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July 17, 2019

Put sexual harassment in the spotlight: New York’s Legislature must finally hold hearings on a plague in its midst

January 12, 2019
Andrea Stewart-Cousins ends the boys’ club. (Hans Pennink / AP)

“I stand here the first woman leader of a legislative house in state history, and if we do this right I cannot and will not be the last,” new state Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins said as she made history on Wednesday and as Democrats took full control of Albany.

“And let my voice be clear: We need to deal with the scourge of sexual harassment in the workplace. We cannot let this moment and this movement pass and we will hold hearings and hold all accountable.”

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Hours later, Women’s Equality Founder Andrew Cuomo stepped out of his office for a rare impromptu press conference. As reporters rushed toward the governor, he told them “space. We need space. I’ll bring you all up on charges under the #MeToo movement,” and smiled at his own joke.

“I walked out into the hallway and I was assaulted by the gaggle, with pieces of equipment hitting me in all sorts of my anatomy and it was an off-hand comment just to get them to move back,” he explained the next day. “The physical assault was overwhelming.”

I’d roll my eyes if a TV drama cross-cut those scenes, but here we are.

Speaking of charges, here’s an abridged history of harassment and worse in just the Legislature since Cuomo took statewide office in 2007:

In the Assembly, Sam Hoyt was censured for an affair with an intern, and then took a plum six-figure position in the Cuomo administration he later resigned from as it came out that he’d paid a state employee $50,000 to keep quiet about their relationship.

Brooklyn boss Vito Lopez was censured and then stepped down after four women accused him of harassment, long after the state had paid out six figures in hush money for him.

Dennis Gabryszak stepped down after seven women accused him of harassment.

Steve McLaughlin was censured for asking an aide to another member for nude photos.

Angela Wozniak was barred from having interns after she retaliated against a staffer who ended their affair.

Micah Kellner stepped down after men and women on his staff accused him of harassment.

In the state Senate, Marc Panepinto, years after abruptly stepping down, was sentenced to jail for having sent one staffer to try and buy the silence of another staffer he’d tried to pressure into sex.

Jeff Klein was accused of forcibly kissing a staffer last January. Last November, he lost his bid for reelection.

In the months between, Cuomo huddled in a room with three other men including Klein, then the leader of the so-called Independent Democratic Conference, but excluding ASC, the actual Democratic leader.

The governor emerged with an answer to what he had the nerve to call a “new complex issue”: what he insisted were the nation’s “most aggressive” anti-harassment laws, even as experts disagreed.

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Among other problems, the new law kept the “severe and pervasive” standard for harassment, meaning obnoxious and occasional harassment isn’t covered.

The women who’ve experienced Albany harassment first hand and are now organized as the Sexual Harassment Working Group also disagreed, and are calling for what would be just New York’s second-ever public hearing on the issue — and the first since Gov. Mario Cuomo held one in 1992.

With ASC on board, the next step is to set a date for what should be a public and open joint hearing of the Senate and Assembly, where Speaker Carl Heastie, like Cuomo, has yet to commit to any hearing at all.

To finalize after that hearing the better new package of laws, backed by the new majority leader and carried by new state Sen. Alessandra Biaggi, who upset Klein last year.

And finally to pass those laws outside of the budget, in public view.

Like someone said, we cannot let this moment pass.

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