IF BRYON HEFNER had been an ordinary citizen, and not the spouse of the powerful Senate president, would he have gotten away with his alleged sexual assaults for as long as he did? For that matter, would he have felt emboldened to attack so many men in the first place?
And if the answer is either question is no, isn’t that a problem?
Law enforcement is doing its job, and on Thursday Hefner was indicted on multiple counts of sexual assault, criminal lewdness, and distributing nude photos without consent. But it’s for the Senate — and the House — to confront the larger questions about the political and ethical culture they’ve created in the Massachusetts Legislature, which seems to have enabled Hefner’s conduct and deterred his victims from speaking up.
There is no evidence that either Hefner’s husband, former Senate president Stan Rosenberg, or any other state senators, were aware of Hefner’s alleged attacks, which include grabbing men’s genitals, kissing them against their will, exposing himself, and other violations. Questions about who knew what, and whether Hefner may have improperly influenced legislation, still need to be answered by investigators. If any senators knew what Hefner was doing but didn’t act, they should be held accountable.
But it doesn’t take an investigation to see the big picture. Lawmakers collectively have made the Senate presidency — and the House speakership — such powerful positions that they’re ripe for abuse. Over many years, lawmakers have elected, and then reelected, leaders who punish dissent. They’ve let leadership tell them how to vote, forfeiting their independence in order to be team players. An improbable number of votes are unanimous. Protected by uncompetitive elections, the overwhelmingly Democratic Legislature has turned Beacon Hill into something that looks more like hierarchical law firm than a deliberative body.
Rosenberg, ironically, was elected in part to delegate more power to other senators. “Shared leadership,” he called his model. Clearly, though, those reforms had a limit. Hefner’s victims, who included Beacon Hill staffers and lobbyists, still feared he had the power to make or break their careers.
Since Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham first reported on Hefner’s actions, senators have said all the right things. “There is simply no place for assault and harassment of any kind,” said Senator Karen Spilka on Thursday, who says she has the votes to become the new Senate president. “While this and other investigations continue, it is important for all potential victims to feel safe to come forward to investigators so that the full truth can be known and addressed.” The House also recently revised its sexual harassment policies.
Any step to help victims is definitely welcome. But for victims and whistleblowers of other misdeeds to feel safe, both chambers need far more fundamental transformation. Without addressing the out-of-control power of leadership, and the chilling effect it has across Beacon Hill, the conditions that enabled Hefner’s spree of assaults will continue.