WORCESTER – “Excuse me, I keep saying that,” Harriette L. Chandler said on the phone Tuesday as she sat in traffic on a darkening turnpike.

Five days ago, the longtime Democrat would have thought nothing of referring to friend and colleague Stanley C. Rosenberg as Senate president. Now, when she says it she has to correct herself, her mind still struggling to adjust to a new reality: She is the acting Senate president, presiding over a suddenly scandal-ridden Statehouse rocked by allegations stemming from the intersection of sex and power.

“For me, the world has just turned upside down,” the 79-year-old senator said as she drove her sedan – bearing a special “2” Senate license plate – home to Worcester.

Mrs. Chandler has enjoyed her role as Senate majority leader for the past three years – she was the first woman and second person from Worcester to have the position – but now, despite being elevated to acting Senate president, may soon find herself out of the upper echelon of leadership.

“We have to go day by day,” Mrs. Chandler said when asked about that possibility. “The job I have now is demanding, and I shouldn’t be thinking about anything else.”

It is duty that elevated Mrs. Chandler - an educator-turned-politician who became the first Worcester woman elected to the Senate in 2001- to acting Senate president Monday after a marathon eight-hour Democratic caucus. She believes she is the first person from Worcester to hold the job, but the circumstances render that distinction joyless.

“It’s a labor of love,” said Mrs. Chandler, who does not have ambitions to be Senate president for long, and who sees her role in the next month as providing a “steady hand” as the Senate attempts to continue its business while the situation surrounding Mr. Rosenberg is probed.

The 68-year-old Mr. Rosenberg’s 30-year-old husband, Byron Hefner, is accused of groping multiple men over the past several years while bragging about his influence over Senate business. Mr. Rosenberg has denied that his husband held any sway over Senate affairs; a Senate Ethics Committee will hire an independent investigator to determine whether the Amherst Democrat broke any Senate rules.

Mrs. Chandler, hand-picked by Mr. Rosenberg to serve as his second-in-charge, declined to share her personal views of the situation, noting that she may soon be asked to vote on whether to remove him.

“My job is to get everybody working together, get us through, and hopefully turn it over to a (permanent) Senate president,” she said. “I feel a real responsibility to take that ship that’s listing a little bit and try and keep it going.”

Some state lawmakers, including Republican Sen. Ryan C. Fattman of Sutton, said Tuesday they don’t see how Mr. Rosenberg can return as Senate president.

“Nothing’s impossible,” Mrs. Chandler opined. “We don’t know in what direction this investigation is going to turn.”

Mrs. Chandler laid out what she expects in the coming weeks. She does not plan to move into Mr. Rosenberg’s office or accept a pay raise; she hasn’t yet made a decision on adding staff, which she is allowed to do.

Mrs. Chandler's main focus will be to ensure the Senate gets as much business done as possible when the session reopens Jan. 3. She hopes the Ethics Committee probe - in which she is not involved - is conducted quickly yet thoroughly. 

While a Senate lawyer predicted an investigation could be done in 30 to 45 days, Mrs. Chandler said getting it right is paramount.

“We’re dealing with a man’s career here,” she noted. And on the other side, she said, there are alleged victims of sexual assault whose experiences may have proved “crippling.”

As Mrs. Chandler headed home, news broke that the Ethics Committee had agreed to release its report publicly. She was pleased.

“I’m aware of people saying that we all had a relationship with the former president, and we’re going to whitewash this and make it go away,’” she said. “We can’t afford to do that. This has to be open, it has to be public and it has to be transparent.”

Mrs. Chandler said the Senate has to also take a hard look at its policies surrounding sexual harassment. According to The Boston Globe, one of the anonymous accusers was incensed after Mr. Rosenberg touted the body’s policy just recently.

“We thought we had a pretty good system in place, and we found out we really didn’t,” Mrs. Chandler said.

Mrs. Chandler said it pains her that the alleged victims of Mr. Hefner would be fearful to speak out. She said she experienced sexual harassment in a work setting some time ago, before her time in the Statehouse. She declined to provide details other than to say she was not assaulted.

“We’ve got to change the environment," she said.

Mrs. Chandler spent much of her interview Tuesday speaking about transparency and trust. She said it concerns her that the integrity of government, particularly in the last year, has been seen as increasingly suspect.

Asked whether it is time for Massachusetts to change a provision that exempts the Legislature from public records law, Mrs. Chandler replied, “Everything should be up for consideration, as far as I’m concerned. Whatever it takes to restore public confidence in government is something we should consider.”

She said she believes efforts she's pushing to add more civics classes in schools would be important to enhancing public trust and government participation.

Before hanging up the phone to start another interview, Mrs. Chandler remarked at how much the world – and news cycles – have changed in recent years.

“Last night, I went home and I went right to bed, I was so tired,” she said. “But first I had to look at all my email messages and all my texts. People (and reporters) have heard about this all over the country.

“It’s amazing how small the world is.”