Our Opinion: Rosenberg issue a complex one for Senate
The sexual harassment allegations that prompted state Senate President Stanley Rosenberg to step aside temporarily are dramatically different than the others that have been making news in recent weeks. It is not Mr. Rosenberg but his husband, Bryan Hefner, who has been accused, and this complex situation involves concerns about political influence and possible political retribution that go beyond the sole issue of sexual harassment.
The Senate president stepped down shortly after the Boston Globe revealed that four men had alleged that Mr. Hefner sexually assaulted or harassed them and bragged about the influence he had on Senate business because of his relationship with Mr. Rosenberg. All four men, who spoke to the Globe anonymously, had interests before the Senate, with one policy advocate telling the Globe he believed that Mr. Hefner was insinuating that he would advocate for his interests in exchange for sex. The Globe reported that it found no evidence that Mr. Rosenberg was aware of Mr. Hefner's alleged actions.
Mr. Rosenberg, who will serve as a rank-and-file member of the Senate, was under no obligation to relinquish his presidency, but deserves praise for doing so. The Senate Committee on Ethics Tuesday began its investigation into the allegations and Mr. Rosenberg's presence as Senate president would have cast a shadow over its work and raised questions about the committee's integrity and objectivity.
Assertions have been made by some on Beacon Hill and among pundits that Mr. Rosenberg should have permanently stepped down as president. This, however, would have deprived Mr. Rosenberg of due process and raised the question of why the Senate Ethics Committee should go forward with its investigation. The committee will be hiring an outside investigator to pursue the allegations to allay concerns that the process will be tainted by politics. Committee Chairman Michael J. Rodriques, a Westport Democrat, said Wednesday that any person who comes forward with allegations of sexual harassment or sexual assault against Mr. Hefner will be guaranteed confidentiality, and with an independent party leading the investigation this should be assured.
The manner in which Mr. Rosenberg has comported himself as Senate president argues against assertions that he may enact political retribution should he return to the presidency following the investigation. He has earned praise for a "shared leadership" approach that empowers committee chairmen to an unusual extent. Mr. Rosenberg has never been the kind of heavy-handed leader who would generate legitimate concerns about how he would behave should he regain the top spot in the Senate.
Upon stepping down, Mr. Rosenberg ceded power to Senate Majority Leader Harriet L. Chandler, who at 79 made it clear that she has no ambition to take the presidency on a permanent basis. This makes her an ideal choice, as the Globe reported that three senators have been reaching out to colleagues in anticipation of campaigns to succeed Mr. Rosenberg. If there is to be a leadership fight it should wait until after the committee has made its report.
Should it be politically impossible for Mr. Rosenberg to take back the presidency it will be a loss for the Senate and the state. Besides his enlightened leadership policies, the Senate president has been a consistent champion of progressive causes, such as equal pay for women, paid family leave and increased education funding. The Amherst Democrat also gives Western Massachusetts a politically powerful voice on Beacon Hill. Leadership positions are usually won by Boston area Democrats, and it may be a long time before this region has a seat at the power table should Mr. Rosenberg permanently surrender the presidency.
However, should it be determined that Mr. Rosenberg was unaware of Mr. Hefner's actions and did not allow his position of leadership to be compromised he should be allowed to return as president with no punishment. The anger and openness about sexual harassment triggered by the Harvey Weinstein scandal is welcome and overdue, but it must not evolve into a new form of McCarthyism, in which allegations are tantamount to a finding of guilt and suspicion compromises good judgment. Seeing that this doesn't happen on Beacon Hill is among the many responsibilities the Senate Ethics Committee must fulfill as it goes forward.
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