Rosenberg opens things up

WHEN STAN ROSENBERG took the reins as the Massachusetts Senate President in January, he vowed to bring a new era of shared decision-making, openness, and transparency to the 40-member body. That’s hardly been the standard agenda of leaders on Beacon Hill, where closed-door dealings and a tight grip on power in the top office of each legislative branch has increasingly become the norm.

But Rosenberg’s first months in office have given every indication that he means what he said.

In February, he hit the road with Senate colleagues for a series of eight town hall-type sessions across the state, where they invited residents to share concerns and put forward ideas. “Bringing Beacon Hill to You” proclaimed a webpage set up for the Senate roadshow, which was dubbed the “Commonwealth Conversations.”

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“The media is an important element in communicating with the public,” says Senate President Stan Rosenberg.

These types of exercises sometimes have the look of window dressing, “listening tours” meant to convey a sense of earnest interest in constituents’ views. Rosenberg, who says the media are often too cynical in their treatment of politicians and public policy, regards that suggestion as an example of what he means.

“It’s definitely more than that,” he says. “It’s not only about being heard. It’s about how we use the information.”

Rosenberg says he was a prolific note taker at the forums. The insights he and other senators gained at the sessions—on issues ranging from economic development to the opioid crisis—will “inform the actual legislation that gets drafted and gets approved,” he says.

When it comes to the idea of giving everyone a seat at the table, Rosenberg has decided to extend that, literally, to State House reporters, a group whose pesky interrogatories are not universally welcomed by Beacon Hill lawmakers.

In early February, he began having reporters in for occasional sessions where they’re invited to take seats around a huge conference table in the palatial Senate president’s office.

The press availabilities usually start with a topic Rosenberg wants to speak about. The first one was the upcoming Commonwealth Conversations tour. A later one focused on fiscal issues. In keeping with his vow of “shared leadership,” he has always had at least one senator who is working on the topic join him, and has sometimes had other senators who could not be there in person take part via speakerphone.

Rosenberg then opens up the sessions for questions on any subject.

“It’s all part of the general thinking I have that we need to open up the process and have more communication with the various constituencies that we should be working with,” he says. “The media is an important element in communicating with the public.”

As for the format of having reporters join him around a table, “that was a conscious decision,” Rosenberg says. “I’d love it if it could start changing the dynamics a little.”

Rather than a traditional press conference style, he says he’d like to have reporters engage with him and other senators more in a back-and-forth conversation so they can get at the “thinking and values” behind issues.

Though the Commonwealth Conversations were well-attended—he says most of them drew 200 to 300 people—Rosenberg says there were few people in their 20s or early 30s. To develop ways to engage more young people in public issues, Rosenberg and a handful of senators met in early March with pollster John Della Volpe and Tufts University professor Peter Levine, who directs a research center on civic engagement.

Millennials are public-minded, Della Volpe and Levine told the senators, but more oriented toward service organizations such as City Year and volunteer efforts than political activity, about which they tend to be cynical. It’s also important to reach out to younger residents through less traditional channels, they said.

So, at the suggestion of younger staffers in his office, the 65-year-old Senate President took to the Internet message board Reddit in late March, where he answered questions for half an hour.
In the course of the “AMA” (ask me anything) session, Rosenberg said of the state’s transportation system: “We cannot have the world class system we deserve without additional revenue.” He renewed his longstanding call for a graduated income tax and endorsed criminal justice reforms to remove some mandatory minimum sentences.

There did appear to be a clear younger demographic tilt to the session. After a participant complained that Rosenberg had not answered a question about problems with state licensing of medical marijuana providers, Rosenberg’s staff circled back after seeing it had been “upvoted” by participants—a way that questions get prioritized by those taking part in a session.

“We wanted to make sure that the Senate President answered it in the spirit of transparency!” his staff wrote, adding that Rosenberg felt the law was “complicated and conflict-ridden” but nonetheless viewed the licensing delays as “untenable.”

Rosenberg is known more for his serious policy chops than backslapping bonhomie or millennial cred. But in the spirit of civic outreach he seems committed to meeting voters where they are.
On who would win a fistfight between Gov. Charlie Baker and Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, he sized up their respective strengths. “But never bet against a guy from Savin Hill,” he concluded, referring to the mayor’s Dorchester neighborhood.

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

And after saying he was adamantly opposed to any public funds supporting an Olympics, the less-than-strapping Senate President was asked which event he was training for.

“Weight lifting. Obvi,” he wrote.