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Indictments. Scandal. Power struggles. As new Senate president, Spilka aims to ‘right the ship’

Senator Karen Spilka.
Senator Karen Spilka.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

After eight months of scandal, tumult, and legislators quitting in the middle of their terms, the state Senate will begin a new chapter Thursday, when Senator Karen E. Spilka, the chamber’s budget chief, is poised to become its new president — the third since December.

Her colleagues hope the Ashland Democrat’s ascension will mark an end to the drama that saw a former member indicted on federal corruption charges, the chamber’s leader forced out in a sexual assault scandal involving his husband, and a very public fight to succeed the former president.

“Everyone is desperate for a return to normalcy and a refocus on the issues voters sent us here to tackle: creating jobs, ensuring public safety, fixing public transportation,” said Senator Eric P. Lesser, a Longmeadow Democrat. “She’s going to be that leader for us. She has a history as a mediator and an attorney, and she’s someone with a real North Star about what needs to get accomplished.”

A 17-year veteran of the Legislature, Spilka indicated she intends to continue the Senate’s push for liberal legislation, a contrast with the more conservative House of Representatives, which is also controlled by Democrats, and Republican Governor Charlie Baker.

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“Civil, social, and economic justice is important to me,” Spilka said. “You can call that progressive. Other people may call it something else.”

Spilka said early priorities for her include veterans benefits, reducing the stigma of mental illness, education funding, and making sure everyone has an opportunity to participate in the state’s growing economy.

The formal legislative session ends Tuesday night, and Spilka acknowledged that all of the pressing matters in the Commonwealth might not be addressed before then. She flagged tackling the high cost of housing, public transportation infrastructure, and energy and the environment as key priorities for the next session, which begins in January, and for which she will have to be reelected by her constituents and her colleagues.

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Spilka emphasized the many substantive pieces of legislation the Senate has passed in recent months, but also said her ascension is “a chance to turn the page and right the ship.”

The drama began in late November, when the Globe reported allegations from four men who said Bryon Hefner, the husband of then-president Stanley C. Rosenberg, had sexually assaulted and harassed them and bragged he could influence Senate business.

Rosenberg soon stepped down from his leadership post, but not his elected office, as a Senate committee investigated his conduct.

Senator Harriette L. Chandler, Rosenberg’s number two, was elected by her colleagues to temporarily take the reins. But a very public campaign to be the next Senate president began immediately, which senators said was a huge distraction from the work of lawmaking.

Days later, in early December, former senator Brian A. Joyce was indicted in federal court on charges of mail fraud, corruption, money laundering, and embezzlement — accused by prosecutors of turning his public office into a criminal enterprise. He pleaded not guilty.

Chandler announced in February that her colleagues had decided she would be president until the beginning of 2019, an attempt to steady the chamber. But the jockeying to succeed her remained in full swing, and Spilka announced in March that she had the votes to become president. That set off an awkward back-and-forth over when the transfer of power would take place.

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Hefner was indicted by a statewide grand jury and, in April, pleaded not guilty to multiple sexual assault charges. In May, the Senate finished its inquiry into Rosenberg and released a damning ethics report about his conduct and judgment.

Under pressure, Rosenberg resigned — one of six Senators in the 40-seat chamber who have stepped down during the two-year legislative session.

Most senators in the Democratic-controlled chamber have remained, however, trying, with some success, to focus on the substantive work of lawmaking.

In farewell remarks as she stepped down from the presidency, Chandler on Wednesday pointed to Senate-passed legislation — now law — boosting the minimum wage, creating a paid family and medical leave program, and strengthening gun control.

“Before me stands a body that rose above the noise, elevated the conversation, and ignored distractions in the name of the greater good,” she said.

Rosenberg led the Senate with what he called “shared leadership” — devolving power to committee chairmen and often letting them take the lead on policy. It marked a stark departure from the often top-down dynamic (“dictatorial” was the word insiders used) that had marked presidents of the past.

But the free-flowing model also caused of some chaos from time to time.

Senators expect Spilka to embrace an ethos of partnership.

“I’m looking forward to a Senate that continues a tradition of shared leadership and a lot of collaboration,” said Senator William N. Brownsberger, a Belmont Democrat, who took the lead on a landmark criminal justice bill signed into law this year.

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“I think you’re going to see a high level of participation by all senators in important decision making and, at the same time, you’re going to see the trains run on schedule,” he said.

In the interview, Spilka outlined a vision that involves her doing a lot of listening, empowering senators, and giving every member the tools to bring their ideas forward.

She said she is prone to more Democratic and progressive values. But Spilka added her lodestar will be doing what’s best for the people of Massachusetts.

“I let my heart, my head, and my gut lead me — in that order,” she said.


Joshua Miller can be reached at joshua.miller@globe.com.