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Rosenberg faces daunting path back to power, Dems say

Senator Stanley C. Rosenberg has been praised by colleagues for his “shared leadership” model of governance. Above: Rosenberg spoke Friday.
Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff
Senator Stanley C. Rosenberg has been praised by colleagues for his “shared leadership” model of governance. Above: Rosenberg spoke Friday.

Once you step down, can you step back up?

Supporters of Senator Stanley C. Rosenberg are certainly hoping the liberal Amherst Democrat can regain his post as Senate president. They point out that Rosenberg is well-liked, has built a collegial atmosphere in the Senate, and has not been accused of any wrongdoing amid the allegations that his husband, Bryon Hefner, sexually assaulted and harassed four men and bragged that he had influence over Senate business.

But political observers inside and outside the State House say Rosenberg, 68, faces a daunting path back to power in the current political climate, which has seen prominent figures in government, media, business, and entertainment banished for allegations of sexual misconduct.

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“I just think it’s too toxic a political environment, both in Massachusetts and throughout the country, for a politician with this type of baggage to be able to stay in the office of Senate president,” said Tobe Berkovitz, a former Democratic media consultant and professor of advertising at Boston University.

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Mary Anne Marsh, a Democratic political consultant, said she was also skeptical Rosenberg can reclaim the presidency.

She said the allegations against Hefner suggest Rosenberg broke his promise to enforce a “zero-tolerance policy” for sexual harassment in the Senate and to maintain a “firewall” between Hefner and Senate business. Rosenberg made that vow in 2014 after Hefner was accused of mocking senators on Twitter and meddling in the Senate’s internal workings.

“This is about his job and the commitments he made as Senate president,” Marsh said. “Stan has to convince his colleagues that he can do the job that’s he’s either been unwilling or unable to do to date.”

Rosenberg on Monday stepped down as Senate president, ceding power to his majority leader, Worcester Democrat Harriette L. Chandler, who said she would lead the chamber until the Senate finishes an ethics investigation into whether Rosenberg violated Senate rules. Senators have not set any predetermined timeframe for the investigation.

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The inquiry was prompted by a Boston Globe report published last week that detailed allegations by three men who say Hefner grabbed their genitals and one who said Hefner kissed him against his will. Although several of the alleged incidents took place mere feet away from Rosenberg, the Globe found no evidence that the Senate president knew about the assaults.

In addition to the ethics probe, Rosenberg now faces a wider group of colleagues worried that additional allegations against Hefner could emerge and at least three senators who have been quietly lining up support, should the Senate president’s position become vacant.

“It’s like sharks smelling blood,” said John C. Berg, a professor emeritus of government at Suffolk University. “He’s politically weakened.”

But Rosenberg still maintains a strong base of support among progressive activists and senators who admire his track record of pushing liberal policy priorities.

Widely regarded as the most liberal of Beacon Hill’s Big Three — Democratic House speaker Robert A. DeLeo and Republican Governor Charlie Baker are the other two — Rosenberg has been credited with helping to push legislation to protect transgender rights, equal pay for women, and paid family leave.

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He has also been praised by his colleagues for his “shared leadership” model of governance, which empowers senators to make policy and loosens the Senate president’s grip on power. “Organizationally, he has been a phenomenal leader of the Senate,” said Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz, a Jamaica Plain Democrat. Senators, she said, don’t want to “lose that in the leader of the institution.”

‘The fact that it’s Harley Chandler stating unequivocally that she’s only serving temporarily, I think, holds out hope for Stan to make a return. That’s the best thing Stan could have hoped for.’

— Thomas F. Birmingham, former Senate president 

The election of Chandler as temporary Senate president was seen as a possible lifeline for Rosenberg because, at 79, she has said she has no desire to serve in the role permanently. If the Senate had elevated one of the younger, more ambitious candidates who had been vying for the role, he or she might not have been willing to relinquish the gavel without a fight.

“The fact that it’s Harley Chandler stating unequivocally that she’s only serving temporarily, I think, holds out hope for Stan to make a return,” said former Senate president Thomas F. Birmingham. “That’s the best thing Stan could have hoped for.”

Rosenberg, for his part, has not answered questions about the allegations and has not been seen at the State House since Friday, when he read a brief statement. In that appearance, he said he wants victims to come forward without fear of retaliation but was confident Hefner did not influence Senate policy.

Publicly, many senators declined Tuesday to predict Rosenberg’s future, saying his fate will be determined by the outcome of the Senate ethics investigation. “We’re waiting to go through the hearing process,” said Senator Michael D. Brady, a Brockton Democrat. “Right now, I don’t know if he’s done anything wrong, and he’s been a great Senate president and a great colleague of ours for many, many years. So I think everybody deserves due process.”

Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.