The Odd Couple: Stan Rosenberg and Robert DeLeo

Under the Golden Dome, House Speaker Robert DeLeo is consolidating power the old-fashioned way, while new Senate President Stan Rosenberg is practically giving it away in the halls. Will they drive each other nuts?

When I met with Rosenberg, who was dressed in a navy blue suit and a white shirt with French cuffs, I’d hoped for a few stories about his relationship with DeLeo over the years. Problem is, there aren’t any. “My first recollection of actually sitting down and having a conversation with DeLeo was five years ago,” says Rosenberg, when they happened to be seated next to each other at a Council of State Governments meal. That remains, he says, the longest conversation the two have ever had. Somehow, they have never served together on a committee, task force, or political campaign.

Rosenberg spoke with me for more than an hour, with no handlers, no press secretary, and nobody recording the session to check my quotes. When a group of senators came in to use the conference room, we moved to his private office. The only item on the coffee table was The Book of Bastards: 101 Worst Scoundrels and Scandals From the World of Politics and Power, but he repeatedly offered me grapes and jellybeans.

Rosenberg spent most of his life in the closet. And, as he tells it, he never had a loving relationship—nor did he expect one. Instead, he evolved into a workaholic to avoid the discomfort of his personal life, traveling across the state and constantly appearing at events with colleagues.

Recent years, however, have delivered unexpected change: He fell in love with his ex-intern Bryon Hefner, also a former foster child, who took on a critical role four years ago helping Rosenberg successfully battle cancer. In February, the two men announced their plans to marry.

Not surprisingly, their relationship became heavy fodder for the press as Rosenberg prepared to take the presidency. Hefner allegedly bragged to Beacon Hill insiders about the influence he expected to wield—before Rosenberg reportedly admonished his fiancé and instructed Hefner to stop talking to senators about state business. In December, Hefner quit his job with the politically connected PR firm Regan Communications (which also represents Boston), blaming the Boston Globe’s coverage for forcing him to “choose between my personal and professional life.”

The press coverage seemed at least partly driven by their age difference—Rosenberg is 65, and Hefner is 27—and the novelty, at least in the eyes of strait-laced Globe editors, of a gay Massachusetts power couple. Even in this supposedly accepting state, it’s no accident that Rosenberg is the only openly gay man out of 147 in the legislature.

The media circus notwithstanding, Rosenberg is well liked and trusted by colleagues and was repeatedly described to me as a good listener—a valuable asset when working among senators who like to talk. “Stan [has] a certain quality of emotional intelligence,” says Philip Johnston, a former Democratic state party chair. “That’s helped [him] to survive and helped [him] to succeed in institutions that are very competitive.”

In addition, previous leaders knew they could trust Rosenberg to take on the most delicate of negotiations. In 2000 and again in 2010, Senate presidents put Rosenberg in charge of redistricting and gaming legislation, highly charged and complex issues that can easily go south and ruffle a lot of feathers along the way. Each time Rosenberg pulled it off smoothly. “Stan has far better political instincts than people think,” says state Representative Michael Moran of Brighton, who worked closely with Rosenberg as the House’s head of redistricting. “He’s a very even-tempered, thoughtful guy.”

Most notably, those instincts—and Rosenberg’s cool head under pressure—helped save same-sex marriage in Massachusetts, during a dramatic Constitutional Convention debate in early 2004. Essentially tricked into voting on an outright ban on same-sex marriage by then-Speaker Tom Finneran—who had a reputation for never losing a vote—Rosenberg took control and refocused efforts on beating the amendment. In the end, Rosenberg prevailed by just two votes.

 

DeLeo, nobody’s idea of a social butterfly, has become a regular sight at evening political functions and around the state, now that his two children—Robbie and Rachele—are grown and on their own. He is also, I am told, quite likely to bring along his longtime partner, Vicki Mucci, an office worker for the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority whom he has been with since divorcing his wife in 1999.

Part of DeLeo’s chummy style is his knowing how to pull a few legs and have a laugh. When both were new members in the House, Majority Leader Ron Mariano of Quincy remembers DeLeo secretly signing the more conservative Mariano’s name to several petitions supporting liberal bills. “So all the liberals would chase me around,” trying to hold strategy sessions, Mariano recalls. “It went on about a year and a half before I realized Bob had signed me up as a prank.”

It wasn’t all horseplay, though. DeLeo was also making allies. His first committee assignment was to the Judiciary Committee, then chaired by Sal DiMasi. When DiMasi became speaker, in 2005, he named DeLeo chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee—despite his never having served on the committee. The Globe wrote that “DiMasi has handed the plum assignment to an unassuming insider who faces a steep learning curve.”

DeLeo was a quick study, and in 2009, when DiMasi resigned under federal indictment, he ascended to speaker. From the start, he was not subtle about punishing dissenters and rewarding members who displayed loyalty. Enemies quickly lost their leadership posts; some, such as Marie St. Fleur of Dorchester and John Quinn of New Bedford, left the House for other jobs rather than idle away on backbenches.

The stink of DiMasi has been harder to wash away. After DiMasi was found guilty on seven federal corruption charges—the third consecutive speaker indicted by the feds—DeLeo was perceived outside the State House as part of the system of backroom henchmen who enabled DiMasi. Though DeLeo was never charged with wrongdoing, the Globe reported how the U.S. attorney targeted his role in the Probation Department patronage scandal, and branded him an “unindicted coconspirator” who used patronage to bribe other representatives for their support. And while he certainly was involved in patronage recommendations, it often seemed that the state’s most powerful newspaper and prosecutor were trying to bring DeLeo down for doing no more than many others, who received far less attention, had done in the past.

Several insiders say that DeLeo is now driven by a desire for vindication—thus his refusal to step down from the speakership. They also point out that it may not be such a bad thing, and that under DeLeo, the House has dealt with controversial legislation that it might not otherwise have taken on, including campaign finance, domestic violence, and even transgender rights. “He’s taken on issues that we said, for God knows how long, that we’re going to deal with,” says Jeffrey Sanchez, a state representative from Jamaica Plain.

That’s particularly the case when DeLeo personally cares about an issue. Substance abuse is one example: Healthcare providers tried to use their considerable influence to squash aspects of substance abuse legislation last session, but DeLeo kept it moving forward, passed a law, and plans to do more in the new session. Last session’s gun law also took DeLeo’s personal intervention just to get it out of committee. “It was a tough vote for anyone in Worcester County,” where gun rights are sacrosanct, says one lobbyist who followed the process. “He made it happen.”

 

Power on Beacon Hill always centers on the relationships between the “Big 3”: the governor, the House speaker, and the Senate president. Ask the old-timers what they think about the current triumvirate, and they’ll tell you about 1991. Then, as now, we had a new moderate Republican governor, Bill Weld, who frequently teamed up with the longtime, generally conservative Democratic Senate president, Bill Bulger—and in doing so, boxed out the brand-new, more-liberal House speaker, Charlie Flaherty.

Likewise, many expect Charlie Baker and DeLeo to plot against Rosenberg and the liberal Senate.

“Look at what’s already happened,” says one close observer, who points to the way Baker handled a $765 million budget imbalance, addressed in a supplemental bill in January. Many senators wanted a mix of cuts and new revenues. “The governor said no new taxes. The speaker said no new taxes. The Senate had to drop it.”

But don’t underestimate Rosenberg. He is a true student of the state Senate, and has been thinking for a long time about how to run it, ever since his unsuccessful bid for the presidency in 2002. He has already created or redefined several cross-committee positions, and reconfigured the president’s staff, in ways that have senators—even Republican Minority Leader Bruce Tarr— enthused.

After decades in the same orbit, DeLeo and Rosenberg’s winding roads have finally led, full circle, back to each other. Whether Massachusetts Democrats hang together during a Republican administration—or, as Ben Franklin had it, hang separately—depends largely on whether these two men remain as much a mystery to each other now as they have for the past 35 years.


David S. Bernstein
David S. Bernstein David S. Bernstein, Contributing Editor, Boston Magazine david@davidsbernstein.com