Tests of Character

When the going gets tough, you see what people are made of. I liked a lot of what I saw this year in the legislature and I got closer to my colleagues as we shared difficult choices.

I will never forget the day-long meeting we had in December to grapple with the first news of the tragic scandal involving former Senate President Rosenberg and his husband.  Every senator was vocal, emotional and forthright.  We had different instincts on how to handle the situation.  Some put their foot down for immediate action.  Others favored investigation before drawing conclusions.  Yet everyone stayed civil — we kept talking until we made a decision.

We ordered an expedited and independent investigation.  I served on the Ethics Committee that oversaw the investigation.  While the investigation was truly independent, we had many difficult decisions to make — choosing the investigator, defining the scope of the investigation, determining how to balance the confidentiality of the victims with fairness and the public’s need to know.

Our committee chair ran the committee like a jury — he insisted that every decision be unanimous, so we spent the time it took to harmonize our differing views at each stage.  Over the four-month course of the investigation, the six of us spent endless hours together, but we looked forward to each meeting.  Through it all, I gained a deeper respect for the wisdom of my colleagues — my first instinct was not always right.

After former President Rosenberg stepped down, Harriette Chandler presided with grace until near the end of the session.   Given what we had all been through, no one was disposed to defer to leadership and Senator Chandler is by nature and philosophy someone who shares power.

Under her leadership, there was a flowering of independence and initiative among senators. As we came down to the wire in June and July, I looked around and was stunned to realize how many different senators were carrying important negotiations.

Often, just a few key legislators and a few experienced staffers are at the center of all the big issues. In the Senate this year, people who had never participated in a legislative conference committee were on point on marquee issues — opioid addiction, economic development, health care.  And they rose to the occasion.

In the final weeks of late nights and high pressure negotiations, the transition from Senator Chandler to our new President, Senator Karen Spilka was underway.  President Spilka was formally installed with 5 days to go in the session.

A legislative leader faces an enormous volume of urgent questions and critical decisions year round, but in the waning days of the session the volume goes up dramatically and emotions run high.

I was really pleased to see how President Spilka handled the challenges — emotionally responsive but never flustered, deliberative but never paralyzed, respectful enough to allow others to do their job but confident enough to jump in and settle disputes when others asked for help, warm and willing to reach out personally to bridge differences but tough enough to draw a line and stick to it.

She is going to be a great Senate President over the years to come and she will be leading a deep team of legislators who know and trust each other better than ever.  I’m optimistic about our capacity — working with our colleagues in the House — to face the legislative challenges to come.

I’ll be writing less through the fall, but I’m very eager to hear from people with new ideas as we sort through our priorities and prepare for the next session.




Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.

35 replies on “Tests of Character”

  1. The failure to move the bill that would protect police officers salaries –who are injured or wounded during their tours of duty speaks volumes to the little care the legislature has of these brave men and women. More emphasis was given by the legislature to plastic straws then our first line of defense. I found it equally ironic, the move to ban plastic straws was motivated by the data collected and presented originally as a seventh grade project. His data was flawed but that had no bearing on passing the bill.

    The additional tax on BnB’s is another ruse. When will the legislature admit to the financial instability of Massachusetts and acknowledge the gross underfunding of government workers pensions and health care programs? Why can illegals receive billions if not trillions of aid while teachers, police officers, firemen as well as countless other city workers retirement hopes are in perilous jeopardy of failure?

    1. Not sure how much you know about disability retirement, John, but we do provide good benefits to injured public safety workers. Those benefits have been considered adequate by many for decades. In fact, there are a lot of documented cases of abuse of those benefits by public employees. But I do support improving them (while at the same time working to prevent abuses) and I’m still hopeful we’ll get that done

      Not sure about any ban on plastic straws — haven’t heard of that.

      The Commonwealth of Massachusetts contributes $2.6 billion annually to employee pensions. That’s a hard number. Municipalities contribute billions more. The Massachusetts state budget is only budget is only $40 billion and most of that goes to citizens, so your suggestion that immigrants in Massachusetts are collecting “billions or trillions” in aid putting these pensions at risk, may be a little hot-tempered.

  2. no Safe Communities Act
    no reformulating Foundation Budget for funding public education
    no relief for public sector workers in the wake of the anti-worker SCOTUS Janus decision
    no overtime for retail weekend work


    1. FWIW, we did pass Janus relief in the Senate.

      Also, the retail weekend workers do come out ahead. The phase-in of the wage increase betters the phase out of over-time for the first few years.

  3. Maybe this new, collegial approach can be written into the rules rather than being dependent on the vagaries of leadership. We all send senators to Beacon Hill expecting them to have the chance to lead, not just some of them. Everyone remembers the misrule of Tom Finneran, unelected emperor.

  4. Although lots of great things were accomplished this session, I’m very disappointed that the education funding redistribution was not accomplished.

    1. Me too.

      But the real story is the Supreme Judicial Court killing the ballot question that would have raised money for education.

      Without new funding, it is hard to imagine us really delivering on any plan for funding redistribution.

      That is the challenge we need to confront.

      1. Or that the Attorney General incorrectly certified the question, and the court had to strike it down.

  5. Thanks for this helpful commentary. I had little sense of how much time/ effort went into addressing the sad situation regarding Sen President Rosenberg. I guess it is nothing new that some legislation either didn’t make the deadline or were amended more than was justifiable. But clearly the MA Senate has many dedicated people pushing hard for change.

  6. As usual, so much done and so much to do. New leadership will help with the moving on in the Senate. I liked Sen Rosenberg and was saddened over the scandal. Sen Spilka will have less baggage.

    The Non Compete bill must be dealt with in the next session. Just not right, folks can’t change jobs for better money especially in the fast food business.

    Please work on funding education. The students of the Commonwealth are the future. They need the best education out there and yes it costs money. As a state, we can’t remain on top without adequate and fair funding for every city and town in MA.

    Finally, I thank you for the communications through these updates. I never felt out of the loop because of your informative letters.

  7. I am glad to hear that more Senators were able to participate at a higher level this year, and hope that continues.

    Ben Downing has an interesting take on who benefits from the way the legislature has worked in the past, and who benefits from it. It’s a quick read, I encourage you t check it out.


  8. At a time when we all tend to think people in government are just “screwing off” and not really caring, your posts emphasize in my mind that that is not true. That our reps work hard debating and considering the issues, and that you and your peers spend the time to investigate the details required to consider something like opioid treatment for inmates which is not even something most of us even think about. Very impressive.

  9. It’s always a shame when a legislator is brought down by a relative, and lawmakers are distracted by ethics when more pressing matters beckon.

    Stan’s leadership on justice/corrections reform was much appreciated. AND it’s nice to hear there’s a more collaborative approach.

    Will, thanks for your commitment to public service and justice/corrections systems reform. I appreciate thoughtful, informed, dedicated lawmakers like you.

  10. Dear Will
    I have to say I’m really enjoyed reading your take on the workings at the Statehouse. I have always believed it was an old boys network, and that it was run like a monarchy rather than a democracy. I am glad to see a feminine infusion within the ranks of the gentleman. I’m sure more work will be done in this state over the next five years been in the last 20. Thank you again for your contributions. John Metz Clark

  11. My husband and I are so proud of you and your colleagues. If only you were running things elsewhere! This is a shot in the arm to those of us depressed and horrified by much that’s going on now.

    Please keep on this caring, considered track–we know you will. Meanwhile, we remain extremely worried about the effects of climate change, for one thing, and our worry is deepened dramatically by knowing the US could be a leader in taking what are now critically needed emergency steps to reduce it, yet are doing the reverse. It’s frightening, so frustrating, and so sad as we watch the planet and so many living beings in it suffer from fire, hurricane, and fast-increasing other weather tragedies.

    1. Susan,
      Do you not realize that climate change has always been and will always be, and with no help or hindrance from mankind whatsoever?
      Noah had to deal with the flood.
      N. America had to survive the glaciers…all of which was the work of Mother Nature or God, if you prefer.
      When will you get the politicians to outlaw volcanic ereuptions, earthquakes and lightning-caused massive forest fires, for example? I’m all for clean water and air, but I for one, do not feel omnipotent and able to control nature.

  12. Thank you, Will, for this insightful and positive take on this session. I saw Sen Spilka interviewed last night and she seems very level-headed. I hope she can lead with distinction.
    I also want to thank you for always being receptive to your constituents and local issues that crop up for them. With the busy legislative schedule, it is much appreciated.

  13. Now that sounds like a model for working government !! may we send to Washington?

  14. Will, thank you for these personal reflections. We in the public do not often get a glimpse of the daily lives of our representatives who labor to advance our concerns and interests in the legislature.

    Your comments about the recent changes in leadership style and the wider sharing of responsibilities are encouraging. This is how the legislature can build leadership skills in depth and wider consensus on issues, which is bound to benefit us all.

  15. Thank you for your thoughtful assessment and heartwarming share of our senate.
    In the age of government mistrust it is refreshing to know how well grownups are willing to put forth a healthy community for the people.
    Keeping us informed of good progress is a tribute to your integrity and open disclosures
    So very much appreciated.

  16. Will, you epitomize what distinguishes Massachusetts and why I feel I am privileged to live here.

  17. Well, gosh. Where am I supposed to put all my cynicism over politics now?

    After reading your encouraging recap you have me at a loss. What a wonderful thing!

    Thank you!

  18. I echo so much that has been written here- so I will just say a ig THANK YOU Will-

  19. Will, Thank you for your dedication, integrity, and hard work — not to mention stellar communication with your constituents. You are a star — I hope a rising star.

  20. Given level of distrust of the legislature it is more than reassuring to hear this report from you. Linda Wagner

  21. Thank you very much for these reflections. I have told people that I was/am surprised that watching more closely what’s happening in the Massachusetts legislature made me think *better* of the legislators. I’d always assumed that knowing more about how the sausage gets made would be distasteful, if perhaps necessary, but instead it has made me respect these individuals. I am very glad that you, with your infinitely more close-up view, during a challenging year indeed, have a similar experience.

  22. Will,
    Your comments go a long way to restoring my faith in democracy. Our focus moving forward may indeed be at the local and state level, and I am proud and grateful to have you working with and for us.

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