Love, Power, and the Downfall of Stan Rosenberg
Love saved former state Senate President Stan Rosenberg’s life. Then it ruined him. How did things go so wrong?
On a Friday in late April, I drove out to see then–state Senator Stanley Rosenberg in his western Massachusetts district. For months, Rosenberg had been embroiled in scandal. It started when his erratic, much-younger husband was accused of sexual misconduct. Winter turned to spring. The story mutated, metastasized. Suddenly, Rosenberg was getting swallowed up, too. Officials launched investigations. Columnists called for his head. And Rosenberg didn’t want to rock the boat. So, for a long time, he refused to talk. When he ultimately agreed to meet, his chief of staff warned me that he wouldn’t address his husband, Bryon Hefner, or the investigations, or much of anything at all. That wasn’t surprising. Rosenberg enjoys discussing only the driest of policy specifics; if you press him to open up, he lets his eyes glaze over and tortures you with shopworn talking points. But on that Friday, something in him boiled over, and he decided to go off-script.
We met in the handsome, ski-lodgey foyer of Amherst’s Hotel UMass in the early afternoon. He’d spent the morning pressing flesh at a couple of harmless constituent events and was wearing a suit and tie. We sat down across from each other at a high-top table and his chief of staff handed us plastic cups of water. Rosenberg ran interference for a while, until I managed to ask him about the existential threats to his political career. The atmosphere in the Senate, he said, had been poisoned by “innuendo,” with staffers “spreading rumors around the building like manure.” Defiantly, he continued, “The sensationalized stuff gets on the front page at the drop of a hat. And it gets there over and over and over again.”
Rosenberg rose to power in remarkable fashion. He was earnest, wonky, and not obviously corrupt, which was refreshing in a state legislature notorious for scandal. He was also the first Jew and the first openly gay person to hold the Senate presidency. When he was elected to that office, Massachusetts’ previous three House speakers had all been convicted of felonies; Rosenberg’s Senate, by contrast, became a model of good governance. More remarkable, though, was his downfall. In late November, four unnamed male Beacon Hill operatives accused Hefner of groping or kissing them against their will. Most damning for Rosenberg were their claims that Hefner’s political influence was implicit in his advances—reporting or harshly rejecting him might have jeopardized their standing with the Senate president. “There is a predator in Rosenberg’s inner circle,” a fortysomething policy advocate, who said Hefner groped him in 2015, told the Boston Globe. “He participates in official functions and he uses his influence with the Senate president as part of his tool-belt of harassment techniques.”
Shit met fan, straight away. Several federal and state investigations whirred to life and Rosenberg temporarily stepped down from the presidency while announcing that his husband was entering treatment for alcohol dependency. Then the Globe excavated another damning nugget, revealing that Hefner had had access to Rosenberg’s official calendar and email account, bolstering suspicions of his political influence. The situation only deteriorated from there. Rosenberg lost the presidency for good, and in March a grand jury indicted Hefner for sexually assaulting three men and distributing nude photos of a fourth without his consent. (Hefner pleaded not guilty to all the charges. His lawyer, Tracy Miner, said he looked “forward to contesting the allegations in a court of law, where evidence must be produced, and witnesses can be confronted.”) The day the indictment went public, a challenger—Chelsea Kline—announced she would primary the once-untouchable Rosenberg and vie to kill off his political career altogether. A little later, it was all over. The Senate Committee on Ethics released a report, the results of which almost didn’t matter. The political class had seen enough. Exactly two weeks after I spoke to him in Amherst, Rosenberg formally resigned.
The case against Hefner came to light thanks in large part to the #MeToo movement combating workplace sexual misconduct. But if this is a #MeToo story, it’s a highly unusual one. First, it’s one of the few same-sex harassment scandals of the era. Also, more curiously, the public figure ousted from power wasn’t the one charged with sexual wrongdoing. Nor was he found to have covered up, or even known about, the alleged offenses. Yet, here we are. So why was Rosenberg overthrown?
There is almost universal agreement on Beacon Hill that Hefner, a Tasmanian devil of inflated ambition and emotional instability, caused considerable wreckage. In the six months since the news first broke, I haven’t spoken to one person who doubts the sexual allegations against him. There is debate, however, over the separate question of Hefner’s influence in the State House—and his husband’s role in enabling it. One faction believes Rosenberg rightly paid the price for the porous boundary between his personal and political lives. “Hefner was everything. He was Stan’s number one adviser, his number one enforcer, his chief of staff, his communications person,” says a Beacon Hill staffer who knows Hefner. “He was really the 41st senator.”
Hefner was by far the most important person who’d ever entered his life. And that, it turns out, was the entire problem.
Another faction—composed of Rosenberg’s allies, longtime acquaintances, and inner circle—finds this idea preposterous. “[Stan’s staff] didn’t see [Hefner] as the wolf at the door, but they certainly saw him as a gnat buzzing around their head,” says Ralph Whitehead, a retired UMass journalism professor and longtime Rosenberg adviser. “He was a joke. Nobody paid any attention to him.” In Stanworld, Rosenberg quietly ascended the ranks of Massachusetts politics as a single, closeted gay man, finally fell in love, came out, kicked cancer with Hefner by his side, got married, and rose to the top of his profession. Hefner was by far the most important person who’d ever entered his life. And that, it turns out, was the entire problem.
Hefner and Rosenberg’s shared biography has all the tragic romance of a Dickens novel. Nearly four decades apart in age, they were abandoned as young boys by their parents and spent turbulent childhoods living with foster families across the state. The men responded to the chaos and trauma, though, in dramatically different ways.
Rosenberg was born in Dorchester four years after the end of World War II. His father worked as a custodian in the city’s schools department. His mother, who emigrated from Austria, worked in the Quincy shipyards and later as a waitress. They had five children. Four of the siblings, including Stan, were removed from their home as young children; only one, Rosenberg’s younger brother, returned to the family. A foster family in Malden took in Stan and later moved to Revere. Rosenberg rarely discusses his childhood and has said he never learned why he entered foster care. He opened up—barely—in a 1996 Globe interview, saying that it shamed him as a boy that his last name didn’t match his parents’ on his report cards. According to people close to Rosenberg, his foster parents didn’t exactly shower him with affection: When they went out to eat, Stan was often left in the car.
As a teenager, Rosenberg turned to religion, though his dreams of becoming a rabbi died when Yeshiva University in New York City rejected his application. Instead he enrolled at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he took up political science and joined the marching band. By then he’d already cut off contact with his biological parents, and after a year on campus, he stopped speaking to his foster parents. The university and its faculty filled the emotional hole and became his surrogate family. After graduating, Rosenberg landed a job working for state Senator John Olver, who represented the Pioneer Valley. In 1986, Rosenberg won a seat in the state House of Representatives. In 1991, he migrated to the state Senate after Olver was elected to Congress and vacated his seat.
Rosenberg wasn’t a particularly charismatic politician: no swelling oratory, no Camelot good looks. He was a left-wing progressive, but his defining quality wasn’t ideology, it was head-down wonkishness. His big-ticket legislative accomplishments tended to be deadly boring (congressional redistricting) or nonpartisan (casino legalization), but always complex. “Stan is a procedural liberal to the extent I’ve ever met one in my fucking life ever,” says veteran Democratic operative and close Rosenberg adviser Lou DiNatale. “He was the first nerd of the Senate.” Compared to the disorienting turbulence of his upbringing, the work of policymaking was a blessedly straightforward march. He went to the office; he went home. He passed good laws; he got reelected. As Rosenberg himself once put it, with trademark mildness, “I became very focused on my work, not personal relationships.”
Rosenberg can come off as two-dimensional, like a cardboard cutout of a rank-and-file politician. “I’m not sure he has real, real close friends in the world,” says a longtime, well, chum from western Massachusetts. “Very few people, maybe one, know Stan’s whole life story.” Over the past months, I’ve learned that he’s fond of the poetry of Langston Hughes and Gertrude Stein, and that he breakfasts on Saturdays with a group of graying politicos in Amherst. Still, after talking to several dozen sources for this story, it did not emerge, for example, that Rosenberg had any hobbies outside of work. For almost 60 years, he lived as a bachelor. Many suspected he was gay, but it was hard to know, because he didn’t appear to have even the most closeted or covert romantic life. Even while pushing for antidiscrimination legislation during the ’80s and ’90s, and then eventually for marriage equality, he didn’t reveal his truth.
Imagine having sex for the first time—or good sex for the first time—when you’re in your fifties. My God! What a life-changing experience.” Rosenberg’s world had gone from grayscale to Technicolor. And his life would never be the same.
If Rosenberg lived his life between the lines, Hefner leapt off the page. Born in 1987, he spent the first decade of his life with his half-sister and mother, a drug and alcohol abuser who beat him, Hefner would later tell the press. They were often homeless and stayed mostly with relatives around central Massachusetts. At 10, Hefner was placed in state custody, and for the next decade lived in about a dozen other abusive environments, from group foster homes to juvenile detention centers. Despite the traumas, he was bright and succeeded academically wherever he could. In 2006, he graduated with honors from Norwood High School and enrolled at Lesley University, where he quickly scored a couple of internships on Beacon Hill. Ambitious and self-directed, Hefner caught the attention of the Worcester Telegram & Gazette, which featured him in a piece about thriving foster children with a photo of him smiling widely at a desk in the State House. “I met him at an RFK [Children’s Action Corps] dinner in 2011,” says former state Democratic Party chairman Phil Johnston, referring to the nonprofit adoption organization that once housed Hefner, and which Johnston founded in 1969. “They were sort of touting him at the time as the big success story.”
Hefner took to politics and ultimately landed a three-month paid summer gig in Rosenberg’s office. They started dating shortly after the job concluded, in what was by all accounts the first serious romance of Rosenberg’s life. The foster-child bond was strong, but from the outside, they made for a highly unusual pair. Rosenberg, 58 at the time, quiet, balding, slope-shouldered. Hefner, 21, gossipy, bow-tied, a hundred pounds soaking wet. “When Stan first told me about him,” says one lesbian political operative, “he couldn’t look me in the eyes, and sheepishly said, ‘He’s much younger than me.’” Eyebrows shot way up. It wasn’t just the age gap; Hefner was intelligent and could be charming, but there was also something off about him, something keyed-up and antic that Rosenberg’s friends couldn’t put their finger on. Still, it was hard not to be happy for Rosenberg, and skeptics shrugged off their reservations. “For the first time, you love someone and they love you. What an amazing, new sensation you’ve never had any time before,” the operative says. “Imagine having sex for the first time—or good sex for the first time—when you’re in your fifties. My God! What a life-changing experience.” Rosenberg’s world had gone from grayscale to Technicolor. And his life would never be the same.
Right away, shockwaves rippled through Rosenberg’s life. First, Hefner convinced him to come out of the closet—something the reclusive senator had never planned to do. In an understated but poignant 2009 Fourth of July column for his local newspaper, the Daily Hampshire Gazette, he wrote, “As a foster child who grew up as a ward of the state, as a gay man, as a Jew, I understand what it’s like to be cast as ‘the other.’ I rarely discuss these facets of my character because I don’t practice identity politics. I practice policy politics.”
Not long afterward, Rosenberg suffered the worst health scare of his life when he was diagnosed with skin cancer. Visiting him in the hospital, his friends witnessed the seriousness of his relationship with Hefner firsthand. One day, recalls Jon Hite, a veteran of western Massachusetts politics and a member of Rosenberg’s breakfast club, “Stan was in bed and he was out of it. I don’t know that he was drugged up, but he didn’t recognize me, almost like in a coma. And there’s Bryon, cleaning up Stan’s vomit.” Pre-Hefner, with no family to speak of, Rosenberg would have suffered the ordeal alone. Hefner, Hite says, did two things for Rosenberg: He made him feel comfortable with being gay, and he nursed him back to health. Stan never forgot either. “He strums both those chords,” Hite says. “Based on what I know about Stan’s upbringing, I don’t think he got a whole lot of love when he was a kid.”
Kids who go through the foster system [are told], ‘You don’t matter, you’re a nobody,'” a source close to Rosenberg says, repeating a line the senator confided. “And Bryon had a desperate need to be relevant, to be meaningful, to not be a nobody.”
There was another side to Hefner, though. He was politically ambitious and personally reckless, and his newfound proximity to power inflamed those tendencies. After two years at Lesley, Hefner dropped out and affixed himself to Rosenberg’s political operation. (He later earned an associate’s degree from Greenfield Community College.) From 2010 to 2013, Rosenberg gave his boyfriend a volunteer gig manning his fundraising committee, and with it, entrée to the State House scene Hefner craved access to. “Bryon cultivated relationships with people in politics, especially gay people,” says one Senate staffer. Carl Sciortino, a former state representative who now heads the nonprofit AIDS Action Committee, says Hefner styled himself as a freelance political guru. “It was, ‘You should talk to Stan about XYZ. You should talk to Chairman XYZ.’ In his mind, he was a good-idea generator.”
Hefner fraternized with a crew of young, mostly gay political operatives. It was in that milieu that he wreaked his particular brand of havoc. Hefner’s indiscreet behavior—unsolicited dick pics, incessant sexual come-ons, and wanton groping—became a wide-open secret on Beacon Hill. Gay culture can be permissive, but Hefner’s behavior was extreme by any standard. “He was always texting, ‘Come over,’ ‘Come fuck me,’” says one gay male Senate staffer who had a boyfriend and constantly rebuffed Hefner. Hefner was a menace, a “crazy little terrorist,” as a former coworker put it. But he was also acting out. “When he is being over-the-top or aggressive, [I] think it’s a mask for someone who’s an insecure person, who’s had a lot of trauma in his life,” Sciortino says. “I remember one of the only times I ever saw him go into a gay bar—Club Café, with me—he was literally hiding in the corner, sweating and nervous.” Rather than risk intimacy, sources say, Hefner treated relationships as transactional—a means to achieve sex, power, or both. “Even as an intern, he would name the senators that he gave blow jobs to. Married senators,” says a lobbyist who socialized with Hefner.
Everyone I spoke with seems to believe that Hefner was serially unfaithful. One source said Hefner and Rosenberg fought constantly over Hefner’s cheating, while others say it wasn’t clear how tolerant—or aware—Rosenberg was of his partner’s infidelities. In text messages that were later made public, sent in late 2015, Rosenberg addressed his partner’s wandering eye coyly. When Hefner wrote, “fire everyone and replace them with republicans,” Rosenberg responded, “Not everyone. U r still lusting after [a staff member].” Either way, there was a yawning generational and cultural gap between the two men, and Hefner seemed to exploit it to his advantage. Rosenberg was getting a crash course in sex, love, and dating at the age of 60, with the worst possible tutor. “Here you have an older man who was not active in a social way in a gay community,” says Sue O’Connell, an NECN host and copublisher of the LGBTQ newspaper Bay Windows. “Perhaps Stan didn’t know that you don’t act that way. He’s new to gay life. His only entrée to it is Bryon.”
Signs of Hefner’s recklessness extended well beyond his sexual indiscretions, including excessive drinking and delusions of grandeur. It was also thought he may have mental health issues. But for the courtier class of Beacon Hill, putting up with Hefner meant potentially gaining access to Rosenberg. “[Hefner] made his way into my life by providing useful information. Stan clearly confided in him,” says the gay Senate staffer. “He had a good sense of everything. Deep historic knowledge about people’s campaigns, policy stuff, what made individual senators tick, salacious gossip.” And that, in turn, inflated Hefner’s sense of importance. “Kids who go through the foster system [are told], ‘You don’t matter, you’re a nobody,’” a source close to Rosenberg says, repeating a line the senator confided. “And Bryon had a desperate need to be relevant, to be meaningful, to not be a nobody.”
Hefner’s lawyer did not respond to specific allegations about her client’s behavior, but sent me this written statement: “Bryon had a very difficult childhood which causes lasting damage and may well have led to a dependency on alcohol. He has been working hard to maintain his sobriety and address his childhood trauma. That being said, to paraphrase Mark Twain, the rumors of his exploits have been greatly exaggerated. Bryon is a survivor, who has remained resilient in the face of adversity and stayed committed to his husband, with whom he has been in a loving relationship the vast majority of his adult life.”
Meanwhile, Rosenberg, in his methodical way, was scaling the political ladder. In 2013, there was a succession fight for the Senate presidency. Rosenberg had run before, in 2002, and lost. This time he pitched himself as a reformer, promising to empower his fellow senators by radically decentralizing the authority of the presidency. He called the idea “shared leadership.” The influence once vested in a single person would now trickle to committee chairs and rank-and-file members previously tasked with thumb-twiddling. Rosenberg easily secured the votes. There was just one person who wasn’t on board. “Bryon hated shared leadership. Hated it,” Whitehead says. “He wanted Stan to be Don Corleone.”
Hefner quickly went from a tolerable nuisance to a political liability. Months before his husband’s inauguration, a series of tweets were sent from an account widely suspected to be Hefner’s (username: General Hooker) with autobiography titles for outgoing Senate president Therese Murray. Some show a glint of wit, others are just mean, and all of them are deeply tasteless. For instance, a Photoshopped picture of Murray wearing a pointy black hat and holding a broom, captioned “Wicked: The Untold Story of the Bitch of Beacon Hill,” and “Living History: The Facelift That Failed.” Twenty-nine of these were tweeted over the course of two days.
Later, in the midst of Charlie Baker’s gubernatorial race against Democrat Martha Coakley, Hefner posted a photo of himself from a separate Twitter account standing with Baker; his wife, Lauren; and his running mate, Karyn Polito. (Hefner, Johnston says, leans Republican and voted for Baker that year.) The aggressive pointlessness of the post was not lost on Rosenberg’s Democratic colleagues, many of whom were facing reelection battles of their own. The chair of the state Democratic Party, Tom McGee, called Rosenberg directly to complain.
Hefner wasn’t intentionally gumming up the works. Far from it—he was delighted with Rosenberg’s promotion, and did all he could to portray himself as a coequal partner in his husband’s rise to power. DiNatale relates a story he heard from a Globe reporter: Shortly before Rosenberg was officially sworn in, state troopers at one of the entrances to the State House saw someone walking in their direction. “This little kid starts wandering up the street and he’s heading toward us, and we’re going, ‘Oh, he must be lost,’” they recalled. “Kid walks up, he sticks his head in, and he goes, ‘As soon as Stan gets in up there, we’re going to take care of that. We’re going to get you a bigger box, we’re going to get you a bigger hut.’” They died laughing. A week later, after seeing his photo in the newspaper, the troopers realized it was Hefner.
As word of Hefner’s attempted meddling spread, Rosenberg felt forced to respond. If he was to earn the trust of his colleagues, he knew they needed his assurance that their work would be protected from Hefner’s influence. In early December 2014, a month before he was sworn in as president, Rosenberg sent a letter to his 33 Democratic colleagues vowing to erect a “firewall” to keep Hefner out. Rosenberg’s “firewall,” as it turns out, was a less specific promise than his colleagues thought. According to Rosenberg and his staff, all it entailed was an assurance that Hefner would not influence the work of the Senate. No explicit details were revealed about how that would happen. As a result, Hefner continued to bother staffers with emails, and Rosenberg would sometimes copy him on messages he sent within the office. Still, “Things definitely changed,” says a former Rosenberg staffer. “You know, if Bryon was going to meet him for dinner, they wouldn’t meet at the office anymore, they’d meet wherever they were going.” Hefner felt locked out and cast aside. “Most of the time, Bryon was left home,” says a lobbyist who knew the couple. “And he wasn’t happy about it at all.”
The situation was exacerbated by Hefner’s struggles to keep a job—and keep his own identity separate from Rosenberg’s. Shortly after Rosenberg became president, O’Connell invited Hefner to coffee to see if he’d be interested in a gig as a Bay Windows PR liaison. It’s hard to think of a position for which he’d be more qualified, but he turned it down. “He said he had bigger ideas of what he wanted to do, and then immediately started emailing me these salacious, gossipy emails about members of the Senate,” O’Connell says. “I was like, ‘Dude, I’m happy to gossip, but I’m not really sure that’s what you want to be doing right now.’”
What Hefner wanted most was to prove his influence at the State House. “Bryon had no interest whatsoever in public policy,” Whitehead says. “And he seems to have had a relentless craving to make people think that he was important.” A self-styled PR guru, Hefner instead offered unsolicited advice about communications strategy, which was sometimes mocked and almost always ignored. A Rosenberg lieutenant says only one Hefner idea was ever implemented. It was an online feature including fun facts about members of the Senate, the aide says, just “something we did in the summer when we were kind of dead.”
Under Rosenberg’s shared-leadership model, the same checks and balances that prevented the president from ruling by fiat seemed to prevent Hefner from pressing his thumb too hard on the scale. According to Rosenberg’s staff, the disempowered Hefner lashed out with verbal abuse—“I’ll destroy you”—directed at both staff and at Rosenberg. “He was pretty convinced that he created Stan,” DiNatale says. “His view of the world was Stan was a washed-up politician when he found him, busted and broken on the side of the road. He nursed him through cancer and then convinced him he could run for president of the Senate again. Then Stan got to be Senate president and Bryon got squat: ‘How is that fair to me?’”
Hefner, relentless as a mongoose, had no plans to fade into the background. He tried to establish his influence wherever he could, telling reporters in late 2015 that he was running for a seat in the state Senate covering East Boston, where he did not live. But the idea quickly died. Rosenberg became mired in damage control, mastering the dark arts of rationalizing and looking the other way. One time, say a pair of State House sources, a senator received explicit text messages from Hefner blasting members of Rosenberg’s leadership team. When the senator complained to Rosenberg personally, he said, “You deal with people with mental illness all the time,” the sources say. Hefner, he implied, shouldn’t be taken seriously. But he also couldn’t be controlled. (Rosenberg says he doesn’t recall the exchange.)
According to DiNatale, this mirrors an incident that occurred on the cusp of Rosenberg’s presidency. Hefner called and asked DiNatale to meet in Harvard Square. When he arrived, Hefner told him he wanted a certain male senator to be appointed to a leadership position in Rosenberg’s administration. DiNatale demurred. “I go, ‘He’s a dick. Nobody likes him. We couldn’t make him anything.’” Hefner pressed, claiming he had a handle on the senator: “I’m fucking him.” DiNatale, more than a little disturbed, suspected Hefner was full of it, but called Rosenberg anyway. “He goes, ‘Lou, he’s a liar. He’ll say anything.’” (The senator did not get a post in Rosenberg’s administration.)
Hefner’s aggressive backroom politicking, prosecutors now say, took an insidious turn when he appeared to use his status as a pretext to make unwanted sexual advances. According to criminal court records, one man alleged that in the fall of 2014, Hefner undid the man’s pants and tried to stick his hands in his underwear while they were in Hefner’s condo. Less than a year later, another man met Hefner for drinks at a bar before returning to the condo, where Hefner repeatedly groped him and unzipped his pants. The same man says Hefner tried to grope him in the backseat of a car on the way to a political event and later that night under the table, at dinner. A third accuser says Hefner kissed him on the lips without his consent while they—and the man’s wife—were out celebrating a birthday in Boston. Finally, a fourth man says he and Hefner got drunk together at a political conference in December 2013. The next morning, he woke up naked in his hotel room with no recollection of what had happened. Over the next two years, the indictment charged, Hefner showed naked photos of the man to at least four different people—photos that have long stoked State House gossip—in a “casual and boastful manner.” A trial has been set for March 2019.
He’s so smart, and he has always done his homework, and then finally— finally—he finds someone that he falls in love with,” says Ellen Story, a former state representative from Amherst. “And it turns out to be Bryon.”
So far, no one, including the alleged victims, is saying that Rosenberg was complicit. Yet the four men who spoke to the Globe said they didn’t originally report Hefner’s behavior for fear of reprisal from Rosenberg. After all, the Senate president appeared to have a history of blocking out Hefner’s worst impulses. In another text message that would emerge, Hefner texted Rosenberg—maybe in jest, maybe not—“I want to roofie [a senator] and make a sex tape.” It does not appear Rosenberg responded. Nothing Hefner did, it seemed, could sever the ties between them. In a telling moment, DiNatale recalls, he pleaded with Rosenberg, “‘Stan, the kid’s toxic, you’ve got to get rid of him, you’ve got to dump him.’ And he goes, ‘You want me to throw him away again? He’s already been thrown away once.’” Instead of distancing himself from Hefner, Rosenberg went the other way, proposing to Hefner with a handkerchief monogrammed “BHR” after dancing to the Ed Sheeran song “Thinking Out Loud” in their apartment. In September 2016, they married, in a private ceremony at Cambridge City Hall.
On December 1, 2017, a Friday, Rosenberg stood outside the third-floor chambers of the state Senate, swarmed by TV cameras and microphones. The Globe’s initial story about Hefner’s sexual misconduct had just hit, and Rosenberg was making his first public remarks. “My heart goes out to anyone who may have been hurt, and I am committed to helping anyone who has been harmed,” he said, reading evenly from a prepared statement. “This has been the most difficult time in my political life, and in my personal life.” He didn’t deny the allegations of Hefner’s sexual misconduct, but strongly rejected the notion that his husband wielded political power. “If Bryon claimed to have influence over my decisions, or over the Senate, he should not have said that…I am confident the investigation will find that Bryon had no influence on the workings of the Senate.”
Rosenberg was clinging to a return to normalcy. Hefner was set to enter a nearby hospital for mental health evaluation, and Rosenberg’s inner circle pushed him to reveal in his statement that Hefner would be undergoing psychological treatment. Rosenberg balked—“He’ll go crazy,” he explained—choosing only to say that Hefner was being treated for alcohol dependency. Even after Rosenberg stepped down from the presidency, his diminished staff kept the embers of hope alive, calling reporters to gauge support for a comeback. Then a second Globe story upended the state’s political landscape anew.
In an apparent gambit to placate Hefner, Rosenberg had granted Hefner electronic access to Rosenberg’s Senate calendar, which in turn allowed him access to the president’s official email account. The access, it would later come out, was first granted in 2009 and wasn’t revoked until early 2017, after Hefner posed as his husband and tried to arrange a meeting with another elected official. Faced with evidence that there never was much of a “firewall,” Rosenberg’s allies and colleagues in the Senate felt betrayed, and his team privately acknowledged defeat. “Up to that point, it looked like Stan was the victim,” says a Senate staffer. “When it came out that Bryon had access to the emails, and Stan had lied to his colleagues, that was it.” Ashland Senator Karen Spilka soon secured the votes to assume the presidency. Rosenberg sat in the purgatory of a temporary basement office, his political future in limbo.
In Stanworld, this degradation was the real betrayal. When he first stepped down from the presidency, Rosenberg told me, it was for the benefit of his husband’s alleged victims. “I was the one who said I’m going to step aside so that people can’t question the integrity of the investigation. That was voluntary. And I don’t know any other legislative leader that’s done that.” If Rosenberg had not done so, he implied, it’s possible he wouldn’t have lost the presidency in the first place. The way he sees it, no good deed goes unpunished. In late April, I asked him if he thought his colleagues still had his back. “I have a lot of friends in the body, and I’d like to think that they do. But you’d have to ask them.” A couple of weeks later, it would become clear that they did not.
On May 2, the Senate Committee on Ethics released the report it commissioned in December to determine if Rosenberg had violated Senate rules. It contained findings based on interviews with 45 witnesses, 250,000 emails, 19,000 text messages, and 11 hours of testimony from Rosenberg himself. In granular detail, the 77-page report laid out Hefner’s repeated sexual harassment of Senate employees—including two new allegations of groping—and attempts to interfere with Senate business. But it also found that Rosenberg didn’t break any rules, and that there was no evidence he knew of his husband’s alleged sexual misconduct. Hefner, it also concluded, had no influence over Senate policy or personnel.
Given what we know about Hefner, it seems unlikely that taking away his email privileges would have turned him into a choirboy. Perhaps the only way for Rosenberg to freeze his husband out, as he argued to investigators, would have been to resign from the Senate or divorce Hefner. Nevertheless, the investigators argued that Rosenberg had enabled Hefner by granting him access to privileged information. The former president, it concluded, “did not protect the Senate from Hefner, who he knew could be disruptive, volatile and abusive.” The Senate accepted the findings, and reprimanded Rosenberg by locking him out of any leadership or committee assignments through 2020. Minutes after the report was published, Governor Charlie Baker and Attorney General Maura Healey called for Rosenberg’s resignation. A day later, he stepped down.
Under the peculiar logic of political scandal, a steady drip of hard-to-process information sometimes does more damage than one blast of obvious malfeasance (see: Hillary Clinton, emails). One of the smoking guns the Globe pointed to was a $500,000 appropriation Hefner had lobbied several senators to cosponsor in 2017 for the RFK Children’s Action Corps, where he had periodically worked. (This is the same program that housed Hefner as a boy.) According to the Globe, Hefner convinced one senator to cosponsor the amendment. But Senator Michael Barrett of Lexington, the chief sponsor of the legislation, essentially came to Rosenberg’s defense and said at the time that he had never heard from Hefner and had gotten the very same earmark passed in 2016 and 2017. “I was totally clueless about his apparent interest,” Barrett said. “We didn’t need any help. This was incredibly popular.”
Rosenberg’s defenders have always argued that his colleagues, the Globe—everyone—wildly overestimated Hefner’s political pull. Whitehead compared Hefner to a linebacker who managed to breach the protection of the opposing team’s offensive line—yet never managed to sack the quarterback. “Stan’s conscience,” he says, “was the ultimate firewall.” The Senate Committee on Ethics may have censured Rosenberg for his lack of judgment, but it did not find that he had been corrupted. Given the appearance of a smokeless smoking gun, given the unusual nature of Rosenberg’s marriage, a number of his allies wonder if a double standard is at work. They propose a hypothetical: Imagine a female politician’s male spouse was a serial philanderer accused of sexually harassing his wife’s colleagues. “There’d be some sympathy for the fucking spouse,” one says. Political spouses have wreaked havoc before, but few public leaders have fallen from power so directly because of the sins of their partners.
Hefner, Rosenberg’s confidants say, is currently out of state. The two are separated but not divorced. Rosenberg, whose compensation had been cut by more than half, is renting out his Amherst house and living with friends. After decades as a beacon in the state’s dank legislature, he is tormented by the hit to his legacy. “You spend 32 years writing great legislation and providing leadership that your colleagues and others respect, and your only front-page stories, in a 32-year career, are the front-page stories I’ve gotten,” he told me. “It’s very sad.”
There is one part of this story that nobody seems to dispute: Rosenberg’s biggest mistake is one he might just make again. “He’s so smart, and he has always done his homework, and then finally— finally—he finds someone that he falls in love with,” says Ellen Story, a former state representative from Amherst. “And it turns out to be Bryon.”
This story originally misidentified the district of former Congressman Chet Atkins.