Rosenberg’s open door
Vows regular sit-downs with reporters
THE PALATIAL OFFICE of the Senate president is big enough for the entire Democratic caucus of more than 30 lawmakers to occasionally gather for private sessions amidst its ornate wood molding and picture gallery. And if its walls could talk, they would have plenty to tell about secret strategy sessions where details of bills were ironed out and where hardball schemes were occasionally hatched to win over recalcitrant lawmakers on close votes.
So it was a jarring scene on Tuesday afternoon as Senate President Stan Rosenberg welcomed a half dozen reporters to join him at the room’s long conference table. The topic was a set of community meetings in eight regions of the state that senators plan to hold in coming weeks. The Commonwealth Conversations, which will kick-off on Wednesday with several meetings in Western Massachusetts, are in keeping with a commitment to more transparent, open governance Rosenberg made in winning the support of colleagues to take the reins as the Senate’s leader last month.
But the session with reporters to talk about the upcoming listening tour was itself a sign that Rosenberg intends to cut a different figure than most of his predecessors.
“The media play a very important role in our society,” Rosenberg said, while seated at the conference table with reporters. “They are one of the primary methods of communicating with the public what is happening in our government.” He said he planned to hold sessions with reporters “regularly, as needed, in order to communicate what we’re doing.”
Rosenberg said he envisioned, for example, hosting meetings with reporters along with key senators or committee chairs to talk about particular issues or pieces of legislation that are on the Senate agenda. Sen. Michael Rodrigues, a Westport Democrat who is coordinating the statewide listening tour, joined him at Tuesday’s session. Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, a Gloucester Republican who was stuck, along with thousands of others, in horrific traffic, participated by speaker phone from his car.
The upcoming regional meetings, all of which Rosenberg and Tarr plan to attend, are meant to give residents a chance to share ideas and issues of concern to them as the Legislature begins its two-year session. “The government belongs to the people,” said Rosenberg. “If the people engage, the governor and the Legislature will hear,” he said of the opportunity the public has to speak out at the meetings.
Rodrigues said similar meetings were held at the start of the Romney administration, but with a focus on the burdens facing small business. Legislation to streamline permitting systems followed. “This time we have no agenda,” he said.
Rosenberg said he expects to hear concerns about how to spur job growth across the eight regions, as well as calls for the state to address the widespread scourge of opiate addiction.His pledge to hold regular sessions with reporters, and the more informal setting of a conversation around a conference table, where a tie-less Rosenberg held forth in dark sweater, mark a sharp departure from State House norms. House Speaker Robert DeLeo has limited engagement with reporters, as did Rosenberg’s predecessor, Therese Murray. Former governor Deval Patrick was nearly impossible to engage on a topic outside of throwing quick questions at him following events that appeared on his public schedule. Patrick set the tone for press relations early on when he delivered a speech after first winning election in 2006, but before he even took office, at which he scolded the media for not understanding the message of his insurgent, outsider campaign.
Rosenberg said he believes vigorous press coverage is an essential component of a healthy democracy. “I don’t believe that Ben Franklin was dissing the legislature when he said if I had to choose in a self-governing society between a legislature and a free press, I’d choose a free press.” It’s a powerful and time-honored take on the value of the press. (Rosenberg confuses his Founders, however; it was Thomas Jefferson who said it). “The point very clearly is people can’t make decisions in order to be in a self-governing society and build a strong, robust, free-market economy if they don’t have quality and accurate information,” said Rosenberg. “So our intent is to keep lines of communication open in every way possible. We want to make sure that there’s transparency and accessibility in all ways possible.”