipped.
By contrast, Democratic House members have been fighting hard to advance labor interests in the legislature, appearing before committees to testify in favor of labor friendly bills and fighting for their passage, they asserted.
“All the rollcalls put through on labor bills were put through on the request of Democratic members, and the request for these rollcalls was 100 percent,” the statement said.
Republican members of the House from heavily union labor districts do not take the initiative in secure rollcalls on these bills, so that union members in those districts have had to depend on the Democrats to look after their interests, the statement added.
In March 1930, a House Special Commission on Control and Conduct of Public Utilities issued a report concluding that the eight gas and electric holding companies that dominated the industry in Massachusetts had charged consumers artificially high rates for gas and electricity.
The holding companies were charging high rates to cover the high price of stock of the operating companies acquired by these eight holding companies, which dominated nine-tenths of the total gas and electricity business in the state.
In addition, these holding companies set up affiliated companies for management, construction, purchasing, financing, and other related services. These affiliated companies made large profits by charging high prices for these services to the operating companies owned by these same holding companies, according to the report.
Instead of breaking up the holding companies, the report, prepared by the Republican majority, recommended that the gas and electricity operating companies be subjected to additional regulation. The report proposed a number of bills that would impose greater financial transparency on holding, operating, and service companies and give the Department of Public Utilities additional powers, including regulating rates of bulk energy prices charged to operating companies and municipalities.
Rep. Birmingham inked a dissenting report, criticizing the majority report for not going far enough in exposing the “unjust charges for electric light and power” that consumers had to pay because the holding companies had to generate high profits “to pay dividends” on the “watered stock” of these holding companies.
Birmingham criticized the majority report for not conducting a thorough investigation of the financial practices of these holding companies, including interviewing company executives and examining the books and records of these companies in open hearings.
Despite being given the authority by the legislature to conduct a thorough investigation of these companies' practices, the committee failed “to convey adequate information to the Legislature or the public as to the methods which are being employed in the management of these companies,” the minority report noted.
In addition, Birmingham criticized the committee for not thoroughly investigating the possible ownership of the Boston Herald-Traveler by the International Paper & Power Company, which controlled the New England Power Association. Reports about ownership of the paper spurred the creation of the special commission, yet it failed to explore this issue adequately, he charged.
Birmingham concluded that “the menace of unemployed cannot be removed if this State is to go on paying rates for light and power far beyond what they should be. The responsibility of changing these conditions in the interest of the business men and the workers of Massachusetts is squarely up to the General Court [the Massachusetts legislature].”