The Massachusetts Senate is an institution on the edge.
Mind you, it has never been an island of serenity. But the current level of intrigue is something new.
Its membership includes an internally beloved former president (Stanley C. Rosenberg), a current president (Harriette Chandler), and a president-in-waiting (Karen Spilka). What it doesn’t have at the moment is much in the way of actual leadership.
“This is a fluid situation,” Spilka said last week. “It’s unprecedented. This has never happened before. So I think trying to get the temperature of what my colleagues want and trying to be respectful under the circumstances.”
Ah, the circumstances. Just a few months ago, Rosenberg looked safely ensconced in the president’s chair. But that was before the State House was rocked by allegations that his husband, Bryon Hefner, had sexually assaulted a series of men, revelations that were first reported by my colleague Yvonne Abraham . After an Ethics Committee investigation was initiated, Rosenberg’s continued leadership quickly became untenable.
Enter Chandler. The 80-year-old Worcester Democrat agreed to serve as acting president, while the Senate operated under the illusion that Rosenberg might somehow return. A few weeks ago her status became “permanent” — meaning that she would serve through the end of the year.
But political ambition, once unleashed, is not so easily reined in. The jockeying for the presidency that the Hefner scandal set in motion never really stopped. A couple of weeks ago, Spilka announced that she had the votes to claim the presidency. That is when things got really weird.
She was claiming victory in an election that wasn’t supposed to be taking place. And despite Spilka’s faux-conciliatory claims to the contrary, it didn’t take much to see that Chandler was not willing to simply be tossed aside. She walked away from media availability in which Spilka was talking about a “respectful transition.”
So much for all that mutual respect.
So here’s where they are. Spilka would like to become Senate president, the sooner the better. Chandler is willing to step down but would like to serve until the end of formal sessions on July 31. Some Spilka backers are clearly uneasy at the prospect of appearing to kick Chandler to the curb but also say they are becoming worn down by the intense drama around them.
No one is to blame here — other than Hefner, who was indicted last week on charges of sexual assault, criminal lewdness, and distributing nude pictures without consent. Chandler wants to leave on something resembling her own terms. Spilka wants the job she has the votes for. The rest of the Senate wants to find some way, any way, to emerge from this dark cloud. Rarely have I spoken to senators more eager to get to the routine work of passing a budget.
Spilka and Chandler are “talking about timing,” their camps say. But the talks aren’t really going anywhere, raising the distinct and awkward possibility of going through the spring frozen in place. It’s almost enough to make me long for the departed days of the Billy Bulger Senate monarchy. Whatever else one might say about it, there was never any hand-wringing about who was in charge. Dictatorships have the virtue of clarity.
The fight over who will wield the gavel is small potatoes in comparison to the sexual abuse scandal that put it in motion. Hefner’s alleged victims moved a long step closer to justice, which is welcome news.
But a broken Senate eventually means that many important things can’t move forward. Goodness knows, little enough happens in the Legislature as it is. This isn’t good for anyone.
If change is inevitable — as it appears to be — then it needs to happen sooner rather than later. Choosing a president will not repair the damage that’s been done. But there is only one path forward, and limping along with a lame-duck president obviously isn’t it.