State Sen. Rosenberg Speaks Out After Partner Controversy

CAROL LOLLIS

When state Sen. Stanley Rosenberg was named chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee in 1996, he said time would tell whether the job would be the pinnacle of his career or just a step on the ladder. If, as is widely expected, he is elected next month to be president of the Senate, it will be clear that heading up the powerful Ways and Means panel, which decides who gets money and how much, was a step toward an even more influential position. In a two-hour interview Sunday after returning from a week away, first on Senate-related business and then on vacation, the Amherst Democrat discussed his 27-year career as a state legislator, his thoughts about leading the Senate, his relationship with the incoming Republican governor, Charlie Baker, and his role models in politics. “I’m excited and humbled by it. It’s a big job,” he said of the Senate presidency. Reluctantly, Rosenberg also answered some questions — and declined to answer others — about the recent controversy over the behavior of his partner of six years, Bryon Hefner, 27. Rosenberg, 65, who maintains homes both in Amherst and on Beacon Hill that he shares with Hefner, also explained why over his long legislative career he has so fiercely guarded his privacy. It goes back, he said, to his childhood in foster care. “People in foster care are marginalized, they are ‘an other,’ and when you’re a ward of the state, you don’t want people to know that. My whole experience from my earliest days was in not telling people who I was and how I was living,” he said. “And then, as a young gay person growing up in the ’50s and ’60s, it was an extension of that.” As a legislator, he said, he threw himself so deeply into his work that for many years he had no social life to keep private anyway. On reflection, he believes he did that in part as a way to protect himself from others who might judge him harshly. Being Jewish, he said, is another factor. “In three areas, I’m ‘an other.’ Being an other in just one way would be enough to not want to talk about yourself,” he said. “I worked so much so I wouldn’t have a private life because then I wouldn’t have to deal with people on those subjects.” In his relationships with other legislators and those in the business of governing the state, he said, he rarely engaged in personal chitchat, instead preferring always to focus on the work — which may be why he has developed such a strong reputation as an astute policy wonk and a senator with an admirable work ethic. “It was a defense mechanism, I suppose — if I don’t ask you about yourself, you won’t ask me about myself.” Troubling allegations The recent controversy involving his partner has blown that approach wide open, and in Sunday’s interview, Rosenberg entertained questions under the condition laid out ahead of time that he might not answer all of them. A Dec. 3 article in the Boston Globe made allegations about Hefner’s behavior that some say were serious enough to threaten Rosenberg’s election to the Senate presidency. These included reportedly boasting about his influence on Senate business, although the report did not offer any specific comments made by Hefner or say who made the allegations. In addition, well before the November election, Hefner tweeted a picture of himself with Baker, his wife, Lauren, and his running mate, Karyn Polito. The Globe story also described tweets that mocked and disparaged outgoing Senate President Therese Murray — although the story says it could not verify who posted the Murray-related tweets. In the Gazette interview, Rosenberg declined to comment on the specific allegations in the Globe story, although he did answer other questions related to the controversy. He also would not permit an interview with Hefner, nor has Hefner been interviewed by other media. Of his relationship with Hefner, Rosenberg said, “We have a very close, committed relationship,” and would say little more. He confirmed that Hefner had been a Republican when he was younger, but that in recent years he became a Democrat, and campaigned for Democratic candidates Maura Healey, Steven Grossman and Steve Kerrigan. He said Hefner played a part in his political life two years ago when he organized an event to mark Rosenberg’s 25-year anniversary, and also around that time, when Hefner was not working, he helped set up social media accounts for Rosenberg. “He had time on his hands,” said Rosenberg. That’s not true anymore, since he’s worked for the Boston communications firm Regan Communications for about six months. Rosenberg said after setting up those social media accounts, Hefner’s involvement stopped, and by now, all posts and tweets from Rosenberg’s accounts come only from his staff. Rosenberg said when the Globe story came out, he reached out to all Senate Democrats with a brief note in which he vowed that there would be a “firewall” between his personal life and the public business. Asked Sunday what he meant by a firewall, Rosenberg said: “Bryon will focus on his job and I will focus on mine. He will not be influencing decision-making in the Senate. Partners talk to each other. It doesn’t mean they are influencing the final decision.” The reaction from his fellow Democrats in the Senate, Rosenberg said, was swift and supportive. He said virtually all of his colleagues sent texts, emails or phoned him to offer support, all saying essentially, “we’re still with you, hang in there.” He said he has met with or spoken with all the Democrats in recent weeks, and doesn’t expect his election to the presidency to be jeopardized by the controversy. “My support is still very strong and secure,” he said. “Their general view is that this is a dust-up and kerfuffle and they are sticking with me.” Rosenberg’s fellow Amherst Democrat, state Rep. Ellen Story, said she trusts Rosenberg’s ethics implicitly, and noted that people in politics are always trying to claim they’ve influenced someone’s decision. “They try to take credit,” she said. The point is, she believes, that Rosenberg won’t be influenced in that way. “He is a savvy, experienced legislator — he knows better than that,” said Story. “He’s way beyond that.” As for whether the controversy would put his presidency in jeopardy, she said she does not believe it will. “People are used to having a spate of bad press. If he’d been caught embezzling money, that would be one thing. This is a personal blip and it will fade away,” Story said. “It has no bearing on his ability to be Senate president.” Setting precedents It does not escape Rosenberg’s notice that he is poised to become a Senate president with two notable firsts: He would be the first Jewish president and the first Senate president who is part of the LGBT community. To that end, he’s already done a considerable amount of work, even before the election. In an unusual situation, Rosenberg and his supporters realized in the summer of 2013 that he likely had the votes to be elected president, and consequently, he has spent 16 months preparing to take office. He has traveled around the state meeting with business groups, trade groups, human service organizations and others — holding 175 such meetings — to hear from a wide variety of people their views on the needs of the commonwealth. As for an agenda for his presidency, Rosenberg said his approach to setting that is a departure from past practice. He intends to develop a set of goals in collaboration with fellow senators. He has made headway on this by holding a daylong retreat with Senate Democrats earlier this month, in which they discussed a vision for the future of the state and ideas for changing the operation of the Senate. That session was followed a week ago with a bipartisan information caucus in which senators heard from experts on the economy of the state. No decisions were made at either session, and such sessions are not typical for an incoming Senate president, he said. They signal “a change in culture to one of more information, everyone having the opportunity to participate in a robust conversation leading to more engagement by members,” said Rosenberg. He said the reaction from senators has been appreciative, with many asking for more such sessions. “Information is power and sharing information and knowledge will enhance the body’s ability to act cohesively, with all members feeling like they are stakeholders,” Rosenberg said. Because of this more collaborative approach, Rosenberg said when he makes what he expects will be a brief speech after he is elected president, it will not be heavy with detail about the goals and agenda for the Senate’s next term. “We are developing it together, and if I am going to make this work, I can’t jump ahead of the membership,” he said. “This is about changing the way we do business and how we organize and operate.” Asked how his presidency might differ from past administrations, Rosenberg said he believe it may be mainly in the way he wants senators to have a much greater role in setting priorities. While Senate presidents typically assembled a “small kitchen cabinet” of advisers, he intends to cast a wider net. “My approach is to have a broader coalition approach, “ he said. “I build coalitions and try to engage as many people in the conversation as possible.” Reducing cynicism Rosenberg said he’s met with or had phone conversations several times with Baker since he was elected, that they’ve exchanged cellphone and home phone numbers, and that they plan to have regular meetings to develop a good working relationship even if they don’t always agree. “The idea would be to keep communication open and going even when we’re in rough waters because then it’s even more important,” Rosenberg said. Asked who his role models are in politics, Rosenberg was quick to answer: Presidents Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Mahatma Gandhi. And then, he was quick to explain why: Gandhi because he was a leader who didn’t rely on formula or expected tactics; JFK because his words were particularly inspiring to him when he was a teenager; FDR because he was a bold and creative leader who changed the country in very dramatic ways with things like Social Security and the WPA. Lincoln, he said, held the nation together while also leading it to take the first major steps in changing race relations in this country. Rosenberg seems to think a lot about how to get more people more involved in politics and the electoral process. One of the concerns he has about politics in general is the poor reputation of many political leaders nowadays. “I worry about public cynicism and I worry about the low esteem in which this body is held,” he said. “My goal is to reduce cynicism and encourage more engagement with the public.” As for his career, he said he feels ready to assume the Senate presidency. He’s not scared, though he does not minimize just how challenging it will be. “It’s exciting to have the opportunity to move into this position,” he said. “It’s also humbling, because it’s a very big job and brings with it an incredible sense of responsibility, both to the body and to the commonwealth.”• Editor’s Note: This article ran in the Daily Hampshire Gazette on Dec. 15, 2014. Reprinted with permission.

Laurie Loisel

Author: Laurie Loisel

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