Politics

Rosenberg calls for fight against income inequality

Stanley Rosenberg was sworn in as the new Senate president on Wednesday.
John Tlumacki/Globe Staff
Stanley Rosenberg was sworn in as the new Senate president on Wednesday.

Senator Stanley C. Rosenberg, a longtime presence on Beacon Hill, was elected Senate president Wednesday, becoming the first openly gay person and first Jewish person to lead the chamber.

A liberal Democrat from Amherst, the 65-year-old becomes one of three big players in Beacon Hill politics. He joins Speaker Robert A. DeLeo — who was reelected to his leadership post Wednesday — and Governor-elect Charlie Baker, who will be sworn in Thursday.

Rosenberg’s election, which was a foregone conclusion, took place after Governor Deval Patrick administered the oath of office to legislators in both chambers amid the pomp and circumstance that marked, in official lingo, the inaugural sessions of the 189th General Court, as the Legislature is known.

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In his first speech as the Senate leader, Rosenberg underscored the importance of tackling economic inequality in the state, and he made nods to pragmatism and to extending an open hand to Baker, a Republican.

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“It is neither our job nor our inclination to obstruct him for obstruction’s sake. Now it’s time for us all to get to work together,” Rosenberg said, as Therese Murray, the Plymouth Democrat he succeeded as president, looked on.

Offering an example of a likely place of agreement, Rosenberg proposed updating the state’s earned income tax credit, which is designed to help low-income people and about which Baker often spoke on the campaign trail.

Rosenberg’s remarks, which were delivered in a quiet voice to a hushed chamber filled with senators and their families and friends, described a state in which certain people and regions were doing very well, while others were struggling.

The senator, first elected to the chamber in 1991, said that for those at the top, the recent recession is an increasingly distant memory, but the middle and bottom continue to struggle to grab hold of basic elements of the American Dream — an education, a home.

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“This is not the Commonwealth we seek. This is not the Commonwealth we, as leaders, should accept,” he said.

New Massachusetts Senate President Stanley Rosenberg acknowledged family members sitting in the gallery Wednesday.
John Tlumacki/Globe Staff
New Massachusetts Senate President Stanley Rosenberg acknowledged family members sitting in the gallery Wednesday.

Rosenberg told the chamber that no one who works 40, 60, or even 80 hours a week should need the help of the state or a nonprofit to pay their rents, feed their families, or heat their homes.

“They should find those resources in their paychecks — the resources to make not only ends meet but to have a decent, happy, fulfilling life. Together, I know, we can and must do this,” he said.

Rosenberg, who has over his years in the Senate helped lead complex efforts to legalize casino gambling and redraw the state’s legislative and congressional districts, also spoke about building safer transportation infrastructure, tackling climate issues, and reforming the criminal justice system.

Rosenberg hit some personal notes. “I grew up as a foster child on the streets of Malden and Revere. If it were not for the Commonwealth, I would have nothing,” he said. “Collectively, you put clothes on my back, food in my mouth, and a roof over my head.”

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Early in his speech, Rosenberg publicly recognized his partner, Bryon Hefner.

“I also want to send a special, heartfelt thank you to my partner, Bryon, who has stood with me in good times and in bad,” Rosenberg said, as Hefner looked on from a balcony above the chamber. “You are awesome.”

The Boston Globe has reported that Hefner’s activities have included talking with senators about committee assignments and leadership jobs and apparently taunting Murray on Twitter. That had bothered some senators.

Rosenberg said in late 2014 that he had imposed a “firewall” between Hefner and official Senate business. The newspaper later reported that Hefner accompanied Rosenberg to a conference of legislators in St. Thomas.

Also Wednesday, Ralph Whitehead, a close Rosenberg adviser and journalism professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, collapsed at the State House and was taken to Massachusetts General Hospital, according a Rosenberg aide.

After the speech, Rosenberg was asked if he considered the Senate a progressive backstop, with a Republican governor and a more conservative House of Representatives. “We’re going to be pursuing a very pragmatic agenda,” he replied.

Asked if he considered himself a progressive, he said he considered himself “very pragmatic.”

Rosenberg’s ascension was long in the making. In mid-2013, Rosenberg said he had secured the votes to succeed Murray, who was limited from serving another full term as the chamber’s leader.

In the vote Wednesday, all 34 Democrats in the 40-member Senate backed him.

In the House chamber, DeLeo easily won a fourth, two-year term as speaker on a party line vote, 125-35.

The speaker thanked the departing Patrick for his service and friendship and pledged to work cooperatively with Baker.

DeLeo offered no specifics on his agenda, pledging to spell out his priorities in a separate speech later this month.

Amid the pomp: questions about whether DeLeo will try to change an eight-year term limit on speakers that would force him to step down at the end of the new legislative session in January 2017.

Asked by reporters Wednesday morning if he would seek an extension, DeLeo demurred.

But, for much of the day, the focus was on DeLeo’s new Senate counterpart.

And for liberals, Rosenberg’s ascension was a reason to cheer. “For people like us who are left-of-center, it’s a dream come true to have someone like Stan there,” said Arline Isaacson, a longtime lobbyist who was deeply involved in the push to keep gay marriage legal in the state. “We’re not going to win every issue, but in his gut, he gets it.”

David Scharfenberg of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Joshua Miller can be reached at joshua.miller@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jm_bos.