Senate President Harriette L. Chandler said Thursday she hopes to serve until the end of her term in January, but her presumptive successor refused to endorse that timeline, setting up a potentially divisive battle over the transfer of power in a chamber that has been roiled by uncertainty.
At an awkward press conference, Senator Karen E. Spilka, who has claimed sufficient votes to become the next president, trumpeted a “new era” in the Senate, while Chandler, who was just elected to the presidency in December, said she wants to remain in the post until her term expires Jan. 2.
Asked when the transfer would take place, Spilka spoke first, saying she had not discussed the timing with Chandler and other senators but wants to ensure a “respectful, smooth transition.”
“People need to be together on this,” said Spilka, surrounded by a half-dozen Democratic colleagues.
At that, Chandler interjected, batting down any notion that she would be pushed aside earlier than anticipated.
“This would not be the best time to transfer any power,” Chandler said. “My hope is we will continue to go along as we are. I hope to serve until the end of this term and then we will transfer power over quickly to Senator Spilka as the new Senate president.”
Asked if she agrees with Chandler’s timing, Spilka pointedly avoided a direct answer.
“Again, we will discuss the respectful, smooth transition,” she said. “This is something all of our members need to be a part of, as well.”
A minute later, Chandler walked out of the news conference outside her office, saying, “I think we have to go to our session,” as Spilka continued answering questions.
The uncomfortable tableau showed how the Senate continues to be gripped by swirling internal power divisions nearly four months after Stanley C. Rosenberg stepped down as Senate president amid allegations that his husband sexually assaulted and harassed four men and meddled in the Senate’s official business.
Since then, a host of ambitious senators have been jockeying to become president, while the Senate investigates whether Rosenberg broke rules.
In December, senators turned to Chandler, a veteran Democrat from Worcester who was Rosenberg’s top deputy, to serve as acting Senate president, viewing her as a consensus pick who would lead the chamber temporarily.
In February, however, as behind-the-scenes jockeying for the Senate gavel continued, senators voted to keep Chandler as president until January and remove “acting” from her title.
The aim was to calm the tumultuous internal politicking by punting the election to 2019 and allowing the Senate to focus for the rest of the year on criminal justice legislation, budget negotiations, and other pressing issues.
But any hopes that the arrangement would provide stability were upended Wednesday when Spilka, an Ashland Democrat who is chair of the powerful Senate Ways and Means Committee, abruptly announced that she had locked up the votes to succeed Chandler.
By convening Thursday’s press conference, Spilka sought to project unity and strength. She stood with Chandler on her left and Senator Sal N. DiDomenico, her chief rival for the presidency, on her right.
“I’m proud to have my colleagues here,” Spilka said. “I think it’s really important that we all work together.”
But as questions turned to when the transfer would take place, the picture became more complicated. Spilka said she had not discussed the timing with Chandler yet because she had secured the votes to become president “a little bit sooner than folks anticipated.”
“Right now,” Spilka said, “the Senate president is Harriette Chandler, and I am the Senate president-elect.”
Some senators argue Spilka should seize power quickly, to end the ongoing drama and allow the Senate to move forward before her coalition could be challenged or shaken by political events. They point out that, with Spilka waiting in the wings, Chandler is effectively a lame-duck president, weakening the Senate’s hand in negotiations with the more conservative House and governor.
But Chandler loyalists point out that she was elected to serve until 2019 and should be allowed to finish her term.
DiDomenico said Spilka and Chandler want to come to an agreement.
“Both senators want this to be resolved so there’s some clear direction of where we’re heading,” he said.
The election of Spilka as president would elevate a 65-year-old liberal who has had a varied career as a social worker, labor lawyer, and mediator.
Raised in Yonkers, N.Y., she grew up with a father who had mental illness – perhaps, she said, because he stepped on a land mine during World War II.
Spilka was the legal guardian for her younger sister, Susie, who had Down syndrome. She died last year after suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.
After graduating from Cornell University in 1975, Spilka spent two years as a social worker at a school in Boston’s South End before enrolling in Northeastern University Law School from which she graduated in 1980.
As a labor lawyer, she represented unions and workers, and was employed by the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority in the 1990s.
In 1999, she entered politics, winning a seat on the Ashland School Committee. Two years later, she was elected to the House, campaigning on a promise to increase education funding for her suburban district, which she argued was being shortchanged.
In 2004, Spilka was elected to the Senate.
She ran for the US House seat vacated by Edward J. Markey in 2013, but lost to her state Senate colleague, Katherine Clark, and finished fifth among the five major candidates in the Democratic primary.
Spilka — who has not laid out a formal legislative agenda for her potential presidency — said she is passionate about social and economic justice.
As a legislator, she has carved out a niche working on juvenile-justice issues, transportation for the Metrowest suburbs, and education funding. Her husband, Joel Loitherstein, is an environmental engineer. They have two children and a pit-bull mix, Lincoln.