Tom Birmingham

Chelsea lost one of its greatest-ever citizens this past week with the passing of Tom Birmingham, a lifelong resident who rose to the highest-echelons of state government when he served as President of the Massachusetts Senate from 1996-2002.

Tom Birmingham was a Chelsea boy through-and-through. He grew up on Essex St. in a triple-decker,  the son of John and Agnes (Agnes was a popular employee for many years in the city auditor’s department) with his sister Nancy and younger brother Jimmy. He attended the Shurtleff School, played Little League baseball, and participated in the summer park leagues, and it was at Quigley Park where he came to know his future wife, Selma Botman, while both were still in elementary school.

Tom went on to attend Austin Prep and eventually graduated from Harvard — from where he became a Rhodes Scholar — and Harvard Law School.

It would have been very easy for Tom to move into the legal world of the big-name law firms, but his heart remained in Chelsea. He used his law degree as a labor lawyer and first ran for the State Senate in 1988 against the popular incumbent, Fran Doris, and was given little chance. But thanks to his dogged determination — he visited almost every home in the district, which included Chelsea, Revere, and a large part of Everett — he came within 900 votes in the Democratic primary. 

Two years later, when Doris decided not to seek re-election, Tom ran and won, returning the seat to Chelsea for the first time since 1956 when it was held by Andrew P. Quigley.

His rise at the State House was meteoric. Two years later, he was named as the chairman of the prestigious Ways and Means Committee — a position usually reserved for legislators with more seniority — by then-Senate President William Bulger, a move that shocked the Beacon Hill political establishment.

Bulger’s faith in the young senator from Cheldea was rewarded when Birmingham shepherded the Education Reform Act through the legislature in 1993, a monumental bill that changed the dynamic of education in our state that reverberates to this day. In addition to many other reforms, most notably giving more authority to school principals and superintendents, the act changed the formula for state aid to education, providing additional funding for the state’s poorest communities that launched many of those cities, including Chelsea, Revere, and Everett, from the depths of despair into educational systems that today are able to provide a host of services for their students.

When Bulger stepped down as Senate President four years later, his Senate colleagues elected him as Senate President, a trajectory that is unparallelled in Massachusetts politics.

Tom ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2002 in a campaign in which Shannon O’Brien won the Democratic nomination and Mitt Romney, the Republican nominee, won election, effectively ending his political career.

We know we join with all of our fellow residents in offering our condolences to Selma, their daughters, Erica and Megan, and his sister Nancy.

May he rest in peace.

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