Metro

KEVIN CULLEN

A Democratic stalwart is now the elephant in the room

Of all the appalling things contained in the allegations against Bryon Hefner, Senate President Stan Rosenberg’s husband, there was one that stood out.

When one of Hefner’s alleged victims tried to pull away from his lecherous grip, Hefner tried to reassure him, allegedly telling him: Stan won’t mind.

If an alleged serial sexual predator was going around Beacon Hill saying he had the imprimatur of the Senate president to do whatever he wanted, whether to push his political priorities or push himself on other men, then this scandal is even worse than the harrowing narrative meticulously pieced together by my colleague, Yvonne Abraham.

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Let’s get all the stipulations out of the way. These are only allegations, made by men who so far are too afraid of retribution to be identified publicly. The rights of due process need to be followed, and Hefner and, by extension, Rosenberg have not been found guilty of anything.

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But let’s not kid ourselves: This is shocking, and public confidence in the Massachusetts Senate, and its leader, is understandably shaken.

The initial reactions of both Hefner and Rosenberg did not inspire confidence.

“To my knowledge, no one has complained to me or any political or governmental authority about these allegations by unnamed and unidentified individuals,” Hefner said, displaying all the tone deafness of a statue.

“To the best of my recollection I was not approached by anyone with complaints during or after the alleged incidents or I would have tried to intervene,” said Rosenberg, unwittingly summarizing the problem.

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This from the same politician who announced this week, almost Nero-like, that for all the talk about a conflagration of sexual assault and abuse on Beacon Hill, his Senate had found only smoke.

As Abraham’s reporting showed, the reason allegations against Hefner have remained out of view, smoldering like a lit cigarette buried in the sofa cushions, is because his alleged victims were afraid of the political power and political culture stacked against them if they were to come forward.

Abraham found the same fear and reticence when she talked to women who have been sexually abused and harassed on Beacon Hill by powerful men.

Victims of powerful people are understandably afraid to come forward.

And while the allegations against the 30-year-old Hefner are vindication for those who were always creeped out by the fact that the 68-year-old Senate president was dating, then married, a man less than half his age, this isn’t about sexuality or age difference: It’s about the abuse of power.

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It’s also about judgment, and the judgment question is directed most pointedly at Stan Rosenberg. Even before they were married in September 2016, Hefner’s immaturity and cluelessness about ethical lines made his relationship with Rosenberg problematic for the Senate president.

In 2014, the Globe exposed Hefner’s juvenile mocking of outgoing Senate president Therese Murray and his bragging about how influential he was about to become because his partner was going to replace Murray.

In response, Rosenberg promised to put a firewall between his job as leader of the Senate and his relationship with Hefner.

“He’s not involved in making any of the decisions,” Rosenberg said at the time.

Hefner’s alleged victims tell a different story. They say Hefner’s relationship with Rosenberg was precisely why he was in a position to grope them, and that Hefner used his relationship with Rosenberg as both a sword and a shield, to feel invincible in his brazen, unwanted advances.

So now what? Rosenberg’s initial response, assigning a member of his leadership team, majority leader Harriette Chandler, to fashion a Senate probe into the allegations, was reminiscent of the last time a family member of a Senate president was the subject of a major investigation.

In 1995, after Whitey Bulger, the gangster brother of then-Senate president William Bulger, skipped town before he could be arrested, the FBI, which had used him as an informant and protected him for years, assigned the search for him to the same squad that had been corrupted by him. It was ludicrous and Kafkaesque.

As was the idea that the Senate could investigate this. But to their credit, Senate leaders quickly realized how much of a conflict of interest it was to have the investigation run by people who are friendly with, and in political debt to, Rosenberg.

But even now that the Senate will take the unprecedented step in hiring an independent investigator to look into the whole mess, the question remains: What about Stan?

Given his impeccable Democratic credentials, it would be a badly mixed metaphor to call him the elephant in the room. But how can he continue to preside over the Senate? How forthcoming are potential witnesses and victims going to be if they have to worry about offending the sitting Senate president, knowing that, however the investigation plays out, they or causes they care about could suffer political payback?

Governor Charlie Baker said it’s up to the Senate and Rosenberg to decide whether Rosenberg should resign. I respectfully disagree. It’s entirely up to Rosenberg.

Speaking at the State House Friday afternoon, Rosenberg gave no indication he will step down. He offered some platitudes about zero tolerance toward the kind of behavior his husband is accused of, insisted his husband had no influence over policy, and said that if his husband told others that he did, he shouldn’t have.

Rosenberg paused, visibly overcome with emotion, after saying Hefner was seeking help for abusing alcohol and that he would enter a treatment facility.

This is, obviously, a personal tragedy for the Senate president. But for all the sympathy and empathy one might feel for him, his remarks Friday, and his refusal to take questions from reporters, don’t address the not-so-small matter of that elephant in the State House.

Hefner’s alleged victims told Abraham they are wary of cooperating with an investigation that has any Senate fingerprints, much less Rosenberg’s, on it.

At the end of the day, the feelings and sensitivities of the alleged victims must take priority. They and other witnesses have a right to expect an impartial and scrupulous investigation, and that is simply not possible as long as Stan Rosenberg is president of the Massachusetts Senate.

Several of Hefner’s alleged victims said they were reluctant to share their experiences because they like and respect Rosenberg — because he has championed the same progressive causes they do.

If Stan Rosenberg respects them as much as they respect him, I don’t see how he can do his job professionally or personally because there is no way any investigation into what his husband allegedly did by dropping his name and the name of Senate business can be seen as thorough and fair if he is still running that Senate.

One of the most shocking parts of the accusations against Hefner is that some of his alleged groping took place when Rosenberg was nearby. One alleged incident occurred while Rosenberg was in the front seat of a car and Hefner and his alleged victim were in the back, driving to a political event.

In her stunning piece of reportage, Yvonne Abraham said there is no evidence that Rosenberg was aware that Hefner was groping or assaulting other men.

Maybe he didn’t see anything. Or maybe love is blind.

Either scenario is hardly reassuring.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com.