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Bay State Senate President Bulger in position to consolidate his power

Those who would like to curb the power of Massachusetts Senate President William M. Bulger have about as much chance for success next year as the now-defunct Vegetarian Party of the 1950s had of winning the White House.

Unopposed for reelection from his South Boston district on Nov. 6, Mr. Bulger will be in position, when the 1985 Senate sets up shop in January, to solidify and perpetuate his control of the 40-member upper chamber of the Bay State legislature.

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With five incumbent senators voluntarily retiring at the end of this year and two others having been unseated in the Sept. 18 Democratic primary, Senator Bulger will have a bumper crop of vacant Senate leadership and committee chairman positions to fill.

For the first time since winning the Senate presidency at the outset of the 1978 session, Bulger has the opportunity to build a completely new support structure - and most of those who might have been in position to keep him from having a free hand won't be around anymore.

It's not likely the Senate president is disappointed that fellow Democratic Sen. Mary Fonseca, after 16 terms in the chamber, will not be back, having been ''retired'' by the voters in last month's party primary. Senator Fonseca is known for her independence, insistence on ''more time'' to study pending legislation, and willingness - unlike many of her fellow lawmakers - to sit through lengthy debates.

Respecting Mrs. Fonseca as the Senate's senior member in years of service, Senate President Kevin B. Harrington in 1970 moved her into the leadership as the upper chamber's Democratic assistant floor leader. She has held the post ever since.

Although sometimes differing sharply with other Senate leaders on certain legislation, such as court reorganization, her overall loyalty to the Senate president has never been in doubt.

Considerably more consistent in going along with proposals backed from the rostrum has been Sen. Daniel J. Foley (D) of Worcester, whose eight-term career in the chamber was similarly ended by his constituents in the September primary. As majority floor leader, Mr. Foley has been Bulger's right-hand man for the past six years.

A third, and long-anticipated, Senate leadership vacancy is that of Ways and Means chairman Chester G. Atkins of Concord, who has occupied that power seat for the past six years. He won the Democratic nomination to the Fifth Congressional District seat being vacated by Democratic US Rep. James M. Shannon , who is running for the US Senate.

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Competition for the Ways and Means helm could be particularly keen. It carries a $55,000 annual salary, $25,000 more than that for rank-and-file legislators, and substantial power.

The Ways and Means chieftain pretty much decides which money-related proposals come out onto the Senate floor for debate and when, as well as in what form. Only the Senate president wields greater authority on the question of what happens to various proposals.

Bulger surprised most observers when, in 1978, he chose Senator Atkins as Ways and Means chairman. Philosophically, the Senate chief from South Boston is pretty much of a conservative in contrast with the liberal-leaning Atkins. Both Senators Foley and Fonseca - along with Sen. Walter J. Boverini (D) of Lynn, the current assistant Democratic whip - are considerably more of the Bulger political stripe.

Indeed, Foley had been considered heir-apparent to the Senate presidency when and if Bulger decided to step down.

It now remains to be seen whether Senator Boverini, a seventh-term lawmaker whose first two years were spent in the House of Representatives, will be advanced to the No. 2 slot of majority leader - with its $52,500-a-year compensation.

Potential Democratic contenders for the Ways and Means chair include Anna P. Buckley of Brockton, the committee's vice-chairman; John E. Brennan of Malden, chairman of the Joint Legislative Banking Committee; Patricia McGovern of Lawrence, who heads the legislature's Criminal Justice Committee; and John W. Olver of Amherst, chairman of the Legislative Taxation Committee.

While more in the political mould of Senator Atkins than perhaps any of the others, except for Mr. Olver, Miss McGovern has managed to command not only the respect but the trust of the Senate President Bolger.

As chairman of the special committee considering various Senate rules reforms appointed earlier this year by Bulger, she successfully steered a delicate political course that stopped short of coming up with recommendations that the Senate president would have difficulty living with.

After having had a woman legislator in Senate leadership for almost 15 years, Bulger, in reshaping his team, would almost surely find it awkward to overlook Senators Buckley and McGovern.

Although certainly not about to abandon the quest for substantial rules changes that would lessen the Senate leader's clout, Sen. George Bachrach of Watertown and other Democratic insurgents presumably would welcome the selection of Miss McGovern for one of the vacant top spots.

But regardless of how the Senate high command is refashioned, Bulger seems unlikely to surrender any of his authority, which he has taken full advantage of throughout his nearly six-year regime.

Especially helpful to the Senate president in fending off any assaults on his power is the fact that well over half the senators, including all but a handful of his 32 fellow Democrats, hold posts for which up to one-third extra pay is provided and thus are politically beholden to him.

It appears the Senate reformers face a long wait.

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