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The Human Face Behind The Stan Rosenberg Tragedy

Stanley Rosenberg
Better Days: Former Mass. Senate President Stanley Rosenberg raises his hand as he is sworn into office at the Statehouse in Boston, Wednesday, Jan. 7, 2015. Rosenberg, an Amherst Democrat, was elected by his colleagues to serve in the powerful position of president of the Massachusetts Senate.
Charles Krupa/AP

Over the course of a half-century as a criminal defense and civil liberties lawyer, I have witnessed myriad human tragedies, many rooted in the soil of the human condition. Few, however, lay bare the stuff of life as dramatically as the saga of former Senate President Stanley Rosenberg.

Once one of the most powerful men in the state, Rosenberg resigned his seat last week. He ultimately was felled by his loyalty to his palpably mentally-ill companion and (later) husband Bryon Hefner. Of the long list of dramatis personae in this legal, political, and human drama, I have concluded that Rosenberg emerges as the lone sympathetic actor. The rest all appear to have deviated from the roles that they should have limited themselves to, rather than over-stepping in a veritable orgy of unseemly piety and, all too often, schadenfreude.

The outlines of the saga are well-known. The Boston Globe reported in a November 30, 2017 investigative story that Hefner sexually assaulted four men, hinting to his victims that he could be useful to them in accomplishing their legislative or lobbying agendas on Beacon Hill if they gave in to Hefner’s sexual advances. The Globe story clearly disclosed criminal conduct on Hefner’s part, although a fair reading of the disclosures surely should have led all of the then and future actors in the saga to ask themselves whether it was not obvious that Hefner’s conduct was occasioned not by a true extortionate intent, but rather by a serious and persistent mental illness. Despite this obvious fact, the Suffolk County District Attorney and Attorney General Maura Healey secured, and then announced in April, Hefner’s indictment by a state-wide grand jury.

The events that subsequently unfolded, and those who brought them about, appear to have failed to recognize the central tragedy: Rosenberg spent his whole life as a closeted gay man up until he met the much younger Hefner who, as Rosenberg put it in 2014, “brought [him] to the dance.” “I would not have come out if he had not come into my life,” Rosenberg said. “It was the greatest gift anyone has given to me.”

Despite Hefner’s behavior, Rosenberg told a team of investigators from the Hogan Lovells law firm that the Senate hired to investigate the matter that “he could not completely wall off Hefner from his work unless he either quit his job in the Senate or divorced/left Hefner, neither of which he was willing to do.” The report concluded that Rosenberg knew or should have known about Hefner’s sexual harassment of Senate employees, but he did nothing about it. His gratitude to Hefner was so powerful that when he had an opportunity to denounce his spouse, he turned down the chance to distance himself.

Sensing political weakness, a wolf-pack of pols and public officials descended upon Rosenberg. Not content with merely indicting the mentally ill Hefner, Healey stepped outside of her proper role and publicly called for Rosenberg’s resignation. Governor Charles Baker, and a chorus of state senators who did not want to appear sympathetic to their erstwhile leader much less to the antics of Hefner, joined Healey’s plea. Unable to withstand the pressure, and recognizing the evaporation of any support from his fellow Senators and other powerful public officials, Rosenberg resigned at the end of the day on Friday, May 4th. As a result of this unseemly piling-on, Rosenberg’s constituents never got their chance to participate in a referendum—the most profound decision normally left to the voters—on the question of whether Rosenberg was still worthy of representing them.

The Senate as a body demonstrated its perfidy in yet another way: Even though Hogan Lovells turned in its report to the Senate Ethics Committee on April 11th, the committee did not release the report publicly until three weeks later, the day after the deadline for challengers to gain ballot access to run for Rosenberg’s seat. Procedures for getting on the ballot become much more difficult, and expensive, after the deadline. Hence, the transition from the Rosenberg era would be accomplished with minimum challenge to the entrenched powers-that-be.

The Boston Globe, for its part, could have tempered the harshness of its investigative reporting with some recognition of the degree to which Hefner’s palpable mental illness motivated his bizarre and otherwise criminal behavior. Not even the paper’s columnists did justice to the obvious “human interest” aspects of the story. In an age obsessed with “sexual assault” in all of its many variations and degrees, the Globe satisfied itself with having gotten its prey.

An Unusual Parallel

In pondering this drama – as much a human as a political tale – King Edward VIII’s famous abdication, in 1936, of the British throne comes to mind. When forced to choose between remaining king or marrying Wallis Simpson, a divorced American whom he loved, Edward chose to relinquish the immense royal power and prestige that were his. In our Massachusetts version, Rosenberg, who finally sent his estranged spouse to therapy for his drinking and psychological problems, made it clear that he would not toss to the winds or the wolves the love of his life, despite any political advantages he might have garnered, and power he would have retained, by joining the howling pack and pouncing. That love made Rosenberg unwilling to do the things that he would have had to do – that any political consultant likely would have advised him to do – to protect himself and others from the depredations of his mentally-ill husband, and to avoid ouster from the Senate.

One can argue about whether Rosenberg made the right decision for himself, for the members of the Senate, for the victims of his husband, and for his constituents – but one cannot argue that the decision to maintain his spousal loyalty (“for better and for worse, in sickness and in health,” as the traditional marriage vows phrase it) was without a deeply human and even moral basis. Rosenberg’s loyalty, powered by a recognition of the positive role that the now-ill Hefner had played in the older man’s life at that critical “coming out” juncture, might seem quaint in an environment where raw ambition and cynical manipulation are the order of the day. Viewed from this perspective, Rosenberg emerges as a sympathetic figure with an inner core that he would not sacrifice nor violate.

Arising from the dust is the old aphorism that “love conquers all.” Perhaps this part of the story will be told someday, when the passions and ambitions of the current moment have cooled sufficiently so that a different narrative might take root to explain this strange, yet oh-so human drama. Eventually, I suspect – and hope – that Rosenberg’s essential decency will be duly recognized and credited, and the one-sided attacks on the older man’s unwavering loyalty will be seen as a lost opportunity for both journalism and politics to temper their harsher edges with a recognition that, in the end, we are all human, and even the most profound errors of judgment to which we are prone should call forth some decency and sympathy.

(The author thanks research assistant Nathan McGuire for his invaluable assistance.)


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