Last week, June 17, City and State NY published my column reflecting on what needs to be done to address the State Legislature’s workplace environment in the aftermath of the Vito Lopez sexual predation and sexual harassment revelations. Many commentators, editorial boards and politicians have pointed the finger at Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver as being an enabler of Lopez’s predation. To blame Silver entirely misses the forest that female aides must navigate like Red Riding Hoods. Below, I explain why female legislators (aided by their male colleagues) must lead the way on deforestation (i.e., changing the Albany culture).
Women in the State Legislature should take inspiration from New York’s junior U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s effort to hold the military accountable for its treatment of women by holding another powerful institution—their own— accountable.
Assemblywoman Amy Paulin, who once disclosed on the floor of the Legislature that she had been sexually assaulted as a teenage volunteer on a political campaign, recently acknowledged witnessing inappropriate behavior by lawmakers—presumably men. While, sadly, this revelation came as no surprise to anyone familiar with the Capitol, I was struck by the fact that Paulin didn’t say what she did to intervene in those instances.
There is something horribly wrong with the culture in Albany that a sexual assault survivor would not instinctively upbraid a male colleague who behaved inappropriately toward a female staffer, or any woman for that matter.
Albany is a company town. Women put up with cheek kisses and off-color jokes because they don’t want to be perceived as stuck up or unfriendly. Many believe that if they are troublesome or overly assertive they will be locked out of advancement or job opportunities, and since Assembly employees work at the pleasure of the Speaker and individual members they can be fired at will and don’t have the same protections as their counterparts in the private sector.
Relationships between consenting adults happen all the time in workplaces across New York and America. The emphasis, however, is on “consenting” and “adults.” While it’s a common workplace occurrence, Albany, however, is no ordinary workplace. The power dynamic is severely imbalanced.
Often, rebuffing advances or a breakup can lead to hostile work environments. Even the perception of an improper relationship, regardless of its veracity, can result in hostility from co-workers. That should never occur.
Twenty years ago, Governor Mario Cuomo missed an opportunity to change the culture in Albany. His taskforce on sexual harassment made 57 recommendations, but only one pertained to the Legislature.
The State Senate was lamely urged to “implement a strong policy against sexual harassment, an effective complaint procedure for redress of complaints of sexual harassment and training programs for all members and employees.” The Assembly was simply advised to “continue and expand its training program and monitor the effectiveness of its policy and complaint procedure.” That last recommendation seems to ring especially hollow today.
Meanwhile, state colleges and schools were called upon “to determine the nature and extent of sexual harassment in their institutions and to assist in the design of effective policies to prevent and redress it.” The State Education Department was tasked with ensuring “an environment for learning and
working that is equitable, supportive, safe and free from sexual harassment.”
Constitutional issues aside, I fail to understand why the Legislature wasn’t also tasked with uncovering systemic sexual harassment and ensuring a safer workplace for its employees.
Members need to respect the personal space of women in the Capitol. Women really don’t want to exchange pecks on the cheek. It’s actually unprofessional. I know few guys who kiss or hug male staff or lobbyists.
Female legislators are acutely aware of the imbalance of power that women face in the workplace. I’m not suggesting that Paulin or any other member become Django and “burn the motha down.” They could be Daenerys Targaryen and help women in the Capitol to embrace workplace freedom. [Blocking legislation legalizing mixed martial arts may be a hot poker in the eye of Michael Boxley and his employers, but that’s not going to help protect women in the Legislature.]
They should insist on impaneling a confidential bipartisan taskforce to determine the nature and extent of sexual harassment in the Legislature. Their goal should be the implementation of a plan that ensures a work environment that is equitable, supportive, safe and free from sexual harassment.
The fixation on ousting Speaker Silver is more suited to a plot device on House of Cards than a serious approach to resolving an institutional failing. Replacing Shelly with a new speaker would be tantamount to putting new wine in an old wineskin. I don’t mean any disrespect to those rumored to be in the hunt. But the institutional culture must be changed first.
The women of the Assembly must lean forward and be the change.
Former Assemblyman Michael Benjamin (@SquarePeg_Dem on Twitter) represented the Bronx for eight years.
- A Culture Of Sexual Harassment In Albany? (gothamgazette.com)
- Silver clears air with women Democrats (newsday.com)
- Cuomo to Parents: Don’t Worry, Your Daughters Are Safe in Albany (politicker.com)
- Assemblywoman inez Barron calls for Speaker Sheldon Silver to step down (troyrecord.com)