Liberal State House veteran Stan Rosenberg is about to become one of the most powerful players in state government as president of the Massachusetts Senate. He’ll bring decades of insider experience to the post — and an outsider’s profile that’s atypical for a Beacon Hill pol.
IF LIFE HAD taken a different turn, Stan Rosenberg might be an Orthodox Jewish rabbi today. That was his ambition while studying for his bar mitzvah in the early 1960s at Temple Israel in Malden. Had he followed that path, his days would be filled leading prayer services, wrestling with complicated questions posed by religious texts, and helping people with seemingly intractable dilemmas in the manner rabbis have done for generations.
When he didn’t get accepted to Yeshiva University in New York, Rosenberg struck out instead for Amherst, where he enrolled at the University of Massachusetts and has lived ever since. He found his way into politics, and has spent nearly his entire adult life in that world. Now, after 28 years in the state Legislature, where he has earned a reputation as one of its sharpest policy minds and a go-to guy for handling politically thorny assignments, Rosenberg is poised to take the reins in January as the new president of the state Senate.
Delving into the Talmud and other ancient Jewish writings, says Rosenberg, is “an exercise in raising questions and trying to assess the efficacy of the information or the answers and the relationships between competing things, competing ideas. And politics is a lot like that.”
It is especially like that for him.
|Rosenberg greets a constituent in Northfield as Northwestern DA David Sullivan works the grill.|
Though often pegged as an “Amherst liberal,” Rosenberg takes a measured approach to many issues and has a reputation for brokering compromise. That deliberative style sometimes frustrates advocates looking for a more forceful champion, but it has often been key to getting initiatives approved — and to building the broad support that made him the choice of his colleagues to lead the Senate.
“People come to him with issues and problems because they feel confident of his ability to find a solution that they hadn’t thought of,” says Sen. Harriette Chandler, a Rosenberg ally.
In an extraordinarily early flurry of behind-the-scenes moves, the jockeying for the job played out during the summer of 2013, a full 17 months before the expected transition of power, with a solid majority of senators lining up behind Rosenberg. If formally elected, as expected, in January, Rosenberg will become one of the three most powerful figures on Beacon Hill, sharing the agenda-setting stage with a new governor and House Speaker Robert DeLeo.
The 64-year-old Rosenberg is both an entirely logical choice for the post and a somewhat unlikely one. He is the longest continuously serving member of the Senate, first elected in 1991 after serving five years in the House, and he has an unrivaled mastery of the details of legislative and parliamentary maneuvering. But he is hardly the conventional picture of a backslapping Beacon Hill pol. Rosenberg is something of a political paradox: a consummate insider, with a background that marks him as the ultimate outsider.
“An openly gay, Jewish guy from a college town in the western part of the state. Gee, sounds like a standard Massachusetts Senate president,” says Ralph Whitehead, a University of Massachusetts journalism professor and longtime Rosenberg confidant, with a laugh.
In a 2009 newspaper column, Rosenberg wrote, “I understand what it’s like to be cast as ‘the other.’”
He will be the first Jewish legislator and first openly gay member to lead the Senate or House. He’ll also be the first leader from Western Massachusetts since the 1970s, when David Bartley was House speaker and his Holyoke neighbor Maurice Donahue served as Senate president.
Rosenberg’s experiences and his ability to identify with “the other” line up with a generally liberal policy outlook. But he eschews the idea of “identity politics,” and is known more for his role mediating disputes than for combative rhetoric of the left.
“I’m pragmatic,” he says. “I want to find the common ground to build the best solutions, and that often blends a range of policies coming from various directions. So I don’t label myself.”
But others certainly do, and liberal lawmakers who formed the base of Rosenberg’s support for the Senate presidency are, in the words of one State House wag, “licking their chops” at the prospect of one of their own at the helm. There is also lots of talk among senators of all stripes of a more open Senate, where members have a greater role than has been true under the more centralized power dynamic that has dominated both legislative branches in recent years.
A robust give-and-take and healthy debate of ideas is very much in keeping with Rosenberg’s leadership style and his appetite for digging into the substance of policy. But guiding a more freewheeling Senate, while making sure it also stays on track and gets things done, will be the ultimate test of his reputation for letting everyone have their say while also bringing resolution to issues in the often contentious world of State House politics.
It’s a sun-dappled August afternoon as Rosenberg arrives in Northfield, a picturesque Franklin County town in his district nestled against the Vermont and New Hampshire border. The occasion is the annual senior citizen picnic, and the tables under the shade of an open-air pavilion behind the town hall are already full. Rosenberg, along with the Franklin County sheriff and area district attorney, are the guest chefs, and they get to work grilling hamburgers and hot dogs. Once lunch is served, the officials each take a turn greeting the seniors.
Rosenberg tells his constituents that it’s been a busy and productive session at the State House. He remarks that there are open races this fall for four of the statewide constitutional offices, and then tells them not to overlook the four ballot questions, providing a helpful summary of each one.
A gathering of seniors is an irresistible opportunity to most politicians, a captive crowd of reliable voters there for the schmoozing. But after offering his ballot primer, Rosenberg doesn’t dive in and work the tables in classic fashion, but retreats to the lawn outside the pavilion.
He is warm and approachable, but he has a reserved manner that makes him a better policymaker than retail glad-hander. “He’s not the typical image of a politician, of the hale fellow well met,” says Jerome Mileur, a retired UMass political science professor who was Rosenberg’s first mentor in politics as chairman of the Amherst Town Democratic Committee in 1980.
“Most politicians are gregarious people, they love crowds, they want to be loved,” says one State House lobbyist. “I think Stan enjoys some of that, but doesn’t really thrive off it. I think he thrives on intelligent policy and gaining trust that way more than by personality.”
A self-described “policy wonk,” Rosenberg has made his mark less by big personality than by diligently applying himself to the business of legislation and governance. But with his low-key manner, he has played an outsized role in some of the biggest issues the Legislature has faced in recent years.
He was tapped as the Senate chairman of the Legislature’s joint committee on redistricting following both the 2000 and 2010 census. The decennial redistricting of state representative and senate seats, along with the state’s US House districts, is among the most thankless tasks on Beacon Hill. The potential to anger colleagues is great, and the process across all states has been fraught with legal minefields, with advocacy groups regularly filing suit alleging violations of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Massachusetts has an even more troubled recent history, as former Speaker Tom Finneran wound up pleading guilty to obstruction of justice charges after admitting he lied while testifying in a federal case brought against the 2001 House redistricting plan.
But the Senate plan that year, and the redistricting of both branches as well as the congressional seats after the 2010 census, came off without a hitch. The more recent effort, which Rosenberg co-chaired with Rep. Michael Moran of Brighton, involved an unprecedented degree of transparency, with 13 hearings statewide and an interactive website that invited citizens to try to their own hand at reconfiguring districts.
“We were extremely happy with the process and the outcome,” says Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts, which has closely monitored redistricting.
Rosenberg led the effort with Moran even as he was undergoing sometimes debilitating radiation and chemotherapy treatment for a serious form of skin cancer. He says he feels good and has been cancer-free for three years.
The flipside of Rosenberg’s high regard for the legislature’s deliberative process is a wariness he has long had toward the initiative petition process by which citizens can bring a question directly to the voters. “Making law on the ballot is not the best,” says Rosenberg, who has filed legislation several times that would dramatically increase the signature-gathering requirements to place a question before voters. He says an up-or-down vote on a measure by the electorate is a poor way to deal with often complicated issues, with lawmakers often skittish about making even minor adjustments to laws passed by voters.
Barbara Anderson, the veteran anti-tax activist, thinks Rosenberg’s approach is elitist. “He’s out to kill the initiative petition process,” she says. “With all the corruption, mismanagement, waste and inefficiency, and abuses of power we have in a one-party state, it’s the only thing we have.”
Rosenberg says there is a limited role for the ballot question option as a “release valve” when the Legislature refuses to even take up an issue, as is the case with the question on this November’s ballot to expand the bottle bill, a measure that House leaders have repeatedly blocked from even coming to the floor for a vote.
Janet Domenitz, executive director of the advocacy group MassPIRG, which spent years pushing the bottle bill, says the initiative petition process has been used appropriately and sparingly over the 100 years it’s been in place. “It’s a solution for a problem that doesn’t exist,” she says of Rosenberg’s efforts to make it harder to get questions on the ballot.
Earlier this year, Rosenberg helped broker a compromise that avoided a ballot campaign by mediating a longstanding battle over nurse staffing levels between the state’s nurses unions and hospitals. The issue was otherwise heading for the November ballot, where both sides would have mounted costly campaigns.
“He had the right combination of policy acumen, the power of persuasion, a real perseverance, and a good sense of politics,” says Timothy Gens, executive vice president and general counsel of the Massachusetts Hospital Association.
Lou DiNatale, a veteran Democratic operative who, along with Whitehead, served as an informal Rosenberg advisor during his push for the Senate president’s post, puts it less delicately. “Stan’s not a fuck-you guy,” he says. “He’s a negotiator. He’s a what’s-the-problem guy, and how do we fix it?”
That measured approach wins lots of praise, but doesn’t always leave everyone happy. He was the Senate’s point man on gambling, and ended up helping craft the bill that authorized three casinos and one slot machine parlor.
To Rosenberg, the casino issue is a classic case where stridency doesn’t cut it in the face of a complicated set of facts. He voted previously against bills to expand gambling, and says he is not a huge fan of casinos. But Rosenberg says he became convinced that the Mashpee Wampanoag would eventually get tribal land put in trust by the federal government, the key remaining step necessary for them to operate tribal gaming facilities with no state approval and without sending any revenue to state coffers.
“I absolutely see the downsides,” Rosenberg says of the arguments that casinos promote economic inequality. But he thinks they are coming whether the state legislates their arrival or not. “I’d rather it be regulated and taxed,” says Rosenberg.
Tom Vannah, longtime editor of the Valley Advocate, an alternative weekly based in Northampton, thinks the casino saga captures a less high-minded side of Rosenberg’s careful approach to issues. “I’m not insensitive to the idea that politics is about compromise,” he says. But Vannah is not persuaded that tribal gaming is on the horizon. He saw Rosenberg’s stand on casinos, which had the support of Gov. Deval Patrick, House Speaker Robert DeLeo, and Senate President Therese Murray, as “capitulation to the three most powerful people in Boston.”
Though Rosenberg’s inclination is to see issues more in gray than black or white, not everything comes down to a search for middle ground.
After the Supreme Judicial Court’s landmark 2003 decision made Massachusetts the first state to sanction same-sex marriage, supporters of the decision were not looking for compromise with gay marriage opponents. Instead, the plan was to try to block efforts to adopt a constitutional amendment overturning the decision — by whatever means it took.
“Stan played a lead, if not the lead, role in that fight,” says Arline Isaacson, longtime co-chair of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus. “He was the go-to guy on procedural and parliamentary questions.”
“We desperately needed someone who would work through the details and the options for how to try and thwart DOMA,” she says, referring to the Defense of Marriage Act that would have banned same-sex marriage. “And Stan was the guy, with a capital T, who was willing and, more importantly, able to do it.”
Gay marriage supporters saw the tide turning in their favor, so they played a delay game while the votes continued to shift. The maneuvering went on for three years, until gay marriage supporters were finally able to put the issue to rest, in 2007, as opponents failed to muster the 50 votes needed to advance their cause in a constitutional convention, a joint meeting of the 200 members of both legislative branches.
OUT IN THE OPEN
Rosenberg says the Massachusetts same-sex marriage battle was a highlight of his career. “You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who didn’t think that they were part of history,” he says. But it was also an awkward moment for Rosenberg, then in his late 50s and still not openly gay.
“That was very conflicting,” he says. “I was fighting for this because I knew it was the right thing to do. It was kind of odd standing in those meetings and those rallies and sort of being private at the same time as being in the middle of that very public debate.”
In his personal life, Rosenberg says he had led a solitary existence, and hadn’t expected that to change. “I had never planned to come out,” he says. “I had never planned to develop a long-term relationship. And when that started to develop, I realized, well, this is the point I’m either going to have to turn the corner” or give up on the relationship and “just go back to focusing on my work.”
The relationship that developed was with Bryon Hefner, whom Rosenberg met in May 2008, a year after the marriage-equality battle ended. Hefner, who had been working as an intern in two other State House offices, was hired by Rosenberg’s chief of staff for a temporary, paid job over the summer. Rosenberg and Hefner discovered that they shared a background as former wards of the state’s foster system, but both say their interaction over the summer was, as Rosenberg puts it, “a typical employee-employer relationship, no socializing or anything like that.”
Shortly after Hefner, then 21, left the job at the end of August, they say they began socializing, and their relationship took off from there. They have now been together for six years in what both describe as a serious, committed relationship. In 2009, Hefner, who works at Regan Communications, a well-known Boston public relations firm, moved into Rosenberg’s Amherst condo. They generally spend weekends there and weekdays at Rosenberg’s Beacon Hill condo.
Hefner has taken an active role in Rosenberg’s political life, chairing and planning a 2011 fundraising gala marking Rosenberg’s 25th year in the Legislature. Hefner conceived of the idea for a set of 25 short videos on Rosenberg’s accomplishments that were shown on Amherst public access television. He’s also helped to up Rosenberg’s social media presence on Facebook and Twitter.
|Paying a visit, with Congressman Jim McGovern, to Mapleline Farm in Hadley.|
Of the 37-year gap in their ages, Rosenberg says, “I’m not going to get into stuff like that.” Hefner, now 27, says people have looked beyond any “stereotypes or prejudices” they may have about the issue, and that he and Rosenberg have been welcomed and accepted in Rosenberg’s Amherst-based district and by his Senate colleagues.
Rosenberg handled the issue of coming out in a characteristically low-key way. He wrote a column titled “The Bay State’s Road to Equality” for the July 4, 2009, edition of Northampton’s Daily Hampshire Gazette.
The piece chronicled the long, often difficult march toward freedom and equality by various groups that have been marginalized, and often worse, throughout American history. Midway through the column, he wrote, “As a foster child who grew up as a ward of the state, as a gay man, as a Jew, I understand what it’s like to be cast as ‘the other.’ I rarely discuss these facets of my character because I don’t practice identity politics. I practice policy politics.”
And that was it.
“I’ve always been kind of understated when it comes to personal things,” says Rosenberg.
He takes much the same approach to the searing experiences of his childhood raised in foster care. “I don’t run from it when people raise it,” he says. “But I don’t like dwelling on those sorts of things. Everybody has their experiences, and everybody’s got their backgrounds and everybody’s got their life shaping experiences.”
He was one of five children in a Dorchester family. At age four or five, he says, he was moved into a foster home in Malden. Three of his four siblings, including a twin brother, were ultimately placed in foster care as well. Two siblings eventually returned to their biological family, but Rosenberg did not. He stayed with the same foster family until he left for UMass at age 17. The family moved to Revere when he was a teen, and Rosenberg graduated from Revere High School in 1967.
Rosenberg says he does not know to this day what issue split up his family. “I have no idea.” he says, “I’d have to have investigated it, and I’ve never investigated it.” In a 1996 Boston Globe article, one of the few instances where he has publicly gone into further detail about his childhood, Rosenberg said: “I recall one kind of circuitous conversation with a social worker when I was 13 or 14 that, looking back on it, perhaps was designed to allow me to ask the question. But I didn’t ask. I was very young.”
He never reconnected with his biological parents, and lost touch with his foster family a year after starting at UMass. He had some fleeting interaction with a couple of his siblings in more recent years, but says there was no real bond made.
Rosenberg says he had to create his own community to take the place of family. “The connections were by being part of organizations,” he says. That included his involvement in the religious community at the Malden synagogue he attended and, after arriving at UMass, his participation in a number of arts organizations at UMass, including the marching band, where he played tuba.
“I think arts became my outlet for dealing with having grown up in the foster care system, and subconsciously trying to identify paths for connections,” he says. “I was never the best of anything in those organizations. But the point was that it was a place to be that you could be part of, and be yourself and grow with the experience.”
It took Rosenberg 10 years to obtain his B.A. in community development and arts management. He says he wasn’t a stellar student and, since he was entirely on his own, also had to take time off several times simply to work and save money to keep up with tuition costs and living expenses.
While at UMass, he helped found an arts extension service program and then directed a community development initiative that helped communities use arts programming as a way to also strengthen their civic fabric.
|“ Stan was the kid who helped everybody do their homework and get a good grade.”|
In 1980, he landed a job on the staff of then-state Sen. John Olver of Amherst. He went on to serve a stint as executive director of the Democratic State Committee and as a staff member for then-Congressman Chet Atkins.
In 1986, he was elected to the House of Representatives, and five years later he won a special election to fill Olver’s state Senate seat when his former boss was elected to Congress.
MAKING HIS MOVE
Choosing a new Senate leader nearly a year and half before the official transition was unprecedented, but also explicable. Therese Murray was poised to be the first leader to serve the full eight years allowed in the top job since the Senate adopted term-limit rules for its president in 1993. Technically, she could have remained at the helm until March of next year, two months into the Legislature’s new session, but nearly everyone expected her to not seek reelection to her Plymouth-based Senate seat and leave when the session ends at the beginning of January, which is what she is doing.
The approaching end of her eight-year term removed the uncertain timing that has accompanied recent transitions for Senate president and House speaker. But there was no template for when the race should begin.
By the spring of 2013, Rosenberg and Stephen Brewer, chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, were in competition to succeed Murray. Neither Rosenberg, Brewer, nor other senators asked about it can pinpoint exactly what set the competition in motion. Some say the swirl of rumors that Murray might depart earlier, if she landed a post-State House job, figured in the mix.
Rosenberg, who has served as the Majority Leader under Murray, has long coveted the president’s post, having made an unsuccessful bid for the job in 2002. “You have to calculate when you think momentum is heading in your direction,” is all he says about last year’s move. His side decided they did not want to wait past the break legislators take in August. “We were close enough that we said, let’s push the envelope and see if we can lock it down, and we did,” he says.
By the end of July last year, Rosenberg declared victory, and Brewer offered a gracious concession statement to end a competition that all of those involved say was remarkably free of rancor or bad blood.
Rosenberg will take the helm of a Senate whose membership has tilted to the left in recent years, a trend that clearly worked in his favor. Whitehead, the UMass journalism professor, thinks Rosenberg was also helped by an evolution in Senate membership away from a more old-school “fraternal lodge” model based on personal ties or loyalties, and toward a “professional” model, with more members who have a real appetite for serious policy-making.
Paul Pezzella, a veteran State House lobbyist and Democratic political hand, agrees. “If you like me, you’ll do for me — that day is gone,” says Pezzella. “The bottom line is, win the argument, win the vote. If you win the policy debate, you’ll win the vote. His rise to power is based on that knowledge, his intellect, his reasoning, his professionalism,” Pezzella says of Rosenberg. “That has drawn people to him more than going out to dinner with him every night.”
“Stan was the kid who helped everybody do their homework and get a good grade. He helped everyone do their job,” Whitehead says of Rosenberg’s penchant for helping colleagues think through a particular bill or issue. A long history of that kind of quiet counsel bred a lot of good will that came back to him in the quest for the Senate’s top post.
It helped him “earn the trust and support of members,” says Sen. Anthony Petruccelli of East Boston, a key moderate Democrat who got behind Rosenberg’s bid.
Rosenberg also sent clear signals that he was committed to a more open and inclusive process. Decision-making and control over the legislative agenda have been increasingly concentrated in the offices of the Senate president and House speaker. A turn away from that would run “counter to how things have gone in the State House over the last 20 years,” says Sen. Ben Downing of Pittsfield.
“The message he conveyed is that his leadership and the Senate are going to be very open, and it’s going to be information-based public policy,” says Sen. Dan Wolf of Harwich. “People realized that, for Stan, it’s really about establishing a process and a structure that is mindful of having all members have a place at the table and a voice.”
On issues, liberals are hoping the Senate takes up a more aggressive agenda on everything from climate change to income inequality and criminal justice reform.
“I worry a little for Stan, because every progressive that I know is looking toward his ascension as the panacea,” says Isaacson, the gay rights leader. “All these progressives I know have these heightened expectations of the wonderful world Stan will usher in, legislatively. He can’t wave a magic wand and make everything happen.”
A lot will also depend on who is elected governor. Will it be another three-way dance of Democrats among the governor, House speaker, and Senate president? Or will Republicans reclaim the corner office, which would probably position the Senate under Rosenberg as the clear left flank of state government?
Rosenberg says he wants to wait until January before going into any specifics of a legislative agenda or details of his vision for how the Senate will operate. But, as he wrote in his 2009 newspaper column on the long road to equality, “Our past, I believe, is prologue.”
Between his nearly 30 years in office and his formative experiences building community arts organizations before that, Rosenberg has left a considerable trail of policy and process breadcrumbs.
Support for higher education has been a priority of his, as befits a lawmaker representing the flagship campus of the state university. Environmental and energy issues have also long been on his radar, and Rosenberg convened a series of meetings over the spring and summer in which experts met with a group of senators to discuss climate-change issues. The meetings could foreshadow new legislative initiatives in the coming term.
If there’s an overarching issue that has had Rosenberg’s attention it is fiscal and tax policy questions. He has pushed unsuccessfully several times over the years for a graduated income tax. “Changing our tax policy and making it simpler and fairer and more progressive would be a big help,” he says of the problem of growing income inequality.As for the talk of a more decentralized power structure, he says, “We have a lot of talent in the institution, and we need to make sure that they are fully engaged in using that talent.”
That sort of talk is common at the time of leadership transitions in the Legislature. If his past truly is prologue, the clearest sign that Rosenberg means it may come from the work he did back in his 20s to build community arts organizations. “The whole objective,” he says, “was to create capacity in the people who were there to be able to build an organization, to make their own decisions, become effective leaders within the organization, and be seen by the community as potential leaders.”