The Massachusetts Senate was plunged into high political drama Sunday, with ambitious members shoring up support to become the chamber’s next president and a sense among staffers and senators that a monthslong crisis fomented by allegations against Senator Stanley C. Rosenberg’s husband, Bryon Hefner, was entering a new and perhaps final act.
Several Democratic senators said that Rosenberg, who temporarily relinquished the presidency in December, is unlikely to return to the leadership post.
The Globe reported over the weekend that Hefner had access to Rosenberg’s e-mails, tried to affect the state budget, and involved himself in the workings of Rosenberg’s office, as well as in Senate affairs — all after Rosenberg had promised a “firewall” between his personal life and legislative business. The story cited interviews with unnamed people who dealt with Hefner, as well as communications reviewed by the newspaper.
On Sunday, Rosenberg said that story “contains a number of significant factual inaccuracies,” but he did not specify what they were.
In November, the Globe detailed accusations from four men who alleged that Hefner had sexually assaulted or harassed them and who said that Hefner bragged he could influence Senate business. Rosenberg subsequently stepped down temporarily from the presidency while a Senate committee investigates if he broke the chamber’s rules.
“Out of respect for and deference to the investigation, we need to let that run its course,” Rosenberg said Sunday. “I will have further comment once the investigation is complete.”
But the knives were already out.
At least two Democratic senators, Sal N. DiDomenico of Everett and Karen E. Spilka of Ashland, were ramping up outreach to colleagues in recent days in an attempt to lock down support for their bids to be Senate president, according to people familiar with the efforts. Senator Eileen M. Donoghue of Lowell has also said she will seek the Senate’s top job, should it open.
In a statement, DiDomenico called the new report “deeply troubling and upsetting.”
“The integrity of the Senate should never be put at risk by anyone, and the public trust is at the core of our work,” he said.
Spilka, too, called the report troubling. “I am committed to working with my colleagues to continue the important work of the Senate and, more importantly, ensure the people’s trust in the integrity of the Senate during this difficult time,” she said in a statement.
Also Sunday, Senator Barbara A. L’Italien said the stories involving Hefner and Rosenberg had become a distraction from the important work of the Senate on issues ranging from criminal justice reform to affordable housing.
“I personally would not vote to reinstate him as Senate president,” she said of Rosenberg. “For the sake of the victims and the institution, we ought to think about electing a new Senate president this year.”
The Andover Democrat, who is running for the congressional seat held by retiring Representative Niki Tsongas, said: “There should not be consideration to place Stan back into the Senate presidency. I, for one, would not be able to do that. I did not see proof that a firewall can or did exist.”
There are several issues to consider, said another Democratic senator who asked for anonymity in order to not antagonize colleagues.
“There is the question of whether or not Stan violated the rules of the Senate, ethics rules, and that’s what the investigation is figuring out,” the senator said.
“Then there’s a hard-nosed political question: Can he run the body? Can he ably and effectively lead the Senate? The answer to that question isn’t always fair; it’s sometimes cut-throat. But on that one, it’s glaringly obvious. This has become such a distraction, I just don’t see a way he’s going to come back as president.”
Acting Senate President Harriette L. Chandler declined to comment Sunday, but she earlier told the Globe that allegations Hefner had access to Rosenberg’s e-mail “are deeply concerning to me.”
At least a dozen other senators, including close allies of Rosenberg, did not respond to the Globe’s request for comments Sunday.
Regarding Rosenberg’s comment about the Globe’s reporting, Globe editor Brian McGrory responded: “If Senator Rosenberg would offer specifics about what he believes is inaccurate, we’d be happy to address. His office was given the details of the story two days before publication and did not dispute our facts.” He added, “We’re not aware of anything inaccurate in the story. In fact, Yvonne Abraham has done exceptional and important work uncovering sexual misconduct and harassment on Beacon Hill.”
It’s unclear if a vote for a new, permanent president would happen before the formal legislative session ends July 31. Nor is it clear when the investigation into whether Rosenberg broke Senate rules might conclude.
That inquiry is being carried out by the Senate Committee on Ethics, with the help of an outside law firm. Senator Michael J. Rodrigues, a Westport Democrat and the committee’s chairman, responded to the new story in a text message late Saturday, after it was posted online.
“This alleged conduct is within the scope of the investigation, which is active and ongoing,” he said.
Separately, state law enforcement officials are looking into the assault accusations against Hefner.
Meanwhile, the state Republican Party used the new story to attack Senate Democrats, who hold a super-majority in the chamber.
“Senator Rosenberg has lost all credibility,” said MassGOP spokesman Terry MacCormack, “but so too have the Democrat senators who remained blindly loyal to him. . . . This fall, Democrats up and down the ballot will be held accountable for the toxic culture they have created, which tolerates this kind of abuse of power.”
Republican Governor Charlie Baker, however, was more measured. A spokeswoman said he “finds this report highly concerning and maintains that the Senate must investigate these issues thoroughly and independently so that anyone with information can come forward without fear of retribution.”Joshua Miller can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @jm_bos.