Senate presidency a new role for Rosenberg

Issue January 2015 By Mike Vigneux

Every great recipe starts with the right ingredients. Perhaps no one on Beacon Hill knows that better than Senate Majority Leader Stan Rosenberg, who is expected to be voted in as the new Senate president when the legislative session kicks off on Jan. 7.

Rosenberg, a cooking enthusiast and collector of cook books, is known at the State House for his famous tomato sauce. Each fall he handpicks all his ingredients fresh from the fields of western Massachusetts. He freezes them so he can make his highly sought-after sauce and homemade pasta even in the middle of a bone-chilling New England winter. The sauce garnered so much acclaim that the Boston Globe published the recipe in September 2005.

"I like to cook, but rarely get a chance to do that anymore," says Rosenberg, who represents the Hampshire-Franklin District, which includes Amherst and Northampton.

His time in the kitchen may be cut back even more with his forthcoming presidency seat in the state Senate. Not only will Rosenberg be moving into a new role, he'll also be working with a new governor in Charlie Baker when a new administration takes over in January. Rosenberg has served as a state senator since 1991 and has worked his way up the leadership ranks. A knowledgeable legislator that has earned the respect of his colleagues, Rosenberg possesses the key professional ingredients to produce a winning recipe for leadership of the Senate.

'Dean of the State Senate'

As the longest tenured member of the Upper Chamber with 23 years of service, Rosenberg has earned the honorary title of "Dean of the State Senate." An advocate for education and social justice for all, he has served as president pro tempore, assistant majority leader and chairman of the Senate Committee on Ways and Means. In 2001 and 2011 he also served as Senate chair of the Joint Committee on Redistricting.

A resident of Amherst, Rosenberg has lived in the Pioneer Valley for more than 40 years. His district is made up of 24 communities: 17 in Franklin County, six in Hampshire County and one in Worcester County. He is a graduate of Revere High School and UMass Amherst.

Rosenberg is in position to claim the highest seat in the Senate with the departure of outgoing Senate President Therese Murray, who did not run for reelection. After a six-month period of internal conversations about what the future of the Senate might look like, Rosenberg was given the opportunity to become the new leader.

"It's a significant responsibility and opportunity. I am fully aware and take it with a great deal of seriousness," says Rosenberg. "We have an opportunity to build an agenda in the Senate, work with the speaker and in this case we now have a divided government with a Republican governor and a Democratically controlled legislature."

While putting together an agenda in the Senate is still very much in the discussion stage at this point, Rosenberg notes that the state's economy will be at the center of it.

"I'm looking forward to continuing on the path of increased transparency and engagement both by the members of the Senate and the public in building and maintaining a very robust economy," he says.

Criminal justice reform

In addition to the economy, the topic of criminal justice reform is one of many key areas for Rosenberg. In November, he attended a conference on criminal justice reform in San Diego. The conference, "The Justice Reinvestment National Summit: Sustaining Success, Maintaining Momentum," was sponsored by the Pew Charitable Trusts, the U.S. Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Assistance and the Council of State Governments Justice Center.

Rosenberg was among 450 attendees from 35 states at the conference. Seventeen of those states are significantly engaged in justice reinvestment initiatives, which involve different ways of looking at and spending resources in order to protect public safety. The goals include reducing incarceration and re-incarceration, creating stronger re-entry programs for those that have been incarcerated and reducing the rate of re-entry into the prison system.

In Massachusetts, the Special Commission to Study the Commonwealth's Criminal Justice System recently recommended eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses. The MBA has been a long supporter of eliminating mandatory minimum sentences in those cases.

Rosenberg points out that several of the states that are actively engaged in criminal justice reform are known for conservative agendas with strong law and order approaches to public safety programs.

"The states that are aggressively reviewing and repealing them are actually 'red' states. If they can review, revise, repeal and reform, then so can Massachusetts," says Rosenberg. "I'm looking forward to the possibility that with the success in so many other states of reviewing and revising that we can take a page from their book without fear that we'll be compromising public safety."

'Blue Ribbon' report

Housed within the criminal justice reform discussion is the topic of how to improve the challenges facing assistant district attorneys, public defenders and bar advocates in Massachusetts, where compensation rates have changed little in 20 years.

The MBA's Blue Ribbon Commission on Criminal Justice Attorney Compensation released a report in May 2014 that found the salaries of attorneys who work in the state's criminal justice system to be inadequate and inequitable. The report, "Doing Right by Those Who Labor for Justice: Fair and Equitable Compensation for Attorneys Serving the Commonwealth in its Criminal Courts," is the first study conducted on this topic since the MBA's groundbreaking "Callahan Report" in 1994.

Following the release of the report, Governor Deval L. Patrick named the MBA to a commission to study the salaries of assistant district attorneys and staff attorneys of the Committee for Public Counsel Services.

Rosenberg sees this issue fitting into the larger discussion of overall reforms to the criminal justice system.

"I think that this is one of the issues that could benefit by a comprehensive look at the criminal justice budgets, from the courts to the DAs to the defense bar to the jails and houses of correction," he says. "If we look at that whole system and we are able to make the kinds of changes that are happening in other states, we will free up money in the criminal justice budget to invest more wisely and more effectively in other parts of that system's budget."

Voir dire legislation

Starting Feb. 2, Massachusetts attorneys will, for the first time, be allowed to question prospective jurors in civil and criminal trials throughout the Superior Court thanks to the passage last August of Chapter 254 of the Acts of 2014, a measure the MBA strongly advocated for.

Massachusetts joins 39 other states that allow some form of attorney-conducted voir dire. The new law not only permits attorneys to question potential jurors and screen for bias in Superior Court trials, it also allows attorneys to suggest a monetary amount for damages suffered by a plaintiff in a civil trial.

"It made sense to me and I'm glad we were able to get it passed, and I'm hoping that this reform will ensure that people will have quick and fair justice," says Rosenberg. "A compelling case was made and a good bill was put forward and is now law."

Civil legal aid

Rosenberg is also very aware of the need for state funding for programs that provide civil legal aid to low-income residents. This year the MBA will once again co-sponsor the 16th Annual Walk to the Hill for Civil Legal Aid on January 29. Each year hundreds of attorneys participate in this event, which is one of the largest lobby days at the State House.

As he moves into the role of Senate president, Rosenberg suggests that a restructuring of the budget could lead to more funding for civil legal aid as well as other services.

"If we can effectively participate in this justice reinvestment strategy, it opens up the door for all of these types of services to get access to funds that are otherwise now tied up. Let's free up money in the system so that those dollars can flow into areas that are a much better use of that money than some of the ways we're spending it now," said Rosenberg.

Relationship with the legal community

Like his famous tomato sauce, Rosenberg will depend on several ingredients as the keys to his success at the helm of the state Senate. One of the most important ingredients for Rosenberg will be further developing his strong relationships with various constituencies, including those within the legal community.

"The courts are a co-equal branch of government and I respect their responsibilities and their job and will continue to be active with my colleagues, especially the folks on the judiciary committee, to identify opportunities to improve the delivery of swift and fair justice," says Rosenberg. "I'll look to the judiciary chair in the Senate as a source of information and guidance and then to our budget team that will include people working on various aspects of the criminal justice system, including budgets that support the legal community and the courts themselves."