The Gentleman from Amherst: This is Sen. Rosenberg, “I’m Listening.”
This post is the second in a two-part series on Stanley Rosenberg, the first leader of a Massachusetts legislative chamber from the 413 in four decades.
BOSTON—By the time the roll call vote for senate president reached him this past January, Rosenberg’s election had long been a fait accompli. With still half the senate left to vote, the outcome was everything, but official. When his name was called, Rosenberg paused and looked up pensively with a humorous expression of mock deliberation.
Armed with a keen sense of history and policy and a knack for listening, Rosenberg has reached the pinnacle of power in the state senate after a quarter century in the Massachusetts legislature’s upper house.
“If you want to get stuff done you have to do more listening than talking,” Rosenberg told WMassP&I in an interview last month.
In conversations with colleagues and supporters, it is clear that ability to understand and communicate with those both inside and outside the State House has been crucial to Rosenberg’s rise as well as enacting a progressive agenda and engaging the Bay State public.
“His instinct is to listen to others,” Longmeadow Senator Eric Lesser said. Noting Rosenberg often bridges the intellectual and the anecdotal side of debates, Lesser continued, “There’s often a tendency to gravitate toward one extent or another,” but Rosenberg can “jump back and forth.”
“Western MA is lucky to have Stan representing us,” Elizabeth Silver, Northampton Democratic City Committee chair and a Rosenberg constituent, said in an email. “We and the entire state benefit from his sage, smart, thoughtful, open, and transparent leadership.”
Rosenberg has received plaudits from Republicans as well as Democrats and open government advocates for making the senate more accessible. Earlier this year, the body held a statewide tour dubbed “commonwealth conversations,” to obtain public input.
“It was a great initiative to go out and speak to people,” Common Cause Massachusetts Executive Director Pam Wilmot said, perhaps setting an example for the executive branch and municipalities.
During an interview in the Senate President’s opulent office in the state house, once the senate’s library, Rosenberg discussed the arc of his career. Ever-history minded, he interwove policy and Beacon Hill politics, sometimes with a touch of dry wit, before conducting a guided tour of the senate’s quarters and chamber, including the room his predecessor Calvin Coolidge used as for an office.
Rosenberg attributed his deliberative, open-minded approach, and to some extent his liberal outlook, to studying the Talmud as a youth in synagogue.
“It’s all about asking questions and thinking about the possibilities,” he said, “and realizing there is often more than one answer.” Education, community and charity, key Jewish tenets, were central. “It’s much less about the self, it’s more about the other.”
After five years as Amherst’s state rep, Rosenberg was elected to the Senate in 1991. John Olver had vacated the sprawling Franklin, Hampshire & Worcester district that year to take a seat in Congress.
His early years on Beacon Hill could be frustrating. “I did a lot of very wild policy dreaming when I first came in,” much of went nowhere. So he sought common ground with his colleagues, making slow, steady progress on issues from controlling tuition to LGBT rights.
Rosenberg should not be mistaken for some wide-eyed naïf. He bested former Senator Stephen Brewer in the race to succeed former Senate President Therese Murray more than a year before her retirement. As president, he has brought his own style of shared leadership to office including giving committee chairs wide latitude and methodically gathering input from his colleagues.
“Stan is more deliberate and process-oriented,” when soliciting senators’ opinions Pittsfield Senator Benjamin Downing said. “Terry [Murray] was more informal. She’d just pick up the phone,” he added.
While acknowledging the senate is the part of state government furthest to the left, Rosenberg argued it probably leaned center-right with six Republicans, at least as many conservative Democrats. Maybe 25% of senators are solidly progressive. Moreover, the Mass Fiscal Alliance, a right-wing advocacy group, and national GOP groups are targeting senate districts in 2016 as they did state rep districts in 2014.
That hasn’t prevented progressive votes like freezing the income tax rate to finance an expanded earned income tax credit. Though rejected by the House, the proposal received 29 senate votes, a veto-proof majority.
But the significance of Rosenberg’s presidency extends beyond the left-right spectrum. Aside from being the first LGBT individual to lead either Massachusetts legislative chamber, he is the first House Speaker or Senate President from the 413 in 40 years.
“It is a difference,” Downing said. Not that Rosenberg’s predecessor didn’t care, but “there was a degree of getting up to speed on those issues” and institutions that affect Western Massachusetts.
Lesser echoed that sentiment and noted that since Rosenberg comes from one of the further-flung areas of the commonwealth, he schedules meetings a bit later, “He appreciates there’s a lot of senators coming from Springfield, Pittsfield or Cape Cod or the North Shore.”
Rosenberg said the outlying areas of the state, such as Western Massachusetts, can avoid losing out to Metro Boston when those regions’ lawmakers stand together. For example, legislators secured more local transit resources when Beacon Hill had to address the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s troubles.
Of regional fairness generally, Rosenberg said the 413’s legislators need to fight for resources here, but also remind people back home they are making progress, however, incremental at times.
“Some people, it will shock you to know, pander,” Rosenberg deadpanned, “and we try not to do that.” “So when we are getting screwed,” referring to Western Massachusetts, “we try to be clear that we’re getting screwed and this is the evidence that we’re getting screwed.”
Among the issues before the Senate this fall, engagement remains a top priority. Discussing communication strategy, Rosenberg rattled off Senate’s Twitter and Facebook state from budget week and said senators live-streamed explainers during the debate on Periscope.
“There were 3.3 million unique impressions that week,” larger than the Boston dailies’ circulation that week, Rosenberg noted, “which is pretty damn powerful.” The Senate is preparing similar social media campaigns for this fall to encourage the public to reach out and to learn what the Senate is doing.
The blitz on Twitter, Instagram and Reddit is bigger than just broadcasting a message, though. “We boomers are on the descendancy,” Rosenberg, 65, noted. Together Generation X and Millennials are larger and will become the dominant political force in coming years.
But Millennials often “don’t believe in the organized political system,” he said, even if it affects their lives. Rosenberg said his staff is working on discerning Millennials’ public policy concerns and how to engage them, “Hopefully that extends to them participating in politics, even if it is only to vote.”
Some Millennials serving in the Senate, however, need little convincing about Rosenberg.
Lesser, who as a White House aide encountered state and federal political leaders across the country, deemed Rosenberg, “Absolutely of the highest caliber.”
“It’s been fun to watch Stan put to work a life’s work of experience in this building and try to make them work and not just for himself but for all us,” Downing said.