Until recently, Bryon Hefner was widely considered a success story – a former foster child who was homeless, abused, and shuttled through a dozen homes but still managed to graduate from high school with honors and go on to college and a career.
But since his partner, Stanley Rosenberg, was anointed the incoming Senate president last year, Hefner has been stirring unease in the Senate, first privately and now publicly. Mocking tweets attributed to Hefner have sparked anger, as have his reported boasts about the influence he would wield when his partner takes over next month.
Hefner’s behavior prompted Rosenberg to assure his Senate colleagues this week that he would enforce a “firewall” between his private life and public duties.
But some friends who know the couple say privately they are furious that Hefner could have jeopardized Rosenberg’s long career with his actions. Others say they are simply perplexed.
“He had a very troubled childhood, which he survived, and is very smart and articulate, and I don’t really understand at all what’s happened around the State House,” said Phil Johnston, a former chairman of the state Democratic Party and founder of the Robert F. Kennedy Children’s Action Corps, which ran the residential facility in Lancaster where Hefner lived from age 11 to 14. “He has been a success.”
Representative Ellen Story, an Amherst Democrat, said she has known Hefner, 27, for years and is “very fond of him.”
“I’ve seen him around Stan and have seen how much they care about each other,” she said.
When Rosenberg was diagnosed with cancer, Hefner “was just unflappable,” she said. “Bryon was a tremendous help.”
Rosenberg — who, like Hefner, was raised in foster homes — declined to comment on Thursday, and Hefner did not respond to phone calls and e-mails.
In the past, Hefner has been open about discussing his difficult upbringing.
His mother was addicted to drugs and alcohol and abused him emotionally and physically, he told the Worcester Telegram & Gazette in a 2006 story about his rise from neglect.
At 10, he was sent to his first foster home, where he was beaten, and then sent to a psychiatric hospital, he told the Worcester paper.
At the RFK Children’s Corps home in Lancaster, where he landed next, he thrived. But after four years there, he bounced between foster and group homes, a juvenile detention center, then another group home.
At 18, in a program run by the Home for Little Wanderers, he had “probably the best experience of my life,” he told the Valley Advocate in 2008.
“The staff was nurturing, and they cared,” he said. “Whether you were excited because you got a part in a play or just needed someone to understand how tired you were after going to school and then working 30 hours a week, they were right there. There wasn’t anything they wouldn’t do for us.”
Hefner graduated from Norwood High School with honors in 2006 and was accepted to Lesley University. Two years later, after interning in two State House offices, he was hired for a summer job in Rosenberg’s office.
Rosenberg told Commonwealth Magazine earlier this year that he and Hefner talked of their shared histories as foster children, but kept a “a typical employee-employer relationship, no socializing or anything like that.”
After Hefner, then 21, left Rosenberg’s office at the end of the summer, they began dating, according to Commonwealth. They have lived together since 2009 and generally spend weekends in Amherst and weekdays at a condo on Beacon Hill, Commonwealth reported.
Rosenberg, 65, declined to talk to the magazine about the 37-year age difference between him and his partner, but Hefner said people have looked beyond “stereotypes or prejudices” and accepted them in Amherst and at the State House.
“We are in a deeply committed relationship,” Rosenberg told the Globe in an interview about Hefner’s meddling in Senate business.
“It was very difficult getting to this point in my life, frankly, to actually have relationships, and he actually brought me to the dance, if you will,’’ Rosenberg said. “I would not have come out if he had not come into my life. It was the greatest gift anyone has given to me.”
Hefner has been an engaged partner, helping to organize a fund-raising gala to celebrate the senator’s 25th year in the Legislature, nudging the veteran Amherst Democrat onto Facebook and Twitter, and encouraging Rosenberg to hold his first joint office hours with Story.
Rosenberg, who has secured enough support among his colleagues to win the Senate presidency, must still win a formal vote when the Legislature reconvenes in January.
George Regan, the politically connected public relations guru who hired Hefner to work at his firm in May, said Thursday he was confident Hefner would not do anything further to embarrass himself or his partner.
“Bryon is a very special person who has had an incredibly difficult life and his talents belie his age,” Regan said. “He’s assured me it’s not going to happen again, and I take him at his word.”
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Michael Levenson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.