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Amid scandals, future of Mass. Senate leadership still uncertain

The question of when the Senate presidency will change hands remains up in the air.
The question of when the Senate presidency will change hands remains up in the air. (John Tlumacki/globe staff/File)

In the past four months, the Massachusetts Senate has seen its top leader step aside, his husband indicted, a former colleague indicted, a sitting senator charged with drunken driving, and an unusual number of colleagues decide not to run for reelection.

And there could be more disruption to come. The Senate ethics committee is still expected to issue a report on the scandal involving the former Senate president.

Even in the State House, a place that is no stranger to controversy, the chaos that’s consumed its upper chamber may be unprecedented. The result, as senators lurch from one bombshell to the next, is that the time for official business is being sidelined by salacious disclosures and internal politics.

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“It’s been a yoke around the neck. Sometimes it feels like two steps up and one step back,” Senator Anne M. Gobi said of the repeated distractions that have surrounded the 40-member body.

“If it’s a time for rebirth,” she said, “we need it now.”

The latest blockbuster crashed through the Senate door Thursday, when a grand jury indicted Bryon Hefner, the husband of former Senate president Stanley C. Rosenberg, on multiple charges of sexual assault, criminal lewdness, and distributing nude photographs without consent.

The accusations, first reported by the Globe in November, ignited the upheaval that led to Rosenberg stepping aside in early December.

And things have hardly settled down since Rosenberg relinquished the presidency.

Just days later, former senator Brian A. Joyce was indicted on charges he turned his public office into a criminal enterprise, after authorities said he collected about $1 million in bribes and kickbacks that he laundered through his law firm.

Earlier this week, Senator Michael D. Brady, a Brockton Democrat, announced he was entering alcohol treatment after an arrest on drunken driving charges.

Meanwhile, the leadership of the Senate is uncertain.

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Senate Karen E. Spilka announced last week that she had the votes to be the next president of the Senate. But the declaration immediately created an awkward situation with current Senate President Harriette L. Chandler, who was installed in place of Rosenberg on an acting basis before senators voted to commit to her leadership for the duration of the session in the hopes of steadying the body.

Chandler has said she hopes to finish this term. But Spilka, the Senate’s chair of the Ways & Means Committee, has said that’s open to discussion.

The question remains, however, as to whether the Senate would undertake a presidential handoff during budget deliberations, when Spilka is responsible for crafting the spending proposal as the chair of the Ways and Means Committee. And that uncertainty has left senators torn on the transition’s timing — a frustrating prospect for many who had hoped her selection would end months of time-consuming rumination on the Senate power structure.

“We know in public service and in public office we are held to a higher standard. That has been tested,” Spilka said Friday. “We need to make sure that we step up to the plate, allow for healing for these instances, and turn the page to enter a new chapter in our history.

“This will be solved,” she added of the transition, “and the budget will get done in a timely fashion.”

Chandler, a Worcester Democrat, echoed Spilka, pointing to the Senate’s successes.

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House and Senate negotiators have agreed on a criminal justice overhaul bill, although the legislation has not passed the Legislature, nor is it clear Governor Charlie Baker supports it. On Thursday, the Senate passed a housing bond bill.

“With our successes and challenges in mind, Senator Spilka and I continue to speak to develop the best transition plan possible,” Chandler said.

But the upheaval has sowed doubts about the liberal Senate’s footing in talks with the more moderate House and Republican Baker.

“Any major legislation usually has an imprint from the House and the Senate, and this definitely affects negotiations,” said Richard Tisei, a former minority leader in the Senate who now works as a lobbyist. “The Senate has the weaker hand right now because of everything that is going on.”

Baker, too, voiced concern about the Legislature completing its official business on time.

“There are a whole bunch of bills pending and there are about 100 days where you can expect the Legislature to be in session between now and the time they break at the end of July,” he said Friday. “There’s a lot that’s left to be done here and time’s running out.”

All the while, lawmakers have tried in earnest to return to work, often with ears perked for the thud of another dropping shoe. Thursday it was Hefner. Next could be the report on the Senate ethics committee’s investigation into whether Rosenberg broke any Senate rules.

The Globe has found no evidence that Rosenberg, 68, knew of any of Hefner’s alleged assaults. But Baker said he assumes that information in the indictment would be folded into the Senate’s own probe.

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“If that turns up information that implies or suggests that [Rosenberg] was aware of or knew about this stuff, then at that point, he should resign,” Baker said. “People need to be held accountable for their actions with respect to this. If it turns up that other people in the Senate were involved or participated or knew and didn’t do anything, then that all needs to be factored into the decision-making.”

Rosenberg faces a challenge in the Democratic primary this fall. Chelsea Sunday Kline, a Northampton Democrat who is running against him, weighed in Thursday, saying, “I believe the survivors,” and applauding them for coming forward in the investigation of Hefner.

Against this backdrop has been a membership thrown into flux. At least eight senators who won reelection in 2016 will not be on the ballot this November. Some have left for other jobs or are running for another office. Others have simply decided not to continue in the Senate.

And then there is change in the Senate’s physical space.

Its historic chamber has been sealed off and the sounds of construction ring through the halls as it undergoes a $20 million renovation project.

The plan is to reopen in January 2019, for the next legislative session. But like its body, the chamber remains a work in progress.


Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout

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