Rising quickly in the Massachusetts Senate, and leaving a lasting legacy as a coauthor of the state’s 1993 education reform law, Thomas F. Birmingham made no secret of his affection for politics and governing.
“I love this business,” he told CommonWealth magazine in 1997, when he was serving as Senate president. “I go to sleep at night and can’t wait to wake up and come in to work the next day.”
From growing up in a Chelsea three-decker as the son of a popular City Hall employee, he became a Rhodes Scholar and a lawmaker respected for the intelligence he brought to politics on Beacon Hill.
Mr. Birmingham, whose health had declined recently, died Friday in Massachusetts General Hospital. He was 73 and had divided his time between Chelsea and New York City.
As a senator, his signature achievement was coauthoring and helping to enact the Education Reform Act of 1993, when he cochaired the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Education.
His death is “a great loss for the Commonwealth,” Governor Maura Healey said in a statement.
Mr. Birmingham “had a towering intellect and curiosity and an ability to connect with a range of people,” Healey said. “Though he walked through rooms of power and privilege, he stayed true to his roots and never forgot where he came from or what mattered. His legacy includes ushering through the 1993 Education Reform Law that made our schools a model of excellence for the nation, advocating for the rights of workers, and standing up for marriage equality.”
A liberal Democrat who had been a labor lawyer before entering politics, Mr. Birmingham championed measures such as increasing the minimum wage in the late 1990s.
“I would put myself in the progressive wing of the Democratic Party,” he said in the CommonWealth interview — a place on the political spectrum that at times put him at odds in the late 1990s and early 2000s with former House speaker Thomas Finneran, a more conservative Democrat.
In 1998, Mr. Birmingham unveiled a proposal to help New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft build a new stadium in Foxborough, to keep the team in Massachusetts. And in 2002, Mr. Birmingham worked to block attempts to put a question on the state ballot that would ban gay marriage
After a dozen years in the Senate, he sought the Democratic nomination for governor, placing third in the primary behind the victor, Shannon O’Brien, and Robert Reich, a former US labor secretary.
Though Mr. Birmingham sometimes sprinkled his conversation with erudite words that reflected his lofty education at Harvard and Oxford, he considered himself very much a Chelsea boy who had watched neighbors hoof it to and from factories that lined the waterfront.
During a 2002 gubernatorial campaign stop in a Fall River factory, he told the workers: “I may be the Senate president, but I’m from Chelsea. I feel right at home when I come back to Fall River. I am the blood of your blood, flesh of your flesh.”
Born in Boston on Aug. 4, 1949, Thomas Francis Birmingham grew up in a third-floor apartment in a three-decker in Chelsea.
His parents were from Charlestown and settled in Chelsea after marrying and starting a family. John Birmingham was a deputy commissioner at the state Department of Veterans’ Services. Agnes McDonnell Birmingham worked in the auditor’s office at Chelsea City Hall.
“Tom’s years at Shurtleff Elementary School began him on a path that led to Harvard, Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, and Harvard Law School,” his sister, Nancy of Charlestown, wrote for the Globe in 2002. “No matter how far he went, he knew it was teachers like Arnie Goodman — who also coached baseball and insisted that boys in the outfield say ‘I have it’ instead of ‘I got it’ — who gave him his start.”
Inspired in part by his mother, who wrote poetry on the side, Mr. Birmingham was an avid reader who kept a dictionary propped open so he could look up new words and learn to pronounce them.
An accomplished football and baseball player, Mr. Birmingham went to Austin Preparatory, a private Catholic school in Reading. He spent a post-graduate year at Phillips Exeter Academy and was a straight-A student at Trinity College in Connecticut when he transferred to Harvard.
Throughout his adult life, he was mindful of both his working-class background and the more comfortable surroundings of his education and ascent in state politics.
“I have my foot in both worlds,” he told the Globe in 2002 during his unsuccessful bid for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination.
Indeed, Mr. Birmingham recalled that during a summer job at a Chelsea sewage treatment plant, he read the poetry of John Keats during breaks from work.
As a teenager, he met Selma Botman, who also was from Chelsea, when they were at a park near their homes. He was the “cutest boy at Quigley Park,” she recalled in 2002.
He received a bachelor’s from Harvard, studied at Exeter College at Oxford University in England as a Rhodes Scholar, then graduated from Harvard Law School.
She graduated from Brandeis University with a bachelor’s in psychology, received a graduate degree from Oxford, and earned a master’s and a doctorate from Harvard.
A former University of Massachusetts vice president for academic affairs, and a former president of the University of Southern Maine, she currently is provost and vice president for academic affairs at Yeshiva University in New York City.
They married 1977 and returned to Chelsea, raising their daughters, Erica Birmingham and Megan Birmingham Wolf, in a house about a mile from their childhood homes.
“He instilled in us a sense of adventure, leading us to swim with seals in the Galapagos and drive through rural Turkey to see classical ruins,” Erica said. “He passed down his love of sports and the importance of teamwork. He also was a fan of the arts, especially Irish music, and I can remember him drumming along to ‘A Celtic Sojourn’ on car rides.”
After Harvard Law School, Mr. Birmingham turned down job offers from large firms, choosing instead to be a labor lawyer. Some of his closest friends and relatives were surprised when he decided in the late 1980s to enter politics.
“There’s a certain shyness to him,” Botman told the Globe in 2002. “There wasn’t a consistent feeling — ‘Someday I’m going to be an elected official.’ "
In 1988, he fell fewer than 900 votes short in his first state Senate race, and was easily elected two years later.
William Bulger, the Senate’s then-president, appointed Mr. Birmingham as the Senate chairman of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Education, where he worked with Mark Roosevelt, the House cochairman, to craft and get passed the Education Reform Act of 1993.
“You could spend 50 years in politics and never have a chance like that,” Roosevelt said in a 2002 Globe interview about Mr. Birmingham’s appointment as committee cochairman at that juncture.
Bulger, who was friends with Mr. Birmingham’s father, appointed him in 1993 to chair the Senate Ways and Means Committee, which is considered the chamber’s second most powerful post. Putting together the state’s budget was challenging, even for a Rhodes Scholar.
“Not only had I never written a budget before I became chairman of Ways and Means, I’d never even read one,” Mr. Birmingham told the Globe in 1995. “It was pretty daunting.”
When Bulger left the Senate in 1996 to become president of the University of Massachusetts, Mr. Birmingham succeeded him as the chamber’s president and held that post until stepping down from the Senate in 2003.
In the years since, Mr. Birmingham had been a senior counsel at the Boston law firm Edwards, Angell, Palmer & Dodge, executive director of the Citizen Schools nonprofit in Massachusetts, and a distinguished senior fellow in education at the Pioneer Institute think tank.
In addition to his wife, his sister, and his two daughters, who both live in New York City, Mr. Birmingham leaves two grandchildren.
A funeral Mass will be said at 10 a.m. Jan. 28 at St. Francis de Sales Church in Charlestown. Burial will be private.
In 2002, Mr. Birmingham officially launched his gubernatorial campaign in Chelsea, with his family at his side, along with his mother and his younger brother, James, a firefighter who died in 2019.
“When I became Senate president, I got some good advice: ‘Be more Chelsea than Harvard,’ ” Mr. Birmingham told the crowd in his hometown, where his gregarious mother was well-known long before he was.
“Whatever happens in this campaign, whatever I make of the rest of my life,” he said, “in Chelsea, I will always be known as Agnes’s son.”
Bryan Marquard can be reached at email@example.com.