Colby Hamilton, Writer, WNYC News
Colby Hamilton is a general assignment reporter. He originally joined WNYC as a political blogger. He's a proud graduate of the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.
As the sexual harassment scandal surrounding Assemblyman Vito Lopez continues to grow, there has been little public discussion coming from the Assembly itself, especially its female members.
There are more than thirty female members of the New York State Assembly. The vast majority of them are Democrats, and they come from every corner of the state.
Over the course of this week, WNYC reached out to each one of their offices to get their reactions to the controversy over Speaker Sheldon Silver’s handling of sexual harassment charges against Brooklyn Assemblyman Vito Lopez.
As of this writing, only six had directly responded. Some members were out of the country or otherwise unavailable. But most had office aides and press people who said they would pass along the request to the members.
Hitting Closer to Home
The women of the Assembly don’t bear a specific burden of outrage over charges Lopez harassed at least four women, in two separate claims against him. To be sure, male legislators have had an equal opportunity to weigh in on reports of Lopez’s alleged actions and Speaker Silver’s decision to use $103,080 in public funds to settle one of the harassment claims, without steering the matter to the chamber’s ethics committee. They, too, have remained largely silent.
But the issue of sexual harassment strikes closer to home for women, as some members pointed out. Likewise, the Assembly’s female members have been some of the biggest legislative champions on women’s issues, from anti-violence measures to workplace safety standards to stop the very thing Lopez has been accused of.
Manhattan Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal, for example, has proposed legislation to require hotel workers to undergo mandatory sexual harassment training.
Democratic Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton, who represents Ithaca, is the sponsor of legislation to make different pay based on gender a legally discriminatory action.
Buffalo Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes has legislation pending to remove the statute of limitation for sexual offenses.
None of the three returned a request for comment on Silver or the allegations against Lopez.
Go through the list of Assemblywoman and you’ll find numerous legislative efforts to defend and assist women. Yet they have, by and large, joined their male colleagues in declining to speak critically of Speaker Silver.
Former Village Voice investigative reporter Wayne Barrett, speaking to WNYC Thursday, said that was a shame.
“[Silver] has a conference of Democrats that are the most liberal Democrats in the state of New York. A lot of them are women. And if they're just going to sit on their hands one more time with Shelly Silver behaving the way they--the way he has--which is likely. It's likely. They're the only ones who can take Shelly Silver out,” Barrett said.
"You don’t forget that."
Among those members who did respond, reaction varied from frustration and outrage over what had occurred to commending the Speaker for his actions.
Orange County Republican Assemblywoman Annie Rabbitt said, when she first heard of the allegations against Lopez, she was sick to her stomach. For her, the incident brought up painful memories.
“First hand, I can remember as a young girl waitressing. And I remember being in an atmosphere where the owner’s son tormented me for a whole summer. And I remember that experiences as one of the worst experiences a young girl, a woman—anyone—should ever feel,” she said. “And it does make a mark on you because you don’t forget that.”
Rabbitt called the Speaker’s payment to the two women “ridiculous.”
“It’s so disturbing to think that was even a consideration, to pay someone,” she said. “There's a process put in place for complaints, for ethics charges, for the employee to come back and say they've been treated or harassed. And to think a payment was made out of tax-dollar money.”
Assemblywoman Addie Russell, a Democrat from the North Country, stood by Speaker Silver. She said she agreed with Silver’s decision, as part of his mea culpa, to make future harassment claims public by referring them to the ethics committee.
“We have a zero tolerance policy and I think that the swift action that has been taken demonstrates that we take these allegations seriously, and there will be significant consensus in matters such as these,” she said.
Peekskill Democratic Assemblywoman Sandy Galef, said that, without all the details, it’s difficult for her to comment Silver’s actions.
“The Speaker, I think he’s admitted that he should have been more transparent. I would have wanted to know what was going on, and there should have been the ethics investigation upfront,” she said
“But bottom line is it’s a terrible thing. It’s a terrible thing. It should never have happened. Legislators should not behave that way,” Galef said. “There should be no abuse in the workplace, and it’s incredible that there was.”
Shifting the Focus, Lopez to Silver
Outside of the legislature, good government and women’s rights groups have responded in more direct ways. Common Cause New York and the National Organization for Women in New York City filed a joint complaint with the state’s watchdog ethics committee, JCOPE, to investigate both Lopez’s alleged misconduct and the handling of the allegations by Speaker Silver.
Sonia Ossorio, president of NOW-NYC, said an investigation needs to delve into more than just the known allegations against Lopez. She said Silver’s actions, in particular, raise troubling questions.
“Who would have ever thought our taxpayer dollars were being paid for, signed off by top officials in our state government, to pay hush money to women who’d been sexually assaulted by standing members of the Assembly,” she said. “The focus now is on Sheldon Silver’s action and behavior as much as it is on Vito Lopez’s behavior.”
Citizen's Union has also filed a complaint with JCOPE over the Lopez affair. In a letter sent on Friday to the committee, Citizen's Union executive director Dick Dadey said "JCOPE’s investigation must now also include examining how the Assembly and Speaker Silver handled the charges against Lopez to assess the underlying circumstances of these matters, determine
what procedures were followed, evaluate the actions taken, and examine possible violations of the Pubic Officers Law."
JCOPE has called a meeting next Tuesday. The agenda isn’t made public, but reports indicate the commission has already begun an initial review of the case. A full vote of the committee will be needed to proceed, including the three members appointed by Silver.