Time’s up in Albany.
A growing force of young lawmakers is spearheading an effort to combat sexual misconduct in the capital and across the state.
Following a historic hearing on harassment earlier this month, several millennial members of both the Senate and Assembly are gearing up for the next steps: preparing legislation and sweeping reforms to protect workers and empower victims.
Nearly three decades had passed since electeds in the Empire State took the time to listen to experts and survivors about the horrors of harassment and the lingering impacts it can have. Testimony drew tears and thoughtful responses — and sparked new conversations about what’s next.
“The testimony is important. It informs the new laws that we are going to author and pass,” said Assembly member Nily Rozic (D-Queens), one of a growing number of young women now serving in the state Legislature. “Taking survivor and expert testimony and layering that into new legislation is both meaningful and powerful.”
The hours-long hearing, prompted by a group of former legislative employees seeking to share their traumatizing experiences and pushing for tougher laws, is just the beginning, according to Erica Vladimer, a member of the Sexual Harassment Working Group.
“This hearing was a great start, but we need more if were really going to change the laws in a meaningful way,” said Vladimer, who last year accused former senator Jeff Klein of forcibly kissing her outside an Albany bar.
The Working Group is calling for at least two more public meetings, one in the city so that more victims can come forward to talk about their experiences in other industries and another in Albany for lawmakers to further grill agency heads about how they handle complaints and enforce current laws.
Sen. Alessandra Biaggi, herself a survivor of sexual abuse and the chair of the Senate Ethics Committee, said she’s on board with even more talks.
“I’m in full support of that and we’ve talked about taking this across the state so we can get a full picture of what’s going on,” the Bronx Democrat said. “I think we owe it to the state to do that. We have got to get it right, and to get it right we need to hear from as many voices as possible.”
Biaggi said a report is forthcoming and any future legislation will take into account the words from survivors as well as what was learned from agency heads who appeared before the joint panel of lawmakers.
“It was probably one of the most powerful moments the body has ever seen,” she added. “It was so powerful to hear all of the testimony and to send a message that this is not politics as usual. The ultimate goal is to do our job well enough that no workplace has even the possibility of harassment.”
The 32-year-old, who unseated Klein last year, is one of a handful of first-year women lawmakers who helped capture power for the Dems in the Senate and catapult Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Yonkers) to the majority leader position.
Biaggi, along with Sens. Julia Salazar and Jessica Ramos, of Brooklyn and Queens, respectively, form the core of a burgeoning and dynamic movement in Albany that has advocates hopeful about the future.
The lawmakers are among a class of newcomers who have seen the passage of progressive bills related to child abuse, gun laws and women’s reproductive rights after knocking Klein and his breakaway Republican-aligned Independent Democratic Conference out of power.
“I think there is much more of a push to overthrow the status quo,” Vladimer said.
Vladimer and the other members of the Sexual Harassment Working Group want to see an across-the-board strengthening of state laws regarding workplace harassment and discrimination, including clearer definitions of sex- and gender-based harassment in the state Constitution.
Gov. Cuomo has said he will sign any anti-harassment bills passed by the Legislature.
Rozic, who worked as a staffer in the Legislature before being elected in 2012 at the age of 26, is working on legislation that would lower the burden of proof placed on a victim to establish that they have suffered sexual harassment or discrimination in the workplace.
“With a better framework and definition, victims coming forward will face a less opaque system when seeking justice,” Rozic explained.
Sen. Andrew Gounardes, the Senate sponsor of the bill, said the legislation would mirror New York City’s anti-harassment law, which states that a potential victim need only to demonstrate that they are treated “less well” than other employees, instead of the federal and state “severe or pervasive” standard.
The current law can act as a “bar to people vindicating their civil rights and their rights to be treated as human beings,” the 33-year-old added.
The freshman Dem from Brooklyn, along with 31-year-old Rockland and Orange County Sen. James Skoufis and Biaggi, also sought to put the state’s ethics commission currently tasked with investigating charges of alleged abuse in government on notice.
Bills calling for more transparency or even the replacement of the Joint Commission on Public Ethics could soon become law.
Joint Commission on Public Ethics executive director Seth Agata, who testified before the panel, said he would welcome opening up the process to the public, but added that “the way the law is written, we can’t.”