Editorial: Stanley Rosenberg should step aside as Senate president during investigation

  • State Senate President Stanley Rosenberg, left, of Amherst, stands outside his Statehouse office in Boston on Friday as he responds to a report of sexual misconduct allegations against his husband Bryon Hefner. M.J. TIDWELL

Published: 12/3/2017 3:33:40 PM

In his three decades of service in the Massachusetts Legislature, Amherst Democrat Stanley Rosenberg has earned a reputation as a lawmaker who uses his power to serve the people rather than the privileged few.

Now, in the most painful chapter of his public life, Rosenberg should uphold that reputation by stepping aside as Senate president while allegations of sexual assault and undue influence by his husband are investigated.

The Boston Globe reported last week that four men involved in state government have accused Rosenberg’s spouse, Bryon Hefner, of sexually assaulting and harassing them in recent years. Three of the men say Hefner groped their genitals while another said Hefner kissed him against his will. Many of the alleged assaults occurred while Rosenberg was nearby, but the Globe found no evidence that the Senate leader knew of them.

The Senate is expected Monday to begin the process of appointing an independent special investigator to lead a probe into the allegations, focusing on whether — as the men say — Hefner forced sexual contact, and enforced their silence, by exploiting his relationship with Rosenberg. Some have also called for a separate criminal investigation into Hefner’s alleged conduct.

We have generally found Rosenberg to be a lawmaker who eschews cynical politics to focus on thoughtful, progressive governance. In the wake of recent reports of sexual harassment on Beacon Hill, Rosenberg rightly declared that the Senate has a “zero-tolerance policy” for such abuse.

But his response to the allegations against his husband has lacked that forceful clarity.

While expressing sorrow for the victims and pledging support for any investigation, Rosenberg felt compelled to stress that the attacks had not occurred inside the State House — as if the fact that they allegedly happened at political events, the back seat of a car, and inside Rosenberg’s and Hefner’s apartment made them less serious.

“Even though, based on what little I have been told, these allegations do not involve members or employees of the Senate and did not occur in the State House, I take them seriously,” Rosenberg said in a statement.

He also insisted that Hefner has not used his personal connection to Rosenberg to wield influence on Beacon Hill.

Those may be Rosenberg’s beliefs. But the Globe article — based not only on interviews with the four men but also with numerous others, accounts bolstered by written exchanges — presents a powerful case that Hefner may have traded on Rosenberg’s influence to aggressively serve his own needs.

Hefner has acknowledged no wrongdoing. On Friday, Rosenberg said his spouse soon will enter an inpatient treatment center for alcohol dependence.

While we have no reason to doubt Rosenberg’s pledge of cooperation, his political clout could make it hard for the investigation to proceed. The four men spoke to the Globe only reluctantly and insisted on anonymity for fear of jeopardizing their reputations and careers.

That fear — along with, for some, a wish not to harm Rosenberg and his progressive agenda — is what kept them silent despite feeling violated, humiliated and powerless.

“That is why I am still sick to my stomach about this,” said one man, who told the Globe that Hefner had grabbed his genitals at a 2015 fundraising event. “Years later, when I did nothing wrong, he (Hefner) has a way of making me feel like I did something wrong. You can’t get away from him. His husband is the Senate president. What am I supposed to do? There’s no one I can file an HR complaint with.”

Rosenberg, 68, and Hefner, 30, have been a couple since 2008. They met while Hefner had a summer job in Rosenberg’s office. Rosenberg said their relationship is “deeply committed” and told the Globe he credits Hefner with making him feel comfortable living openly as a gay man.

“I would not have come out if he had not come into my life,” Rosenberg told the Globe in 2014 as he was rising to the Senate presidency. “It was the greatest gift anyone has given to me.”

Rosenberg’s 2014 remarks came, however, as the Globe was raising questions about whether Hefner was wielding undue influence. At the time, Rosenberg said the answer was no. In a letter to Democratic senators, he wrote, “I have enforced a firewall between my private life and the business of the Senate and will continue to do so.”

With serious questions swirling about whether that firewall has been breached, we urge Rosenberg to remove himself temporarily from his leadership role so that the investigations may proceed without fear or favor. At this point, that is how he can best serve the commonwealth to which he has dedicated his professional life.

Daily Hampshire Gazette Office

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