‘They can’t ignore this anymore’
They are glad to know they’re not alone, relieved that people believe them, heartened that at least some leaders at the highest levels are taking their claims seriously.
But the men who say they were assaulted and harassed by Bryon Hefner, the husband of Senate President Stan Rosenberg, are still afraid to be named publicly. They’re not yet sure whether they’ll cooperate with an investigation into their allegations. And three of them are angry at what they see as Rosenberg’s continued unwillingness to grapple with what happened to them.
On Thursday, the Globe published the men’s claims that Hefner had used his relationship with Rosenberg to try to coerce these men into sex and to protect himself from the consequences.
In 2015 and 2016, three of the men said, Hefner grabbed their genitals. Two of those allege he did it more than once. A fourth man said Hefner kissed him, forcefully and against his will. The men, who all work in politics, said they felt powerless to complain to Senate leaders, or to the police, afraid that doing so would harm their work and compromise their careers.
Both Hefner and Rosenberg said they were surprised by the allegations. Rosenberg said he would have tried to intervene if the men had brought their complaints to him. The Globe found no evidence that the Senate president was previously aware of the assaults.
The response to the revelations on Beacon Hill was swift and dramatic, with the governor and attorney general calling the allegations shocking and disturbing, and urging an investigation. Thursday night, Senate majority leader Harriette Chandler announced that the Senate will hire an independent investigator to examine the allegations against Hefner. On Friday afternoon, Rosenberg held an emotional appearance in which he said he was “shocked and devastated” over the alleged assaults. He said Hefner would enter treatment for alcohol dependency. Rosenberg took no questions from reporters.
Watching it all unfold in the hours after their stories came to light, each development ricocheting across the political world that surrounds them, even as their identities remained secret, was “surreal,” in the words of one victim.
It was also transforming for a couple of them to see that the painful incidents they had kept private for so long were now being dealt with at the highest levels of the State House.
“For the past two years, I have asked myself, ‘If you tell this story, will people take it seriously, or will they just circle the wagons?’ ” said one man, a policy advocate who said Hefner grabbed his genitals twice in the fall of 2015. “But to see this [reaction] — no, the world has changed, this is not going to be dismissed.”
That notion cheered one of the other men, too, an aide who said Hefner groped him several times in 2015 and 2016.
“They can’t ignore this anymore,” the aide said. “So in that way, I feel heard.”
But he, like the other men, was also guarded as the developments unfolded.
“I hope they’re serious,” he said. “One incident doesn’t change the system that prevents people from coming forward, and statements from the attorney general and the governor don’t change it either. This can’t be about just solving a political problem.”
They still feel, despite the rhetoric of the last couple of days, that it would harm their work if they were to come forward, that the power imbalances inherent in politics remain.
“It’s all about that dynamic,” said a lobbyist who alleged that Hefner forced a kiss on him at a party in 2016. “It exists to protect the people who are above the people they prey upon, who have the power to essentially threaten anyone below them with consequences. People need to understand how difficult it is to punch up.”
And so they are not yet sure whether they would cooperate with the independent Senate investigation announced Thursday night.
“I don’t know yet,” the policy advocate said. “I’d need to trust that I will be safe, that my information will never be shared with anyone. And . . . that they are taking this seriously.”
He and the others would prefer that the investigation be taken outside the Senate entirely, they said.
“If investigators are getting their paycheck from the Senate, I don’t know if I can get to yes,” the advocate said.
The men noted that Chandler and minority leader Bruce Tarr appeared to be working with Rosenberg aides Thursday.
“I am afraid to cooperate with the investigation,” said a man who works on Beacon Hill, who said Hefner groped him at a fund-raiser in 2015. “If the two senators in charge of it are still working with the Senate president’s senior staff, I have zero confidence they can lead an impartial investigation.”
The system that made their victimization possible — and that of many other men and women who have experienced harassment and assault in politics — must change for them to feel truly safe, regardless of whatever wrongdoing is found in Hefner’s case. That is the urgent business before the state’s leaders now, they said.
But for three of the men, the wary optimism they allowed themselves earlier on Friday had drained away with Rosenberg’s afternoon appearance. They were particularly angry at what they saw as Rosenberg’s attempt to deflect Hefner’s responsibility with alcohol rehab.
“Everything I have gone through has been disregarded because [Hefner] has an alcohol problem,” said one of Hefner’s alleged victims. “A lot of people have alcohol problems, and they don’t assault people.”
Another victim, who has long admired Rosenberg, said he was deeply disappointed.
“Him saying Bryon is just going to get treatment for alcohol dependence, that just does not feel like enough to me,” he said. “There is not acknowledgment whatsoever of anything. I don’t know if I was expecting any kind of validation. But this was like a gut-punch.”
A fourth man, the advocate who said Hefner assaulted him in the fall of 2015, saw Rosenberg’s position differently.
“As I watched Rosenberg I started to feel sad for him in all of this,” he said. “It sounded like there was an admission or an acknowledgment, even though it wasn’t explicit . . . I think this was a recognition that this is true, and that it has to be dealt with.”
We’ll see soon enough whether his hopefulness is validated.