Fox Professing
Academic Papers Opinion Columns Personal Essays Course Materials





Biweekly Column
Brookline TAB
Brookline, Massachusetts

Frank Smizik's Biolab Balance

Dennis Fox

December 8 , 2005

Politics and science. Risk and trust. Priorities and turf. The balancing act gets confusing, but here's what I can figure out so far.

Last spring, Boston State Representative Gloria Fox (no relation) introduced a bill to regulate Level 3 and 4 biosafety laboratories, aiming in particular at the high-danger Level 4 facility Boston University plans downtown. Brookline's State Representative Frank Smizik was one of 30 co-signers. So far, so good.

Last month, Brookline Town Meeting passed a resolution endorsing Fox's bill -- right after the resolution's author, Michael Cohen of Brookline Peaceworks, explained that the legislature's Environment Committee had just redrafted the bill, rendering it toothless. That committee's co-chair -- Frank Smizik! -- was out of town and thus unable to respond. (Disclosure: I'm a Peaceworks member.)

Last week, Smizik told me the revision Cohen criticized was "just a draft" not intended for public release, and said his committee will consider all feedback before a final rewrite. Smizik says, though, that had he been at Town Meeting he would have voted for Cohen's resolution. I'm not sure what it means to endorse a bill you're already transforming into something else, but I'm not a politician.

These twists and turns were easier to follow five years ago when Smizik first ran for State Rep. His campaign accused the incumbent, Ronny Sydney, of accommodating rather than opposing then-Speaker Thomas Finneran's authoritarian style and conservative policies. Brookline voters elected Smizik to take stronger stands, despite knowing he'd have no influence in Finneran's fiefdom.

Now that Finneran is gone, House legislative process under new Speaker Salvatore DiMasi is more open. DiMasi's policies are more conservative than Smizik might prefer, but our Brookline rep is part of the leadership team. Of course, the insider status that brings him influence also requires a degree of caution. Perhaps Ronny Sydney appreciates the irony.

Speaker DiMasi supports BU's biolab, as do Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, Senators Ted Kennedy and John Kerry, and the entire Massachusetts Congressional delegation. There are lots of jobs in that lab, it turns out. Techno-types claim hemorrhagic fever won't escape, probably. And BU knows how to lobby. So what's a progressive insider supposed to do?

Lab opponents were initially pleased to see Fox's bill go to Smizik's committee for a rewrite, but Vickie Steinitz of the Coalition to Stop the BioTerrorism Lab (and a friend of mine), says Smizik's shift toward the establishment consensus was unexpected. Steinitz also complains that the committee refused to meet with lab opponents during the redrafting. Smizik's response -- that his committee understood opponents' concerns from earlier meetings -- is accurate enough, but since the committee met at length with BU representatives who vouched for the lab's safety, fair process required meeting with opponents as well.

Back in September, when Brookline Selectmen first discussed the proposed Town Meeting resolution, Selectman Nancy Daly complained about Boston legislators willing to trade safety for jobs. She added that Smizik told her "It's almost impossible to stop this thing."

That's pretty much what Smizik told me last week. He insists, though, that his final draft will make sure the BU lab operates safely. Maybe he really believes that.

But what Smizik's bill won't do is subject the lab's high-density downtown location to the same siting rules any hypothetical future lab would face. Although he acknowledges "I wouldn't have put the lab there," Smizik says he won't release a bill with no chance of passing. "I have to come up with something that sells."

He's probably right about what legislators will buy, but giving up the fight is disappointing nonetheless. I'm not surprised, though. When he was on the Brookline School Committee, Smizik's denunciation of the high-stakes MCAS test -- another disaster demanded by the state's political establishment -- was stronger than the policies he actually pushed for in the consensus-seeking committee. Going along may be part of the job, but it's never pretty.

Something else is also disappointing: Most Brookline residents will accept Smizik's insistence that he's acting in good faith and won't press him on this. The two-mile distance between Brookline Village and the BU lab is just too large to motivate much local concern.

Note: this version may differ from the published version.

Back to Gadflying Columns List


up to top

personal/political observations
Academic Papers Opinion Columns Personal Essays Course Materials
some political, most not


Page updated September 30, 2007