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Three announce bids for Senate presidency — with a big ‘if’

From left to right, state Senators Linda Dorcena Forry of Dorchester, Eileen M. Donoghue of Lowell, and Karen E. Spilka of Ashland.

By Globe Staff 

Three senators openly declared their interest in serving as Senate president Wednesday, amplifying the tumult and high political drama in the chamber, which already has an acting Senate president, as well as a former senate president lingering in the wings.

After days of behind-the-scenes machinations, Democrats Linda Dorcena Forry of Dorchester, Eileen M. Donoghue of Lowell, and Karen E. Spilka of Ashland trumpeted that they want the Senate’s top job, should it open. Their declarations represented an unusual breach of informal protocol on Beacon Hill, where leadership fights usually play out behind closed doors over several months or years.

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But the standard operating procedure has been scrambled since last week, when the Globe reported accusations from four men who alleged that then-Senate President Stanley C. Rosenberg’s husband, Bryon Hefner, sexually assaulted or harassed them and who said Hefner bragged he had influence on Senate business.

The allegations led Rosenberg to temporarily step down from his position on Monday while his colleagues launched an ethics investigation into whether he broke chamber rules. He has not been accused of any wrongdoing, and, though three of the alleged incidents with Hefner took place when Rosenberg was just feet away, the Globe found no evidence that Rosenberg knew about the assaults. 

Monday night, senators chose Senator Harriette L. Chandler, who turns 80 later this month, as acting president. Seen as a caretaker leader, she has vowed to step down when the inquiry into Rosenberg is complete.

Still, the open jockeying for the job is irking the Worcester Democrat. Chandler is trying to settle the Senate and get lawmakers focused on the important bills before them.

“I’m more concerned about it making it difficult to move forward with these rumblings going on,” she said. “I think we’re going to have to talk about that.”

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One other senator appeared to be angling for presidency, but just not as overtly.

Senator Sal N. DiDomenico of Everett, a Democrat, is also seen as a likely contender should the position become open.

Greeted by reporters after a hearing on state tax revenue Wednesday, he spoke carefully.

“We have an acting president,” said DiDomenico, 46. “There’s a possibility of the president, Stan Rosenberg, coming back at some point, depending on the findings of the investigation. That’s the whole point of the investigation, to see where the facts lead us. And, at that point, we’ll see what happens in the future.”

The statements from the more openly ambitious pols came in quick succession.

“I will run for Senate president if a vacancy exists,” said Donoghue, a 63-year-old former Lowell city councilor and mayor who unsuccessfully ran for Congress in 2007 and won her seat in the Senate in 2010.

“If there is a vacancy for Senate president, I do intend to pursue that opportunity,” said Forry, the 44-year-old daughter of Haitian immigrants and rising star in the state Democratic party, first elected to the Senate in 2013.

“I will seek the Senate presidency should the vacancy arise,” said Spilka, the 64-year-old chairwoman of the powerful Senate budget-writing committee who ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 2013 and was first elected to the Senate in 2004.

Since last week the jockeying among senators to succeed Rosenberg has been intense — but with the oft-repeated caveat, “He might come back.”

Still, the people who hope to succeed him and their allies are burning up their cell minutes to sweet talk colleagues and angle for votes. And what candidate senators choose — and whether they win or lose — can shape career trajectories. Democrats have a super-majority in the 40-seat Senate. The president, who is elected in a formal session by the full chamber, has vast power over policy and who serves in top positions.

All the internal politicking is happening as senators struggle with sadness and anger about the allegations of assault, and worry about the victims.

“A leadership change is always messy, always tense, and always tries friendships; it would do that in the best of circumstances with months of run-up,” said former senator Benjamin B. Downing. “But to have to grapple with it at a time when an individual is alleged to have committed these heinous acts, you have a place that is really frayed.”


Yvonne Abraham and Michael Levenson of the Globe staff contributed to this report Joshua Miller can be reached at joshua.miller@globe.com
Follow him on Twitter @jm_bos