Mass. Senate leadership battle quickly spills into the open
Three senators — Sens. Eileen Donoghue, Linda Dorcena Forry and Karen Spilka — have now publicly acknowledged their desire to seek the presidency if a "vacancy" occurs, and a fourth — Sen. Sal DiDomenico — all but confirmed his interest in the post in an interview Tuesday night. The self-acknowledgement of those senators' ambitions marks a rare spilling out into the public of a process typically reserved for back-channel jockeying.
"I don't imagine the discussion going forward will die down at any time soon given the nature but there are at least three or four names that are being put out there and mine is one of them as being a potential candidate for president," Sen. Eileen Donoghue of Lowell said Tuesday morning on WCAP-AM.
Donoghue's name was in the mix over the weekend in a volley of phone calls among senators uncertain about the fate of their now former president, Stanley Rosenberg of Amherst, who is being investigated by the Senate Ethics Committee while law enforcement officials begin examining allegations that Bryon Hefner, Rosenberg's husband, sexually assaulted men with business pending on Beacon Hill and bragged about his alleged influence in the Senate.
Discussing the tumultuous few days with her local radio station, Donoghue said she did not call her colleagues seeking their support for the presidency, but said several senators asked her if she would be interested in serving as president. There were "many, many phone calls" to and from senators, said Donoghue, describing how she spoke to her colleagues while she attended a higher education conference in North Carolina over the weekend.
"Sometimes if you know there's going to be a vacancy, lots of jockeying happens and lots of conversations take place but I can assure you I was not making calls trying to solicit votes," Donoghue said. "I don't deny that I was getting calls and people asking me if I would consider serving in that capacity. And one thing I have said is that until there is a vacancy and we know there's going to be a vacancy I'm not going to be disloyal to the president. I'm not going to try to undermine him. He's going through a very difficult time right now and I want to be supportive of him."
She later added, "I'm not going to go out and solicit any votes while we have a president in place, period. If there is a vacancy I would certainly explore that if there was support."
Spilka, an Ashland Democrat, has also denied lobbying for votes over the weekend, but indicated that she is interested in the position. The Ways and Means Committee chairmanship, which she was given by Rosenberg, has been a powerful launching pad to the presidency in past years, and could become a committee to watch as budget season rolls around early next year and her vice-chairman, DiDomenico, also eyes the presidency.
"It is with a great sense of responsibility for the important work of the Senate, and with the utmost respect for the good work of my colleagues, that I have decided that I will seek the Senate Presidency should the vacancy arise," Spilka said in a statement Wednesday.
Forry, a Dorchester Democrat and assistant majority whip, also confirmed her aspirations to the presidency. Asked Monday about her interest, Forry told the News Service, "We'll have to see how it goes." But on Wednesday, she issued a more direct statement. "If there is a vacancy for Senate President, I do intend to pursue that opportunity. However, right now, my focus is squarely on supporting acting President Chandler in all ways and my other colleagues. We have vital work to conduct for our constituents and the people of the Commonwealth."
Lawmakers over the years have frequently pledged loyalty to legislative leaders, but vacancies are rare and the odds of seizing a post like House speaker or Senate president are enhanced, or diminished, by a lawmaker's ability to round up commitments before the actual vacancy occurs.
No one knows if Rosenberg will return to the presidency, just as senators also did not know over the weekend whether he would dig in, give up the presidency temporarily or permanently, or resign. On Thursday, Chandler said Rosenberg would remain Senate president but recuse himself from the investigation. On Friday, Rosenberg said he was confident an investigation would show Hefner had no influence on Senate policy and said Hefner was heading into treatment for alcohol dependence. By Monday, Rosenberg relinquished the presidency with what he called a "leave of absence" for the duration of the investigation, saying he hoped the move would help ensure a "fully independent and credible" investigation and encourage people to come forward and cooperate with investigators.
Donoghue, who chairs the Senate Steering and Policy Committee, said Tuesday it was "appropriate" that Chandler made it "abundantly clear" that she would hold the president's post only temparily. "If there is going to be a vacancy, it should be a level playing field," the Lowell senator said.
In a statement Wednesday, Donoghue said, "I will run for Senate President if a vacancy exists. I appreciate the encouragement I have already received from some of my colleagues."
During her radio appearance, Donoghue said Rosenberg was paying a "heavy price" for the actions of his spouse, but said the allegations outlined in the Boston Globe "bombshell story" had unsettled senators.
Even if Rosenberg is exonerated by his colleagues, who are on track to make a recommendation based on the results of an independent investigator they plan to hire, he may not return to the president's chair either by virtue of his own choice or the collective decision of his colleagues, Donoghue said.
"We're in uncharted territory," she said. "You can't say, 'Well, this has happened before and people have come back. We don't know. This hasn't happened before. Is it difficult to do so? I think that's something that if he were to be exonerated of any wrongdoing he may still have to make that decision whether he can be effective, and then the body would have to make that decision."
Forry, in an television interview on WGBH's "Greater Boston" on Tuesday night, also made the the point that Rosenberg's return to the rostrum is not guaranteed even though he stated his desire to take a "leave of absence" and Chandler has said she will give up the presidency once the Ethics Committee investigation is complete.
"It is not temporarily...," Forry said, later in the interview explaining, "It will be up to the body. We're having an investigation, but also if the investigation finds nothing, we don't know what's going to happen."
Rosenberg's shared leadership model contrasts sharply with the House, where Speaker Robert DeLeo is viewed as the shot caller in chief in a branch that he has run since 2009, after shattering his own term limit rule. In the days since Rosenberg stepped aside, it's becoming clear that Senate members feel empowered - the goal of his leadership style - so much so that they're already not shy about giving voice to succeeding him.
DiDomenico, an Everett Democrat and vice chair of Ways and Means, resigned from the Ethics Committee ahead of the start of the Rosenberg investigation to avoid an appearance of a conflict after his name surfaced as a possible contender for the presidency. Asked whether he did aspire to the presidency, DiDomenico was less declarative than the other contenders, but said, "You never know what the future will bring."
On Wednesday, DiDomenico told reporters, "I think this is a very fluid time in the Senate."
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