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Karen Spilka says she has votes to be next Mass. Senate president

State Senator Karen Spilka.
State Senator Karen Spilka.(Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff/File 2015)

Senator Karen E. Spilka said Wednesday she has the votes to be the next president of the Massachusetts state Senate — a move her colleagues hope will settle a chamber in upheaval since its former leader, Stanley C. Rosenberg, stepped aside following accusations that his husband sexually assaulted or harassed four men.

The powerful chair of the Senate budget-writing committee, Spilka locked up the necessary votes with a flurry of phone calls over the weekend, according to her colleagues, tipping a race that had dragged on for months and absorbed the attention of the 40-seat body.

In a statement, the Ashland Democrat said she is “deeply honored” by the support she has received and intends to work with the current Senate president, Harriette L. Chandler, and her colleagues to ensure a smooth transition.

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“Senators have made clear that they want certainty in leadership to allow us to focus solely on the vitally important work to be done on behalf of the people at this time,” she said. “It’s time to turn the page and usher in a new era of collaborative leadership in the Senate.”

The jockeying for the Senate presidency began as Rosenberg stepped aside from the leadership post in December. His move came after the Globe detailed accusations from four men who alleged that Rosenberg’s husband, Bryon Hefner, had sexually assaulted or harassed them and who said Hefner bragged that he could influence Senate business.

The Senate launched an investigation into its former leader, but the results of that inquiry have not yet been released.

Chandler succeeded Rosenberg, with her colleagues elevating her to acting president in December.

Two months later, the Globe reported 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. That’s all despite Rosenberg promising years earlier to put a “firewall” between his personal life and Senate business.

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In an attempt to end weeks of intense jockeying, senators elevated Chandler to the presidency, removing “acting” from her title. But the politicking continued — and culminated Wednesday afternoon, when Chandler told the Globe that Spilka had just relayed the news to her.

“I congratulate her,” the Worcester Democrat said.

Chandler had previously pledged to step down from the leadership post at the end of this legislative session in early January 2019. She said Wednesday that she still expects “to serve out the term.”

But a Spilka political aide, David Guarino, said Spilka “has been and will continue to” discuss the timing of the handoff, raising the prospect that Spilka might take the gavel sooner. “The exact timing has yet to be determined,” he said.

Senate Democrats are scheduled to huddle in a closed-door caucus Thursday, though a Chandler aide said any vote concerning Spilka was not expected.

For months, Spilka, who chairs the chamber’s Ways and Means Committee, had been battling with several other senators to gather support.

Senator Sal N. DiDomenico of Everett was seen as her top rival for the post and on Wednesday said he backed Spilka.

“I would like to congratulate chairwoman Karen Spilka, and I have pledged my support to her as our next Senate president,” he said.

Senator Eric P. Lesser of Longmeadow, who had also been mulling a run for the presidency, met with Spilka at the Omni Parker House over breakfast this month. A group of senators, including Lesser, pledged their support to her over the weekend.

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“I feel very confident that Karen understands where the younger members are coming from, appreciates the need for some changes, and is committed to both a progressive and reform-oriented agenda,” said Lesser, a 33-year-old Democrat.

Senator Anne M. Gobi, who had backed Lesser, said they had been gauging support for him and Spilka before relinquishing the contest.

A Spencer Democrat, Gobi said she had wanted a new president who could deliver “regional equity” — both Rosenberg and Lesser hail from western Massachusetts — but the desire to put the president’s race to bed was an overriding factor in shifting her support.

“It’s been a distraction since December, and it hasn’t abated at all,” Gobi said. “To see something like this continue through the budget cycle . . . would have been detrimental to the Senate.”

Senator Cindy F. Friedman, an Arlington Democrat and Spilka supporter, said she’s heartened Spilka will continue the Rosenberg policy of empowering senators, instead of running the chamber from the top down.

“My sense is that everybody has really appreciated the work Stan had done to open up the Senate and make it more of a body where there are lots of voices, people had input, senators were empowered to do the work they were sent to do,” Friedman said. “I felt and feel that Karen is somebody who believes in it and will continue that” type of leadership.

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Senator Julian Cyr, a progressive Democrat who represents the Cape and Islands, cheered the negotiating skills of Spilka, a former arbitrator and mediator. She is poised to go toe-to-toe with Democratic House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo and Republican Governor Charlie Baker, both of whom are seen as more conservative than Spilka.

“Karen is a negotiator,” Cyr said. “She’s someone who, prior to running for public office, was a labor attorney. She’s someone who can collaborate, but also, when needed, she can hold the line.”

Spilka was first elected to the Senate in 2004, ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 2013, and was appointed to her powerful budget-writing post by Rosenberg in 2015.

Asked whether Spilka would consider giving Rosenberg a leadership post when she takes the reins of power, her aide, Guarino, did not directly answer.

“Senator Spilka will be discussing with her colleagues their roles in her leadership team and legislative committees at the appropriate time,” he said.

Rosenberg, for his part, issued a glowing statement about Spilka, calling her a “skilled and committed collaborator.”

“I am glad to know the Senate will be led by such capable hands,” he said.


E-mail Miller at joshua.miller@globe.com. E-mail Stout at matt.stout@globe.com.