The most obvious answer to the problem of chronic sexual harassment in Albany is the one offered by Assemblywoman Crystal People-Stokes, D-Buffalo: Elect more women.
Why the culture of sexual predation among males is so powerful and ingrained in New York State government is a matter of conjecture. That it needs to be confronted and disincentivized is undeniable. The best way to change a culture is to change the culture: More women in the Legislature would, of itself, begin to bring about the kind of changes that are needed.
But it’s not the only way. Women who are harassed by men in state government need a better way to address their problems than by going to their supervisors. The seven women who have lodged complaints against former Assemblyman Dennis Gabryszak went to his chief of staff, Adam Locher, whom they said told them they could either ignore Gabryszak’s vile behavior or find new work. One woman said her pay was cut in half after she complained to Locher about Gabryszak.
In the Assembly, staffers who believe they have been sexually harassed by a legislator can also report it to an outside, independent lawyer retained by the Assembly. That’s a start, but confidence in that office is not high because the Assembly leadership has, itself, been guilty of tolerating, and thereby encouraging, sexual misconduct. Also, the policy doesn’t do anything for women harassed by a non-legislator or for those in the Senate.
In that regard, and until something better can be devised, it could be useful for women legislators from both parties and both chambers to organize their own reporting system and to guide victims safely through a process that respects them and protects their paychecks.
Beyond that, legislative leaders can do more than pretend to instruct their members and staffers on the matter of sexual harassment. In the Assembly, lawmakers and staffers have to attend a two-hour sexual harassment training session once every two years. In the Senate, training is conducted annually. That’s better, but clearly, more is needed.
Seven women had to complain publicly about Gabryszak to get any attention and, even then, it took him a month before deciding to quit.
Legislative leaders need to do more to set expectations of conduct that members and staffers take seriously. While Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver appears to have done a much better job in handling the Gabryszak matter than he did last year with then-Assemblyman Vito Lopez, D-Brooklyn, the fact is that Gabryszak’s alleged behavior was ongoing through that episode.
It would help if, instead of seeming merely to be disappointed, Silver got angry about what members of his chamber are doing to its reputation and, by inference, to his reputation as a leader who insists on at least basic standards of conduct.
No policy will stop all wretched behavior, and it’s debatable whether tougher policies would have had any effect on men such as Gabryszak and Lopez. But there are ways to do better, and the Legislature should push for them, with its women in the lead.