No Room in the State Halls
by Assemblywoman Crystal D. Peoples-Stokes
There’s simply no room. Every year, dozens of young men and women arrive in Albany bringing with them unbridled enthusiasm and ideals eager to begin careers in the Legislature; hoping to make meaningful contributions to improving the lives of others. That is indeed noble. They deserve to be encouraged and mentored- not exploited or demeaned.
The JCOPE report that was recently released, described in detail, a former Assemblyman’s exploitation of young women he employed. It shone floodlights on his appalling behavior and the Assembly’s poorly executed response. There are no acceptable explanations for either; and excuses will not do. There is no room for this in the State halls or Assembly chambers—and there is no room in society either. It is why the Assembly led the way and, has introduced several smart and progressive measures; passed bills confronting sexual harassment and offering employees who experience it, a way to fight back and recover. These measures were in place long before many other states; and we DID NOT exempt ourselves.
Each legislative session, all Assembly staff and Assemblymembers are required to attend trainings that clearly identify behaviors that constitute sexual harassment. There is no ambiguity about it, even when it is embedded in the culture of politics. We all know that it is wrong, and we are all responsible for our own actions.
There are rules and a sensible policy in place to secure the safety and comfort of our employees. The JCOPE report exposed the flaws and failings of the Assembly’s policy. First and foremost, the policy was not followed. The initial report ought to have been directed to the Assembly Ethics Committee and it was not. Speaker Silver has acknowledged this failure and Speaker Silver has taken responsibility for it. He has expressed his deep and genuine regret. He has publicly apologized, and the Speaker has taken steps to ensure the policy will not be bypassed or overridden again by committing to appoint a truly independent arbiter outside of the Assembly—someone with nothing at stake other than enforcing the policy, and he has created an internal task force to recommend additional changes.
People may roll their eyes at the creation of another task force, or imply that it’s just window dressing—members policing members with just a wink and a nod—protecting each other rather than confronting a real and persistent problem. I can attest to the fact that Speaker Silver is genuine in his approach here, from personal experience. The Speaker appointed me to a task force in 2004 that he created to address the challenges presented by the behavior of several Members in relation to the Assembly’s college interns. We recommended that Members and staff be prohibited from fraternizing and interacting socially with Assembly interns. We banned alcohol from events where interns are present, which are good policies. The Speaker adopted our recommendations and Members who violated those rules have left the Assembly—members on both sides of the aisle.
I am proud of the work that we did collectively to confront that problem. Did we eradicate it? Regrettably, no we have not. We have not resolved the age old challenges relative to power and sex. We have not stopped members from using their powerful positions to exploit vulnerable young women or even powerful women with young men. However, I believe that we have made critical improvements; both Members and interns understand that it will not be tolerated, and that we are vigilant. We actively encourage interns who feel pressured to report it immediately. Once reported, there is no tolerance; Members are disciplined.
It has not been reported, and in fact, might not be known that the Speaker created this new task force before the JCOPE report was released. The criticism leveled at him for creating a task force in reaction to editorial board and Republican demands that he resign, is both inaccurate and misplaced.
The Republican Assemblymembers who stood before a banner, that read STOP SILVER’s WAR ON WOMEN have some explaining to do themselves. It strains credulity and defies logic to assume that it was a genuine expression of concern for the rights and welfare of women rather than a blatant politicization of women who have already been victimized—exploiting them once again—this time for partisan gain.
I will allow that there is a genuine expression of outrage in their determination and perhaps an authentic declaration of concern for women’s well-being and safety both in and out of the workplace. To that end, I invite and even implore them to join me in supporting legislative measures currently on the table. They could ensure fair and equal pay for working women; tie the minimum wage to the rate of inflation so that women who are the majority of full-time minimum wage earning employees can better keep pace with the ever-increasing cost of living. Additionally, they can keep firearms out of the hands of those who the court has executed an order of protection against and ensure that women are granted reproductive freedom now and going forward.
Addressing and confronting sexual harassment in the Assembly is the critical task before us now. Let’s recognize that the perpetrator here resigned, the very day that Speaker Silver’s resolution calling to begin the expulsion process against him was scheduled to be taken up on the Assembly floor. I am certain it would have passed with overwhelming support; which is encouraged, but it is not enough.
My peers and I who serve on the task force are infuriated by inappropriate and exploitive behavior within the Assembly. We recognize that the victims have been deeply hurt. We aim to ensure that it never happens again. We must continue to encourage women and/or men who are sexually harassed, intimidated and exploited, by Members of the Assembly who pressure and threaten them by using their powerful positions, to come forward. We will create an environment and process that is less intimidating and more encouraging. I am confident that all Assemblymembers; male and female alike, Democrats and Republicans; upstate and downstate, will be supportive. After all, the appalling behavior of even one Member reflects on all of us.
- Assemblywoman Crystal D. Peoples-Stokes
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