The Rosenberg reign begins
New Senate president vows more inclusive day for members
WITH PLENTY OF nods to the past, but also a clear message of change, Stan Rosenberg took the gavel as Senate president on Wednesday.
The 65-year-old Amherst Democrat arrives at the Senate’s top post with a liberal profile on issues but a reputation for deliberative policymaking that hears out all sides on issues.
In a speech to fellow senators — as well a chamber packed with family, friends, and several prominent former political leaders — Rosenberg paired his commitment to a progressive policy agenda with his vow to run a more inclusive Senate. He said he wants to make “shared prosperity” and “shared leadership” hallmarks of the Senate under his leadership.
He decried growing income inequality that makes the recent recession “an increasingly distant memory” for those at the top, while “for those at the bottom and in the middle, the struggle continues,” with some working two, three, or even four jobs to keep their heads above water.
Rosenberg said job growth from a robust economy is key to expanded prosperity, but he also made it clear that there is a role for government in ensuring adequate health care and education, from early education through higher education ,“free of crushing debt.”
While the Rosenberg era may see a shift to the left in the Senate agenda, an even bigger change may come in the style of leadership he has pledged. Breaking with a long period that has seen increasing centralization of power in the offices of legislative leaders, Rosenberg has vowed to usher in a more participatory, democratic Senate in which members and committees have a bigger role and voice than has been the case in recent years.
The Senate will “seek to set new standards for openness and transparency” and “committees will be encouraged to generate new ideas, vigorously debate them, and bring them to this floor for consideration,” he said in his speech. “Over the last year, many of you have asked to be even more involved in the challenges facing us. I can assure you, you will have that chance.”
Rosenberg hinted at this approach in a profile in the fall issue of CommonWealth, saying, “We have a lot of talent in the institution, and we need to make sure that they are fully engaged in using that talent.”
His call for a new, more open era follows years in which lawmakers have dealt – mostly quietly, occasionally not as much – with an increasingly top-down structure in which most major initiatives moved through the Senate president’s office and House speaker’s office.
“That’s been a complaint of mine since I was a House member for six years,” Sen. Jamie Eldridge said last summer in discussing Rosenberg’s presumed ascension to the top Senate job. “I think the Legislature is much too centralized and there is too much power in one office. There’s hope that will change.”
There is, in some respects, a tension between Rosenberg’s pledge of “shared prosperity” and “shared leadership.” His talk of a more democratically-run Senate suggests whatever policy initiatives he may advance to combat income inequality can’t be unilaterally imposed but must reflect the true will of the majority of senators.
Rosenberg talked in his speech not only about a different approach within the Senate, but more outreach to the public as well – a “new era of civic engagement,” he called it.
It will begin with a series of public meetings over the next two months in communities across the state in which senators will encourage residents to share their concerns and priorities for state government. “I think it’s a first step in him putting into practice his idea of having a more inclusive, participatory Legislature,” said Sen. Michael Rodrigues, a Westport Democrat, who will chair the listening tour sessions. Rosenberg, Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, and a handful of other members from both parties will attend the public forums.
Rosenberg takes over at a time when the state is returning to a period of divided government, with Republican Charlie Baker assuming the governor’s office on Thursday, while both branches of the Legislature retain overwhelming Democratic majorities.
Rosenberg vowed to work collaboratively with the incoming Baker administration, highlighting their shared interest in updating the state Earned Income Tax Credit. He noted that the original idea for the tax credit came from the Senate Ways and Means Committee while he was chairing it in the late 1990s. Rosenberg also has history of working with Baker, who served during that period as administration and finance secretary for Gov. Bill Weld and Gov. Paul Cellucci.
Rosenberg also talked about tackling energy costs, burdensome regulations, and addressing recent problems in the state’s IT infrastructure that he termed “a total embarrassment for our state government.”
After a party line vote on the presidency, with all 34 Democrats voting for Rosenberg, while Minority Leader Bruce Tarr received the backing of the chamber’s six Republicans, Tarr moved that the vote for Rosenberg be considered unanimous.
Rosenberg becomes the Senate’s first gay leader and first Jewish president – and the first senator from Western Massachusetts to head the body since the early 1970s.
Among those in the chamber to watch Rosenberg’s election was his political mentor, retired congressman John Olver, who hired Rosenberg as an aide when Olver served in the Massachusetts House in the early 1980s. Also in attendance were outgoing Senate president Therese Murray, former Senate president Robert Travaglini, and former Senate minority leader Brian Lees.
Rosenberg takes over from Murray, who served eight years as president, the term limit for legislative leaders. The contest to succeed Murray was effectively decided a year and half ago, when Rosenberg secured the support of a solid majority of Democrats. His road to the presidency hit a few bumps late last fall when the Globereported that his partner, Bryon Hefner, had upset some senators by boasting of the clout he will wield under Rosenberg’s leadership. He also appeared to be behind disparaging taunts of Murray on Twitter.
In reaction to the Globe stories, Rosenberg vowed to impose a “firewall” between his Senate duties and Hefner. Hefner, who worked at the politically connected Regan Communications, was transferred by the firm to its Florida office, but quit the company soon after.Hefner sat in the middle of the gallery area reserved for the incoming president’s guests, directly above the Senate chamber clock. Rosenberg offered a tribute to him at the start of his remarks, saying Hefner has “stood with me in good times and in bad.”
Answering questions from reporters outside the Senate chamber after his speech, Rosenberg made it clear he considers the contretemps over Hefner a closed issue. Asked whether he thought he needed to do more to assure senators about the firewall he has said he imposed, a confident-sounding Rosenberg shot back, “I just got a vote of 40 to zero. I don’t know if you missed that.”