Mary Finnegan: Three decades as CT fiscal linchpin coming to an end

She might be the most important person in state government that you’ve never heard of.

The only constant presence behind three decades’ worth of budgets that provide billions of dollars annually for education, health care, transportation and social services. A trainer of countless legislators, staffers, lobbyists, department heads and even a lieutenant governor.

The caretaker of thousands of bills for arguably the legislature’s most powerful committee. The possessor of a deep passion for her Irish heritage and the Boston Red Sox.

Mary Finnegan announced last week it was all coming to an end – except for her love of all things Irish and the Sox.

The South Windsor resident will conclude her 37-year career in February, retiring as the senior administrator of the legislature’s Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee.

“It really is culture shock,” said former Rep. Richard Mulready of West Hartford, who led the finance committee during the tumultuous income tax debate of 1991. “She does 90 percent of the work. Those of us in the legislature did, perhaps, the other 10 percent.

“Mary has an in-depth knowledge of anything that has ever happened in the Connecticut General Assembly,” said Rep. Patricia Widlitz of Guilford, the outgoing House chairwoman of finance.

And on those rare occasions when Finnegan doesn’t have an answer at her fingertips, Widlitz added, “Mary knows someone in every agency who can answer it. She is an extraordinary woman.”

‘Mary knows what is going on . . . before it is happening’

“Mary knows what is going on in the building before it is happening,” said Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman, who met Finnegan when both were legislative staffers. “She might be going, but she is not going to be forgotten, that’s for sure. She has a true legacy.”

Since 1985, Finnegan has overseen support functions for the panel that not only controls all tax-related legislation but also billions of dollars in financing for municipal schools, colleges and universities, highway and rail work, and various other capital projects.

During her tenure, the legislature enacted the first state income tax; launched major capital programs in the 2000s to revitalize the University of Connecticut, the state universities and community colleges; and delivered two statewide tax rebate programs.

Mary Finnegan

Keith M. Phaneuf / Ctmirror.org

Mary Finnegan

And while Finnegan never had a vote on any of these sensitive topics, she made sure that all legislators – both supporters and opponents of any given topic – had all the information they needed.

“Mary has a wonderful way of being informed and clear and direct,” said former Sen. William Nickerson of Greenwich, the ranking GOP senator on the finance panel for nearly two decades in the 1990s and 2000s. “Many a late night, many a rocky budget meeting, would find the rough edges smoothed over with a calm, thoughtful and useful comment from Mary Finnegan.

“What a lady.”

A delicate balancing act

Finnegan faced the unique challenge of having to be present during budget negotiations – sometimes with one party, sometimes with the other, and occasionally with both – while providing equal, dispassionate assistance to all.

“I considered it a privilege to sit there and be involved in these matters,” Finnegan said. “Was it heady to be in there? Sure.”

Mulready, who supported creation of a state income tax, said as crazy and fierce as the public opposition got – name-calling, picketing outside of his home, an editorial cartoon showing him snatching up Connecticut’s first-born children – Finnegan’s unflappable organization at least kept everything calm in the committee office.

“She was very helpful, but, more than that,” Mulready said, “she is a very good person.”

Rep. Vincent J. Candelora, a North Branford Republican and veteran member of the finance committee, said Finnegan’s ultimate compliment is that she is viewed as fondly by the GOP as she is by the Democratic majority.

“Mary is definitely the epitome of nonpartisan staff,” he said. “And that is so important when you are dealing with the budget. Mary’s strength is her ability to share appropriate information, to help both parties thrive and put forward their best proposals.”

“Mary is so fiercely nonpartisan,” said former Sen. Eileen Daily, D-Westbrook, who co-chaired finance throughout much of the 2000s. “She brought R’s and D’s together all of the time. If it weren’t for Mary, a lot of us would never have become friends. Most people will never know what Mary has contributed to the citizens of Connecticut.”

A meticulous organizer

It now focuses on four or five dozen bills in a typical session, but the finance panel just a few years back might have had to process as many as 400 or 500 in a five-month period. Besides keeping track of the wide array of research sources behind those bills, Finnegan and her staff also know many of those bills will eventually be accompanied by draft language, and legal and fiscal analyses.

A meticulous organizer, Finnegan has always been up to the task. As a teen at Bulkeley High School in Hartford, she had completed all of her required reading years before graduating.

“She never has to write down telephone numbers,” Mulready said. “If you gave her your number once, and then saw her six months later and tried to do it again, she would say, ‘I’ve got it,’ and then read it back to you from memory.”

“She set the standard for what excellent legislative staff work should be,” said Senate Majority Leader Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, who co-chaired finance from 1997 through 2003. “She is one of my favorite people in my 34 years at the Capitol.”

“I love rules. I write my Christmas cards by Thanksgiving,” Finnegan said. “I think it’s just who I am. I’ve always been that way.”

Born Mary Elizabeth Johnson in County Offaly, Ireland, Finnegan came with her family to Hartford at age 8. Her father did line repair work for the Metropolitan District Commission, and her mother worked in the rectory at St. Joseph’s Cathedral.

After graduating from Central Connecticut State University with degrees in English and psychology, followed by a few years of teaching junior high English in East Hartford, Finnegan, then in her mid-20s, found extra work writing research papers for the legislature’s Environment Committee.

Running ‘Camp Finnegan’

After three months she would be offered the committee clerk’s post, which she held for eight years.

But in 1985, two years before the new Legislative Office Building would open, she would be given her big challenge, overseeing support services for Finance, Revenue and Bonding.

“I knew nothing about math, taxes or any of that stuff,” she said.

But Finnegan knew how to learn, and how to teach others to do the same.

Those committee staffers who worked with her over the years affectionately refer to it as “Camp Finnegan.”

“I follow them, and I’m so proud of all of them,” said Finnegan.

Graduates include nearly two dozen who now serve as legislators, lobbyists, and high-ranking administrators, including Deputy Motor Vehicles Commissioner Michael Bzdyra.

“Mary always stressed that we provide public service,” said Brian Anderson of Mansfield, now a lobbyist for Council 4 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. “She knows the rules backwards and forwards and, believe me, some of these rules are arcane. Not only does Mary know where the bodies are buried, she knows where the bills are buried.”

Robert Labanara, now state relations manager for the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, said, “Mary was instrumental in my career. This was how I learned how the entire process works, how the building functions and who the players are. It’s not easy, but she really is a mentor. We call it ‘Camp Finnegan’ for a reason.’

The most famous camp graduate, Wyman, said Finnegan “always ran a very tight ship. It will never run the same once she is gone.”

One of Finnegan’s hardest moments on the job came last year when one of her staffers, John Chaput of Manchester, passed away suddenly from complications related to brain swelling just days after being married. He was just 32.

The challenge, Finnegan said, was simply to find the strength to return to the job after mourning. “That was a defining moment for me,” she said, before taking a long pause.

‘Ethel is losing her Lucy’

Only five of the legislature’s 26 joint committees are led by senior administrators, a rank above clerk.

Another of those five, Susan Keane, took her post serving the Appropriations Committee – which handles the spending side of the budget – within a few years of when Finnegan began on finance.

“I feel like Ethel is losing her Lucy,” Keane said, choking up.

“But beyond the friendship, it was a very professional bond. The process was always first and foremost with Mary, and providing the public with access to this process was always key.”

During her tenure, Finnegan led an effort to professionalize legislative staff, including the development of job responsibility and training manuals.

She regularly provides orientation for new classes of legislators and lobbyists. Ever the English teacher, she also provides writing instruction for new legislative press aides.

And to ensure accurate reporting on the finance committee’s actions, Finnegan routinely sent extra copies of fiscal notes and bill analyses to the Capitol press room for those reporters that did not attend key committee meetings.

A drill sergeant with Irish wit

But Finnegan didn’t set high expectations just for her staff.

If lawmakers got too loud as Finnegan tried to follow a roll call vote on any given bill, a glance upward and a stern glare usually produced quiet.

“She had a good sense of humor, but beyond that, she could have made a pretty good drill sergeant in the Marine Corps,” Mulready said.

Former Rep. Ron Smoko, a Hamden Democrat who co-chaired finance in the early and mid-1980s, said Finnegan’s intense focus always was tempered by her Irish wit.

“She’s been threatening to publish this book she’s been writing for 25 years and spill the beans on everybody,” Smoko said, adding, “I keep telling her I’m dying to read it.”

Nickerson said Finnegan always reminded him one day in advance that she expected to see him wear a green tie on St. Patrick’s Day.

And she graciously forgave their first meeting in the mid-1980s when Nickerson mistakenly asked if she was the “secretary” of then-Sen. William DiBella of Hartford.

“She gave me a rather warm glare, and just said, ‘No.’ But I got it,” he said. “And that was the beginning of a long friendship. She quietly steered me right on that day and many others.”

Finnegan also could appreciate those who shared her passion for the Red Sox, forgiving those who didn’t.

“She considers me a heretic,” said Smoko, a longtime Yankees fan who still regularly has lunch with Mulready and Finnegan several times each year. “She’s not happy about it, but she tolerates it.”

All about relationships

For the immediate future, Finnegan said she is open to some type of part-time policy work, along with “travel, reading, dancing and gardening –but not necessarily in that order.”

“My Irish wit and humor helped me to survive,” Finnegan added, before quickly noting that she learned as much over the years from those she served or mentored.

She affectionately refers to Keane as “my partner in crime.”

An unaffiliated voter, Finnegan said, “Both parties think I am one of theirs, which I think is interesting.”

“I never took a political science course in my life,” she added. “But I learned you truly have to have relationships. This building runs on relationships.

“I am proudest of the fact that I am still friends with all of these people.”

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