Rosenberg corrals votes to become Senate president

Murray must step down in 2015

Sen. Stanley Rosenberg, an Amherst Democrat, announced on Wednesday that he had the votes necessary to replace Therese Murray as president of the Senate when she leaves office, setting the stage for an amicable transition of power in a branch of state government where liberals appear to be gaining strength.

Rosenberg would be the first Jewish and first openly gay Senate president, as well as the first western Massachusetts senator elected to the position in 40 years. The position is generally regarded as one of the three most powerful in state government, along with the governor and House speaker.

Rosenberg’s chief rival for the post was Sen. Stephen Brewer, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee and a Democrat from Barre. Murray must step down as Senate president in March 2015 under term limit rules, but there has been widespread speculation, denied by her, that she might leave earlier.

In an interview, Rosenberg declined to talk about his future agenda. “My plan is to return to business as usual now that the matter of succession has been resolved,” said the Senate majority leader, the No. 2 position in the body. “I have no idea what the urgent priorities will be in 17 months.”

Rosenberg, however, is widely regarded as more progressive than Murray and Brewer, particularly on fiscal issues. “The governor’s tax proposal for transportation would have been favorably received [under Rosenberg],” said Peter Ubertaccio, chairman of the political science department at Stonehill College, referring to the much larger, $1.1 billion proposal pushed by Gov. Deval Patrick. Murray and Brewer joined House colleagues in pushing for a much smaller, $500 million proposal.

The 63-year-old Rosenberg, who took office in 1991, is currently the so-called dean of the Senate, meaning he has served in the body longer than any other member. He has chaired the Ways and Means Committee and held the positions of assistant majority leader and president pro tempore. He served in the House from 1987 to 1991.

The race to succeed Murray was unusual in that it took place in total secrecy and long before Murray is scheduled to leave her post. Senate sources say Murray talked to Rosenberg and Brewer earlier this year and told them they both had her blessing to round up votes as long as the process took place behind the scenes.

Rosenberg said Murray told him not to let the battle for Senate president “distract from the work of the body. Happily, it did not.”

Both senators quietly began building support in one-on-one discussions with their colleagues. Rosenberg benefitted from a leftward shift in the Senate over the past decade and the perception that he had paid his dues and demonstrated an ability to work cooperatively with colleagues across the political spectrum. The UMass-Amherst alum, who grew up in foster care in Revere and Malden, was a key architect of the state’s gaming and redistricting legislation.

Senate sources said Brewer’s 2012 introduction of a “Stand Your Ground” bill, expanding citizens’ rights to use deadly force in self-defense, may have hurt his chances with liberals in the Senate. Another source said Brewer was also hurt by the perception that he was using earmarks in this year’s state budget to buy votes.

Sen. Marc Pacheco, a Democrat from Taunton who backed Rosenberg, said in an interview that everyone in the Senate was relieved that an orderly transition could be worked out without animosity or angry headlines, which characterized some leadership battles of the past. “People wanted to be in a position where they wouldn’t have to deal with this transition situation every couple of weeks,” he said.

To succeed Murray as Senate president, Rosenberg will need 21 of the branch’s 40 votes. The 40-member Senate currently has 36 Democrats. Sources said Rosenberg had the support of at least 23 Democrats and probably more.

Murray touted her likely successor’s accomplishments in a statement, saying, “Sen. Rosenberg is a well-established and respected leader of the Senate. He led the way on redistricting for the Senate, twice, and created a transparent and successful process that engaged the public in an open conversation for the first time. He spearheaded expanded gaming efforts, becoming an expert on the issue to ensure that the final bill reflected a positive step forward for Massachusetts. Senator Rosenberg has shown that he can be trusted to do what is right for the Commonwealth.”

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Senate rules do not require Murray to vacate her post until March 2015, when she hits the eight-year term limit, and she’s shown no indication of an early departure. “The Senate has a very ambitious agenda for this legislative session and we have a lot of work left to do,” Murray said. “My focus is on addressing these priorities and it is my intention to serve out my term.” She has not yet said if she will seek reelection to the Senate in 2014.

Brewer released a statement praising Rosenberg. “The Senate is an institution that is larger than any one person,” he said. “Our shared ideals of public service transcend any other momentary challenges. I have known Stan Rosenberg for over 35 years. We have had similar career paths and shared a common region of the Commonwealth. I know Stan will do a fine job as Senate President when that time comes.”